The Don and the Dog

Tom Sutcliffe on two new productions at ENO

To read a novel is to interpret. But one is alone with text on a page, master of how one feels and thinks. The fascination of the live performing arts lies in the overlapping kinds of interpretation involved. In opera there are not just the words and the music, but the characters using these words and music, and the people performing the characters, and of course there is what we in the audience make of it all. The result of these different layers of complexity is the possibility for an audience of apprehending a truth and a reality of many dimensions. The social context makes for a credible, subtle account that is sharper and more clearly in focus than mere 3-D imagery.

English National Opera has unveiled two new productions in the last fortnight: a new Don Giovanni, and a new opera based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s between the wars satirical novel A Dog’s Heart (first published only in 1968 in English, long after its author had died).

ENO’s new Don is a failure and not an interesting one. The work is a graveyard for directors, and Rufus Norris was making his opera debut directing it – part of what ENO hoped would be a “fresh take”. All successful new stagings are that. Unfortunately Norris blundered into this great masterpiece with absolutely no sense of what is going on in it. He seems to think it is about sex and violence (ie rape), but what it is really about is power and imagination and aspiration.

Mozart, who loved creating pairs of characters in similar emotional quandaries, here has three women hot about a man none of them can control – and what we need to understand is not that we should shake our finger at the naughty, libidinous, immoral rampant male (who in fact is not shown being rampant at all, but in flight from one chance encounter to another like all the characters), but that we should understand that aspiration – something we all feel most potently in relation to sex – has its history. The greatness of this opera lies in the fact that it is an epic of suggestiveness. At every point characters are relating the moment to what has preceded it and what may follow. A seducer is only doing what the theatre does – offering an imaginary arc of fulfilment, and in the theatre we in the audience love seeing represented what we in fact are doing by being there – letting our imagination run free.

The difficulty with Don Giovanni from which novice directors suffer, especially directors from the spoken theatre, is to offer a reductionist clarity. What actually happens in Mozart’s opera seems to be a series of accidents, an unpredictable journey, dependent only on the presence of the Don or of his servant posing as himself. How can he have the energy? No wonder he needs a last supper before he meets his fate. But really this is The Bassarids – a night on the mountain with Dionysus where anything goes, though actually Mozart’s opera shows nothing ever quite happening. It’s all in the mind, apart from a bit of kissing and cuddling. But the invitation is what we see in all these would-be seductions. Has it already happened to Anna? Is Elvira still wanting it? Would Zerlina enjoy it? Does Leporello really want it? Could Ottavio actually do it? Will Masetto be any good at it? And a decent staging is of course incredibly funny because in this fundamental appetite we human beings are basically ridiculous, even when we are masters of it, and somewhere between aspiration and vulnerability is where we may actually find ourselves and be able to be true.

I suppose one should not be too down on Alesander Raskatov’s quite modest opera based on Bulgakov’s The Heart of a Dog, but it is musically simple stuff with almost no genuine chance for operatic expression and having been done in Amsterdam in the summer it proved not good enough to be worth importing. The opera with text by former operatic manager Cesare Mazzonis plays up the communist political backdrop, as if that needs further ridiculing. But actually Bulgakov’s comic target was not political at all, except in passing. The book is a delightful satire about the human condition and the delusions of progress: its absurdism fits perfectly beside Capek’s The Insect Play and The Makropoulos Affair And it certainly did not need the horribly laboured efforts of the composer and the director Simon McBurney using three different singers in all and the service of a whole team of puppeteers for the dog-human Sharik or Sharikov as a dog. The tenor Peter Hoare, who we only get to enjoy in the second act, could have done the whole thing himself much much better – and far more imaginatively; he is a first class actor and singer.

What Bulgakov does that the opera cannot or does not do is draw a consistent line through the life of the dog through all its changes: in a sense the difference between dog and man is minimal, though when the dog is a man he is a rather awful man, which the novelist allows us to feel. But that inner sense is the comedy, not the whole process of the change. The focus of the opera is dramatically wrong, and much less interesting than the book. Steven Page as the professor, Leigh Melrose as his friend and assistant, Peter Hoare as Sharikov, and countertenor Andrew Watts as one of the dog’s voices are all rather good. ND