A Dog's Heart

A stray dog who falls prey to a sinister experiment is at the centre of this new opera by Alexander Raskatov, writes Helen Wallace

Twenty years before George Orwell penned Animal Farm, Mikhail Bulgakov came up with a coruscating animal fable that perfectly captured his times.

It's set in Moscow, 1926. An eminent surgeon, Dr Preobrazhensky, who has bought the friendship of Party honchos by performing sexually rejuvenating operations, decides to experiment with a stray dog by giving him a human pituitary gland and testes.

He survives the operation and, by stages, is transformed into a dog-like man (he finds his m├ętier in ridding the streets of cats). Soon he’s demanding his official papers, his rights, his need for a wife – and denouncing his master to the authorities. Horrified, Dr Preobrazhensky tries to reverse the operation and erase his monster from history.

So, how to make this lurid fantasy into an opera? Enter Simon McBurney of theatre company Complicite: who else could strip the drama to its elements, evoke precisely the threatening claustrophobia of that society (a splendid 19th-century apartment is gradually ripped apart by the Bolshevik masses looking in), choreograph animal and human with equal conviction and then produce a comic masterpiece?

Utilising clever projection, shadow play (the operation scene in silhouette is a killer) and expert puppetry – Sharik the dog is based on sculptor Albert Giacometti’s scavenger – the story is deftly, theatrically told in this collaborative production between English National Opera and Complicite.

At least it is through the staging; the music is another matter. This will be the first many will have heard of Alexander Raskatov. He’s a composer who has lived through pre and post-Perestroika Russia and his sound world is intensely evocative: barking bass brass; an onslaught of percussion, Bach, Verdi, Orthodox liturgy, electric guitar, screaming coloratura, folk song and trashy balalaika.

In the first half I felt we were trapped in a polystylistic echo chamber, deafened by a curiously monotonous cacophony. On reflection, I can see this is connected to the puppet-dog Sharik, not only surrounded by five handlers, but given two voices, a lyric one via countertenor Andrew Watts and an ‘unpleasant’ doggy one through a voice-changed Elena Vassilieva.

This creates an obstacle and a brake, and one reached the interval with an exhausted sense of being shouted out in slow motion. In the second half, when dog becomes man (an electrifying Peter Hoare) suddenly the music stops blocking the drama, and becomes its tool: when Sharik races around chasing cats, its balletic and witty; and when Preobrazhensky (a masterful Steven Page) acknowledges that his monster has the heart not of a dog, but a man, the music adds chilling gravity.

It’s at the point that Raskatov stopped hurling ideas in, and started doing the minimum necessary, that a real opera begins to emerge and flow. Finally, he achieves a spine-tingling climax as the proletariat swarm on to the stage – as dogs.

Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine