A Dog's Heart
London Opera Review by Polly Hope
Alexander Raskatov.
Libretto Cesare Mazzonis after Mikhail Bulgakov

English National Opera. London

This is probably the most wonderful opera production I have ever seen. Stop.

Yes, the production: to be honest, and odd it may seem, the music is nothing, consisting as it does mostly of background noise, lots of noise, lots of very loud noise, though actually the noise does work very well to highlight the staging. Mostly I loathe atonal operas where the music overwhelms the singing but here the music is subservient to the action.

The story is that a rather nutty scientist finds a poor old dog on the street and takes him home. Meanwhile the scientist has been given the heart and testicles of a fresh corpse. He operates on the dog and gives him a man's heart and various other bits, including the testicles. The dog becomes a man-dog and behaves as you might expect; chases girls, sleeps in a basket and likes eating. However the human part of him wants recognition so he needs documents to prove who he is. This leads to endless complications. He is thrown out for being too dog like about the house, but gets the job being of being responsible for getting rid of the city's stray cats. Eventually Sharikov, the mad man-dog is such a nuisance that he is operated onagain and turned back into a stray dog.

The story is a commentary on communism with its rules and lack of individuality. Bulgakov was not popular with Uncle Joe and A Dog's Heart was not published until long after Bulgakov died in 1940.

So to the staging by Simon McBurney who runs Complicite, an extremely up to date theatre company whose work is always meticulous, exciting, witty and quite exceptionally clever. This is their first opera production. A Dog's Heart is set in The Professor's, the scientist's,elegantapartment. An empty stage with nothing except a huge door at the back of the stage and a vast multi-colouredPersian carpet covering the entire space. The sides of the stage are open where the chorus is mostly confined to these semi off stage areas.

Oh yes, there is a vast chandelier, which graduallydisintegrates throughout the performance. The acting is what counts and the incredible detail, which is always such a strength of McBurney. Everything is thought about from a dropped hanky to the maid splayed across the door that she can't open. However the hero of the piece is the dog Sharik. A puppet, but the most real dog I have ever seen. He is manipulated by three puppeteers who are brilliant, big men but you don't notice them. Sharik is a large dog and modeled on the famous Giacometti bronze dog. It is the dog you see despite the men activating him. He scratches and whimpers and eats and widdles and loves his new master. The entire audience is involved with this creature's well being, an extraordinary performance. When Sharik eventually becomes a man the singer/actor makes us wish he were still a dog.

There are projections across the architectural panels, which for once really work, sometimes it is marching crowds, sometimes buildings, sometimes other rooms in the house. But they move quickly and have been so carefully thoughtout to illustrate the action. Yet all appears right and nothing is overwhelmingly too busyas projections so often are.

The actor/singers are perfect for the work and the singing is very,very extreme. How the performers manage to shriek and cry is amazing. I believe it is called acrobatic singing. It works. It makes us believethat Russia was thus.Claustrophobic and chaotic. The Professor is gradually brought down from his bourgeois grandeur to being almost a dog himself and Sharik reigns supreme.

Oh goodness I can't explain how magical yet serious this production is. Itis so stimulating and exact, my paltry words are incapable of describing it. It is modern and inventive yet everything happens for a reason, not just being clever stuff and nothing shocks for the sake of shock.The worst part is having an interval, which breaks attention in this succulent work. Most of the audience thought of the work as a comedy, I found it tragic even though jokes abound.

If more directors could see opera so clearly the entire so often lumbering world of music theatre could be reborn. Intelligence rules. If this work showsup within a thousand miles of you then for goodness sake do not miss it. If they do make a DVD of the performance I much doubt it will work as the whole picture of the entire stage and the action is necessary to comprehend what McBurney has achieved. He has made art. So rare.

Polly Hope London