Last night saw the UK première of Alexander Raskatov's new opera A Dog's Heart, performed by ENO together with theatre company Complicite. The opera, based on a 1925 novella by Russian satirist Mikhail Bulgakov, tells the tale of Sharik, a stray dog who is given the testicles and pituitary gland of a human by an eminent surgeon, the Professor. The transplant is intended as an experiment in rejuvenation, but to everyone's astonishment, the treatment has a different effect: the good dog Sharik turns into a dreadful human, Poligraf Poligrafovich Sharikov.

Sharik the dog and Steven Page as the Professor, © 2010 Stephen Cummiskey
Sharik the dog and Steven Page as the Professor,
© 2010 Stephen Cummiskey

Bulgakov's novella is thoroughly misanthropic, and the opera follows it faithfully. The frailties and uglinesses of every character are mercilessly explored, from the ghastly Sharikov to the Professor, his servants and the Bolshevik house committee of their apartment block. No-one comes out of it with much credit (except perhaps the dog), and the depiction of the Bolsheviks (including a party boss who in this production looks like a tall version of Lenin) got the novella banned in the Soviet union until 1987.

The drama and the staging are memorable. There are so many clever and startling visual effects in the setting and the movement of the characters that I'm not even going to attempt to list them: the production has to be seen to be believed. But the undoubted hero of the piece is Sharik himself. He is played by a puppet created by puppeteers Blind Summit Theatre in the style of a Giacometti sculpture of a dog; he moves around the stage, leaps, cowers and yaps with the assistance of a team of three handlers, with two singers to represent the voices of the "nice" and "nasty" parts of his character: the counter tenor Andrew Watts voices the more human "nice" Sharik, while the howls and yelps of his "nasty" voice are sung through a megaphone by Elena Vassilieva, who also sings the part of Darya Petrovna the cook. It is quite extraordinary that when you see Sharik, you are actually looking at a dog-sized puppet being followed around by three hulking great men and two singers - but such is the illusion that all you see is a dog. And I'll give a mention to just two of the effects: when Sharik thinks he is dying (before he is rescued by the Professor), there is a superb depiction of his life floating before his eyes, and the scene where Sharikov chases a cat around the apartment was a piece of sheer, undiluted theatrical magic.

I am very much hoping to find new opera composers to love, and I really wanted to like Raskatov's music. But for the most part, I didn't. Raskatov is something of a musical magpie (the word "polystylism" appears in the programme notes), and he's good at it: quotations or pastiche work well in snatches of Russian folk song or funeral dirges, and brilliantly in the religiously fervent passage where the Professor announces his creation to a choir of his scientific peers. But with the exception of a few lyrical episodes, Raskatov's default style, to which he continually returns, is harsh and strident. To go with the use of megaphone for Sharik's "nasty" voice, you're assaulted by a barrage of discords, with vocal gymnastics from the female parts (accompanied by some hilarious physical gymnastics in the case of Nancy Allen Lundy as Zina the maid). The music is certainly effective in echoing the overall nastiness of the characters and their surroundings, but it's very hard on the ear. After ten minutes, I thought it was all quite interesting. By the interval, I was just about coping. By the end of the opera (running time just under three hours), my head hurt and I was glad that it was over.

In an interview with Raskatov on the ENO website, he explains that the function of opera in the past was taken over by cinema in the 20th century, and that opera as a genre came to two different extremities, either it is a musical for a lot of people or [it is] for very, very high level musicians... I would hope to go back and at the same time forward to the real opera genre. To my ears, Raskatov has missed that mark by a long way: I can't see how music so unrelentingly harsh will win a large audience.

I'm very glad that the ENO puts on new opera, I'm very glad to have gone to this production, and if the future of opera is to be represented by this kind of vivid story-telling, gripping drama and brilliant, innovative staging, I'm delighted. But if it's also going to lie in this form of music (and Raskatov is by no means the only current opera composer to write with this degree of harshness) my ears are going to need some serious re-education. And I don't think I'm up for it.