A Dog's Heart

Alexander Raskatov, libretto by Cesare Mazzonis after the novel by Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by Martin Pickard
English National Opera, De Nederlandse Opera and Complicite
London Coliseum
(2010)

A Dog's Heart production photo

Simon McBurney's vision of Bulgakov's extraordinary tale of a dog that is humanised, A Dog's Heart, will probably appeal more to fans of avant garde theatre than classical opera.

That is to be expected from the founding father of innovative theatre makers Complicite, even when he is having an outing in a co-production between De Nederlandse Opera and English National Opera at the Coliseum.

The effect is magnified by both the subject matter and Alexander Raskatov's score, which might have something of Shostakovich to it but also favours minimalist repetitions and discordancy to break up the more melodic sections. It also challenges the singers who at times are asked to use megaphones or vocal skills that are far from natural.

Bulgakov's novel was banned in his home country for close to sixty years since, like so much of his work: the writer's attacks on Stalin and his harsh rule were far too thinly veiled to be allowed to influence the common man.

McBurney plays up the country and period in his vision for this allegorical work. The design relies a great deal on illusion, created both using often stunning computer-generated graphics and also Blind Summit's puppetry. The latter employ similar techniques Handspring, to the creators of War Horse, with equally moving results.

The puppeteers' stray mongrel is appropriately skeletal in the early scenes when, after being attacked, he is rescued by Steven Page's kindly Doctor Preobrazhnsky, who has an ulterior motive.

He believes that it is possible to convert a dog into a man, and after magically fattening up the canine (sung by Elena Vassilieva and the gorgeous counter-tenor of Andrew Watts) that is now called Sharik, proceeds to try.

It is almost inevitable that the resulting cross-breed becomes a Frankenstein's monster, attacking both cats and the flighty maid Zina, given sexy charm as well as tuneful expression by Nancy Allen Lundy.

Having unleashed this demon with Stalinist tendencies, Preobrazhnsky has to reverse the operation, which is easier said than done.

The visual effects manage to be chilling and amusing at different points and during the operation, using shadowplay, both at the same time.

With Constructivist influence and old film of militarily marching civilians, Complicite make a good fist of portraying Moscow life in the late 1920s.

They also bring the domestic into the spotlight with good comedic results, aided by the performance of Peter Hoare as the humanised but demonic Sharikov.

The overall effect is theatrical in the best sense of the word and A Dog's Heart will appeal to the massed ranks of Complicite junkies as well as devotees of Bulgakov, who will relish the imagery and story-telling. They too might regard the music as highly fitting for the period and subject matter, although it is a long way from the likes of Mozart and Puccini.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher