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A Dog’s Heart, Rastakov at the Colosseum November 25, 2010

Posted by CamdenKiwi in : Reviews , trackback

On cold, wintry Moscow street a starving dog is dying. Puppeteers creep around the stage to move his legs and tail, as singers give us his internal monologue, a soprano (Elena Vassilieva) whimpering and growling doglike through a megaphone, and a counter-tenor (Andrew Watts) giving us his self-pitying but more pleasant side.

There’s a snowstorm moaning a requiem for me

He drifts off into unconsciousness, dreaming he is floating. But fate isn’t quite ready for him, and he wakes to the smell of a sausage offered by Prof. Filipp Filippovitch (Steven Page), and follows him home.   The flat is large, with seven rooms, walls moving as we move between them.  Filipp Filippovitch’s patients visit him, keen to have his rejuvenating transplants.  But this is Russia in the 1920s, and the house committee want to  reallocate part of his flat, a move he avoids by speaking to another of his grateful patients, a  senior Party official.

The operation (borrowed from the ENO)

Filipp Filippovitch has plans for the dog, feeding him up, encouraging him to feel at home and calling him Sharik (Russian equivalent of Fluffy).  Soon he too is in the surgery, having a human’s testes and pancras transplanted and  Filipp Filippovitch turns him into a man, Sharikov.  First the dog puppet appears with a human head, a small, deformed creature, and then he transforms into a man, still deformed, with a Phantom-like scarred face.  In an excellent performance by Peter Hoare, he leaps and crouches around the stage,  a man playing a dog, rather than completely transformed.

He is a base kind of man, fixated on his ‘rights’, unable to control his urges for vodka, women or chasing cats, but finds himself a niche as the city cat-catcher, with the help of his friend Shvonder, the chairman of the house committee.  After one outrage too many, and the extremely operatic death of his fiancee, Filipp Filippovitch operates again, and turns him back into a dog.

It’s a complex for an opera, particularly one where the libretto is often incomprehensible and those of us in row B develop cricks in our necks reading the surtitles.  The story is a scathing satire on the Soviet system, where the proletariat degenerate into a subhuman pack, and those with power and position can subvert the state’s rules.  Like Frankenstein’s monster, the Dog is a pathetic creature, a perfectly nice dog but an unpleasant human focussed on his ‘rights’ and cruel to others.  Is it that we’re better off in our appointed place, or that an oppressive society brings out the worst in us all?

The story is based on a novel by Mikhail Bulgakov, written in 1925 but only finally published in  the USSR a few years before the fall of communism.

This is Simon McBurney’s first opera, and as with any Complicite production, it is elaborate and varied, telling the story through words, music, movement, puppetry and occasionally film.  The Dog is a puppet, and so are the cats he chases.   At one point, the stage is full of them, with their puppeteers, as the cat-catcher comes to life.  The set itself moves, and deteriorates as the performance progresses, with holes knocked in walls.  The shades of Frankenstein are obvious, with a hint of Animal Farm, and perhaps a little of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, in the chorus of dour proletarians keen to bring down the Professor.

It’s a spectacular, captivating, thought-provoking work, which would bear another viewing.  If you get the chance, there are four more performances at the Colosseum, where it runs until 4 December.  Ticket prices are from £11 to £52, and seat B6 in the stalls was a little close, particularly given the need to read the surtitles.  Get one further back, and in the middle, if you can.

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