“A Dog’s Heart” at ENO: Selected Passages From Correspondence With My Friends

Not a doggy dog

This was certainly a good Theatre de Complicite show, and managed to avoid any unfortunate accidents with foreign alphabets.  As an adaptation of Bulgakov, it focused on making effective stage effects and moments out of the action, and so rather skated over the *meaning* of the action.  As an opera, the first half wasn’t, while the second was  more encouraging.

The production was spectacular, the music mostly just mildly irritating and irrelevant to the action – although I do keep thinking of the ‘rough’ dog voice.  As for the meaning, it seemed pretty objectionable to me.  But not having read the original, I can’t say whether that was due to a loss of nuance in the production.

Maybe ‘meaning’ isn’t the right word.  If you want a take-home message then you’d probably object more to the original, since it’s more sympathetic to Prof Preobrazhensky and the dog Sharik and totally hostile to the newly-created Sharikov.

But nuance is what is missing.   As is typical for Bulgakov, the precision of the language creates a very clear and ‘realistic’ picture of the main characters and their relationships, which provides a solid basis or framework for the grotesque elements.  Here the normal is missing–in Bulgakov, Sharik is a very doggy dog, while here he’s something strange from the beginning.

If Bulgakov’s text  had ever been published, part of the interest for a contemporary readership would have been in the detailed evocation of a settled, prosperous way of life–‘The Russia we have lost’.  But again we didn’t get much normality here. Then again, positive themes such as the devotion that Sharik and Bormental feel for Preobrazhensky, and his paternal care for the members of his household, are discarded

They also threw away the theme of inside v outside, which is very typical of Bulgakov (and Russian literature in general).  Think of ‘The White Guard’ at the National for instance.  Since B. was essentially a dramatist, and only took to writing stories because he couldn’t get his plays performed, the fact that once the dog is in the flat all the action takes place there must mean something.  In principle, the action was ‘inside’ here, but with people coming in through the wallpaper and a chorus of doctors appearing the ‘inside’ effect was lost.

Spectacular, but is it ‘inside’?

Janacek would have made a bloody good opera out of this text, but I’m afraid it was rather beyond Aleksandr Raskatov.  Although this is an opera by a Russian composer on a Russian text it hasn’t (as yet) been put on there, and I don’t think it would go down very well.

You might say that this show does for Bulgakov what the Bolshoi’s recent  Eugene Onegin did for Tchaikovsky–the difference is that Bulgakov, and in particular how to interpret the present situation in the light of his texts, is still very much a live issue.  Still a long time to go before ceremonial pissing on his corpse is a popular option!

… I don’t think they entirely lost the inside/outside thing.  The invasion of the safe, comfortable inside world seemed quite effective to me.  And I thought the dog was surprisingly doggy – I think that’s why I liked the voice.

The  idea of Sharik having two voices is interesting, since he’s the only character whose thoughts figure in the text–the rest are seen from the outside.  This is more my idea of Sharik (from the 1988 film):

That’s a nice dog…

Both the essay by James Meek and my Bulgakov Encyclopedia want to make someone stand for Lenin/Trotsky but they can’t agree on who–for Meek it’s Preobrazhensky when he decides to operate on the dog while for the BE it’s Sharikov when he pulls the revolver on Bormental and declares he’s going to show everyone what’s what.

The text dates from the height of the New Economic Policy in 1925 which allowed private enterprise and led to some strange consequences (which are satirised in Preobrazhensky having an operating theatre in his flat–that is in itself a joke, like the sex strike in Lysistrata say).  Also at that time the Communist government didn’t seem particularly united or likely to survive.  But the opera sets the action in the Stalin period–presumably because that’s all the stupid Dutch/English are thought able to recognise–which makes nonsense of Preobrazhensky threatening to emigrate or being able to play one faction off against another.

I think if I had to give an interpretation it would be in terms of two parallel actions.  Firstly Preobrazhensky (representing let’s say the Russian educated classes, who were firmly opposed to the Tsarist regime) introduces alien elements into the starving but good-hearted masses (Sharik), with the result that they turn into something nasty.  But Sharikov swiftly rises to an important position in the Moscow feline elimination hierarchy and acquires a leather jacket as well, while his donor Chugunkin was merely a scrote who scraped a living playing the balalaika  in low dives.  The difference is that Sharikov has also had alien elements implanted by Shvonder in the form of the Engels-Kautsky correspondence and suchlike.  He is–the revolutionary proletariat are–low-lives further spolied by having half-digested ideas above their station.

So the educated classes need to shoulder their responsibilities and undo the harm they have caused.  (If you want to be properly offended, note that names ending in -er as in Shvonder are regarded as Jewish in Russia.) Still, Bulgakov practised what he preached–he stayed in Russia while the rest of his family emigrated…

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