Written for Animations Online
Raskatov’s opera is an adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog, a novel that was written in 1925 but banned in Soviet Russia until 1987. The story is a biting, satirical Frankenstein-like tale of what happens when Professor Filipp Filippovich takes in a stray dog, Sharik, and transforms him into a human by giving him the testicles and pituitary gland of a man. Calling himself Sharikov, this dog-human hybrid predictably creates havoc.
Sharik is played by a thin and wily puppet, manipulated by four puppeteers from Blind Summit Theatre. He is dark and cunning, and convincingly skulks around searching for food. As Sharik comes into contact with Filippovich, we witness the brilliant stages of his transformation, the mechanics of which are all cleverly hidden from view. Sharik enjoys the good food of the bourgeouis household, and promptly grows a sizeable belly. As Sharik becomes a man, we see the puppet develop a human head and begin walking on two legs, before Peter Hoare is revealed, naked, behind a white sheet.
The synchronisation between Sharik’s puppeteers and vocalists is brilliant, and Andrew Watts as Sharik’s pleasant voice displays pleasing variety in the different shivering and hyena-like staccato motifs. Mazzonis’ translation also allows Sharikov in particular some wickedly funny lines. Admiring his own virility, he comments ‘Perhaps my granny had a fling with a St Bernard’.
Michael Levine’s set is uncomplicated, but easily moved to create a variety of different rooms, all with very clean lines and differentiated performance spaces. The use of projections on the back wall also lends the production several contrasting atmospheres. We see large scale versions of small actions made on the stage, such as typewriter keys, as well as a healthy dose of video footage of Soviet Russia. The most effective use of projection comes when we see ridiculous, exaggerated shadows during Sharik’s operation: blood spurts and huge scalpels emphasise the grotesqueness of this surreal situation.
Raskatov’s accessible adaptation combined with the polished yet zany influence of Simon McBurney’s direction culminates in an easily watchable evening’s opera. With balalaika playing, an imaginative use of scale and more derangement than you could hope to find in a usual operatic farce, A Dog’s Heart is a successful first collaboration between ENO and Complicite.