Since I have frequently had occasion to be highly critical of English National Opera in all departments in recent years let me start this review with the positives. The production is the most impressive and successful I have seen on the Coliseum stage since John Adams's Dr Atomic. The ensemble is the finest which has been seen at the Coliseum for a long time, and the whole feels suffused with the old Coliseum spirit which has been too long absent. It is impossible to fault either. But (knowing me you will have known there was a but coming) the trouble is that the work itself is a pathetic excuse for an opera, and one wishes that that spirit, and that production, could have been lavished on an artistic work deserving of them.
Alexander Raskatov's opera adapts Mikhail Bulgakov's novella The Heart of a Dog, banned during the author's lifetime and for years afterwards on account of its satires on Communist Russia in the 1920s, brilliantly explored in James Meek's instructive programme essay. The story sees a mongrel dog from Moscow operated on by a bourgeois doctor. He is given the testicles and pituitary gland of a drunk man. The dog then gradually becomes human, turns the doctor's life upside down to the point that he finally reverses the process. The story raises a variety of questions about the nature of humanity since the transformed Dog both lays claim to humanity, but shows himself to be capable of many of humanity's lowest acts.
To stage this challenging story, John Berry has, unsurprisingly, turned to the straight theatre. Were this not a co-production with De Nederlandse Opera, and had the work not been already staged there leading me to suspect that the artistic lead may have come from the Netherlands this time, my suspicion would be that Berry had seen the National Theatre's success with His Dark Materials and War Horse and decided that a bit of that would liven up the operatic repertoire no end. The parallels with the problems of War Horse are direct – here as there the puppetry is superb, the dog (and indeed the cats) are totally convincing living creatures. But, equally, just as the puppetry in War Horse propped up a weak script, so the puppetry here struggles to sustain a dreadful score. [Editor's note - I do not agree with my brother that the script of War Horse is weak, though I do find the ending too neat and happy.]
Around that central device of the puppet, Simon McBurney and his collaborators fashion one of the most striking sets to adorn the ENO stage in recent times. With one highly mobile wall, McBurney successfully conjures up the various rooms of Professor Preobrazhensky's flat, while around it the massed forces of the Russian people doubling in a variety of other roles (not least, and very effectively, as the professor's bookshelves) persistently threaten to overwhelm his comfortable eight room haven. There is some very effective use of video projection – partly to reinforce that sense of massed Soviet ranks, perhaps most in conjuring the vision of Moscow in a snowstorm during the opening scene. Perhaps the highlight is the operation, performed in shadow behind the wall, and sufficiently grizzly that one half expects Boris Karloff to lurch in stage right. Adding to the effectiveness of the stage pictures are excellent acting performances from the entire company (the only slightly bizarre note being struck by the professor's maid who seemed to be auditioning for a recreation of the Ministry of Silly Walks sketch). As a whole then, it is a highly impressive visual experience, not something one has often had cause to say about ENO productions under the present management.
Equally deserving of praise are the musical performances, especially given what they have to work with. There is not a weak link among the singers, but if I had to single any out it would be the three who give life to Sharik/Sharikov (the dog-man) – Peter Hoare, Andrew Watts, Elena Vassilieva. All of their parts are punishing and exposed and they bring them off superbly with never a hint of tiredness, and in the first half are consistently successful in giving vocal life to the puppetry. In the pit Garry Walker (a weel kent face for Scottish audiences) draws equally strong, committed playing from the ENO orchestra. Unlike a number of other performances this season there is never a hint of disharmony between pit and stage.
Unfortunately, all this is in the service of a dreadful score. David Nice's programme note makes a valiant effort to link Raskatov to a Russian tradition going back through Shostakovich and Prokofiev to Mussorgsky, but I was wholly unconvinced until the very last moments of the piece which did to my ear echo the stunning conclusion of Mussorgsky's Khovanschina (the only problem being that Mussorgsky not only did the ending better but the whole is a score of genius which this patently isn't). The trouble is that Raskatov's music never goes anywhere, rather the score simply drags on and on beating at least this listener into a stupefied submission (I was reminded of the tortuous experience of listening to pianist Olli Mustonen in recital). Most damning is the apparent divorce between text and music – the music almost never reinforces the sense and point of the words – indeed Raskatov seems frequently to be trying for precisely the opposite effect – i.e. to render the text as meaningless as possible. Nor in fact is he especially helped by the text which I suspect could have had increased impact not only through being set by a more accomplished composer but also via judicious trimming. I was also often reminded of Alan Bennett's admonishment in Forty Years On (“Don't swear boy, it shows a lack of vocabulary”). Around me there was laughter everytime somebody sang a line including a swear word – clearly I am as usual out of step as I just can't see what is funny about this. It isn't that I'm offended by it, it just seemed a pretty empty gesture. The overall effect of all this is to remove most of the moral and emotional impact of the story because the music and the manner in which the text is set is constantly fighting that impact rather than enhancing it, tension is drained away, moral discussions become long drawn out exercises in tedium (particularly in the second act). McBurney's production labours mightily to distract one's attention from this, but for me it was ultimately not successful, for all the visual riches on offer.
Given some of the more unusual audience members around me (including a girl next to me who was clutching a mini-box of Frosties which she ate her way through during the first half - my tolerance of which speaks volumes regarding my view of the score), John Berry is getting a different audience in with this production. The trouble is that they will come away with a very imperfect impression of what an opera actually is. It also seems to me a real shame that such lavish production values, and such committed performances should be wasted on such a lousy score. I cannot help thinking of all the first class twentieth century operas that ENO might deservedly have revived instead - Stephen Oliver's Timon of Athens; Poul Ruders's The Handmaid's Tale; Michael Tippett's King Priam; Benjamin Britten's Paul Bunyan – the latter easily the most accessible and criminally neglected of his stage works. I do commend ENO for staging new work but it is hard to avoid the feeling that the desire to lure McBurney has led to another depressing compromise on musical quality – this time of the source material.
The Half Time Report: Back in September I noted that the possibility had occurred to my mind of seeing the whole ENO 2010-2011 season. My reason for so doing is that I have had for some time deep concerns about what John Berry's management is doing to my favourite opera company, and I thought it only fair to give him a full trial by such an act of company loyalty.
The half-time verdict is unquestionably one of Could Do Much Better. So far there has been only one production in the first rank in all senses (Miller's La Boheme – cue dissenting voices to my brother's twitter account). All the other productions have suffered either musical, casting, or production short comings. Overall, my argument would be that the fundamental problem with the company at the moment is one of reliability at all levels. To make the natural contrast generally speaking at the Royal Opera there is a solid base level which the company only very occasionally falls below. English National Opera on the strength of the first half of the season is in the opposite position – occasional flashes of brilliance amid a general mediocrity or worse. I realise that I appear to be in a minority in this view. ENO for reasons inexplicable to me keeps carrying off Olivier Awards for Opera, getting praise for its supposedly bold artistic decisions, and other critics have been infinitely kinder than I to many of this seasons productions. I am afraid I have been unable to agree with either their verdicts, or those of the award committee. More than half the season (a further eight productions) is still to come, so there is time for improvement. I do sincerely hope it is going to be in evidence.