There are no two ways about it: Debuting opera director Simon McBurney has manifestly earned his fee. His assured staging of Alexander Raskatov’s reworking of Bulgakov’s 1925 parable of Soviet politics, “A Dog’s Heart,” adds puppeteers, animated graphics, archive footage, hydraulic sets and surging crowd scenes to the expected singers and orchestra. It’s all marvelously diverting. But why the need for diversion? There’s something more than faintly decadent about using a new opera’s premiere to show off production skills.
Initially seen in this production at De Nederlandse Opera’s world premiere in June, Martin Pickard’s translation of Cesare Mazzonis’ libretto sticks to Bulgakov’s theatrically inviting story, a cross between “Frankenstein” and a satirical attack on the workings of communism.
Professor Preobrazhensky (imperious, resonant Steven Page) rescues a starving mongrel, Sharikov, from the street. He then uses him in a medical experiment, implanting the sexual organs and pituitary glands of a recently deceased evil man into the dog. But what he hoped would be a malleable cross-breed, a docile human, turns out to be dangerously anarchic cur of a man, furiously played and sung by tenor Peter Hoare.
The political ramifications of this radical surgery are immense as hybrid Sharikov runs riot, to the horror of the professor and the fury of Pravda, the proletariat and party bosses. Faced with multiple threats, the professor attempts to reverse the surgery.
Raskatov’s premise for the musical handling of Sharikov, the dog who initially narrates, is immensely promising. He splits the dog’s voice between his pleasant utterances (voiced by countertenor Andrew Watts) and a furious growl delivered by Elena Vassilieva via a megaphone. Furthermore, the dog itself is portrayed by a hound’s skeleton winningly manipulated by three puppeteers of the Blind Summit Theater, who did a similarly evocative job on the child in Anthony Minghella’s staging of “Madama Butterfly” at ENO and the Met.
The dog expresses itself in short-winded musical phrases, a compositional technique that turns out to be the score’s besetting sin. There is little or no sustained development of musical idea into coherent, audible structure. The most effective writing in the more successful second act is the background orchestral coloring.
Elsewhere, the characterless score is awash with expressionist cliches, from screeching brass to wearisome addiction to writing almost every female role at neurotic coloratura soprano pitch, replete with octave leaps whenever possible.
This has damaging impact on the storytelling. Despite being sung in English, the overly detailed narrative is largely inexplicable, unless eyes are glued to the surtitles.
This does, however, open the door to bravura stage effects. McBurney displays his enviable skill throughout, pulling focus by showing film of Soviet military and pulling off a comic setpiece with the dog chasing puppet cats all over the stage.
Directorial overload is reached early with Leigh Melrose as the professor’s scientific advisor Bormenthal recording his thoughts seated at a typewriter (cue giant images of typewriters keys filling the back wall). Not only does that belittle what’s being sung, Bormenthal is on a truck zipping back and forth across the front of the stage for no reason other than to illustrate the typewriter term “carriage return.”
The production’s lack of interest in allowing audiences to connect to the material reaches its zenith in the potentially distressing second operation on Sharikov. As the orchestral volume rises, so does the floor of Michael Levine’s set and the thought that occurs is how impressive the stage management budget must be for all that blood and mechanics.