The year is 1925. Lenin is dead, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics has achieved international recognition, Stalin is one of several contenders poised to take control of the Communist party, and Mikhail Bulgakov is reading the first part of his new novel to Moscow's literary elite.
It is, of course, a satire, and among Bulgakov's audience is an informer. The manuscript is seized, then returned, and remains unpublished until 1987, its author long dead.
There is nothing like a juicy backstory of Soviet oppression to whet the appetite of a Western audience. But A Dog's Heart is more than a satire on ideological zealotry and social engineering, as Simon McBurney's and Complicite's virtuosic staging of Alexander Raskatov's operatic adaptation reveals. Along with the lugubrious pomp of workers' anthems, drink-fuelled balalaika ditties, sarcastic waltzes, hysterical coloratura and the dizzying Constructivist graphics of Rodchenko, this is a very human – or canine – tragi-comedy on masculinity.
Our hero is Sharik, a stray dog animated by the puppeteers of Blind Summit and voiced by Andrew Watts and Elena Vassilieva. Howling (Watts) and growling (Vassilieva) in a blizzard, Sharik is lured with a sausage to the apartment of Professor Filipp Filippovich Preobrazhensky (Steven Page), fattened up, knocked out, then fitted with the testicles and pituitary gland of an itinerant balalaika player. Swearing, smoking and drinking, chasing skirt and chasing cats, all ears, nose and cock, Sharik becomes Shari-kov (Peter Hoare), a foul-mouthed force of nature who is soon rewarded with a position in Pest Control.
With audacious use of video projections (Finn Ross), rivers of gore and a spectacular set (Michael Levine), McBurney deftly balances slapstick and suspense as Preobrazhensky and his assistant Bormenthal (Leigh Melrose) try to contain their lawless hybrid and protect their opulent offices from the Head of the Housing Committee (Alasdair Elliott). Tautly controlled by conductor Garry Walker, Raskatov's score makes ingenious use of megaphones, yelping oboes and cartoonish percussion. Schnittke's influence is apparent, Shostakovich's too. But is it polystylism or pastiche?
Though Raskatov is too self-effacing to establish a distinctive soundworld, in Sharikov we have a character beyond the clichés of Soviet Russia: a child with adult appetites. When he calls the Professor "Dad" it is not merely mischief, and his mutterings of "Catch fleas with your hands. Don't spit. Don't piss" as he tries to learn polite behaviour are poignant. All the cast shine but it is Hoare's show, unhappy ending, expletives and all. For McBurney, who has long declined invitations from opera companies, this is a remarkable debut. For English National Opera, A Dog's Heart is a welcome return to form.
So seldom is Hugh the Drover performed that Paul Joyce, the composer of the theme tune to Bob the Builder, cannot reasonably be accused of plagiarism. The four-note, four-syllable leitmotif of Vaughan Williams' 1924 pastoral opera – oft-repeated by the chorus – may have plunged this listener into Proustian reveries of potty-training, but it's safe to say that most of New Sussex Opera's audience were thinking of bare-knuckle boxing in the period of the Napoleonic wars. Michael Moxham's thrifty production conjured a rural setting with little more than a strip of corn and a scaffold, ensuring maximal clarity for the rich overlay of salesmen's cries and folksongs in the market-place and maximal pathos in the final hushed farewell. For an opera that contains a prize fight, much of Hugh the Drover is concerned with stillness, as the honest hero waits in the stocks for his execution and the heroine, Mary, waits with him, trusting that love will triumph. Daniel Norman and Celeste Lazarenko sang their roles with grace and tenderness, well supported by the local chorus. With harp, timpani and brass arranged in balconies flanking the stage, this was surround-sound Vaughan Williams, sympathetically conducted by Nicholas Jenkins.
'A Dog's Heart' (0871 911 0200) to 4 Dec; 'Hugh the Drover', Lewes Town Hall (tickets on the door), tonight
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