For his last edition of the Holland Festival, director Pierre Audi commissioned a new opera by Dutch composer Martijn Padding, Laika, a co-production with Dutch National Opera. The popular talk show host Robbert gets fed up with his empty glamour world and decides to join cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and his dog Laika in outer space. The libretto was written by novelist P.F. Thomése, visual artist Aernout Mik catered for the staging. The new production created a huge anticipatory buzz, the three artists being dubbed an absolute dream team. Yet, in spite of the combined efforts of Asko|Schönberg, VocaalLab, eight singers and conductor Etienne Siebens, the première in the Amsterdam Stadsschouwburg proved to be a deception.

Thomas Oliemans (Robbert) © Marco Borggreve
Thomas Oliemans (Robbert)
© Marco Borggreve

Laika opens very promising, with the audience seated around a rotating stage, surrounded by huge video screens. The projections zoom in on one of the characters, then focus on the entire scene or the audience itself, at other moments showing the conductor or one of the persons in pre-recorded images out of sync with the live performance. The message is clear: modern woman/ man only truly exists when she or he is visible publicly, be it on social media, television or YouTube: self-branding has become top priority.

No wonder TV producer Trix Dominatrix (the wonderful soprano Claron McFadden) is very upset to learn that the ratings of Robbert’s talk show have dropped dramatically. She receives this message just before a new show starts and Robbert (immaculately performed by baritone Thomas Oliemans), who has up to then been lying silently on the floor, enters the studio. To her dismay, Robbert declaims existential doubts about himself, the show and the high expectations of his audience. He moans in vulnerable falsetto that he’s lost himself, switching abruptly to his lower register when he boasts his irresistible sex-appeal.

Delicate, undulating strings, a melancholy horn and lingering notes from a detuned electric guitar make place for jolly popular music when the show starts and Robbert puts on his public face. Thus Padding musically illustrates how strongly his hero is torn between the longing for his private, inner self and the character he pretends to be in the public eye. In continuous competition with TV chef Ricardo (the hilariously funny tenor Marcel Beekman) he emits randy yells, and indeed both make-up artist Grimelda (a somewhat shrill Marieke Steenhoek) and Trix vie for his favours. 

© Marco Borggreve
© Marco Borggreve

In the next scene Robbert’s mother (the moving contralto Helena Rasker) calls her son to order: he’s become a stranger to her, and she longs back for the boy who once reached for the stars and planets. During her complaint, an immense square contraption is lowered from the ceiling, on which again projections are shown. It also functions as Robbert’s private room, where he strives to realize his childhood dreams. From inside the cubicle he contacts Yuri Gagarin (the bass Dennis Wilgenhof) and his dog Laika (girl soprano Leonie Meijer), who invite him to join them in outer space, where “even the future becomes memory”. All’s well that ends well, one would think, yet hereafter follow two more acts - mere repetitions of the first half, and boredom inevitably set in. 

Laika is Thomése’s first libretto, and it sorely illustrates that though authors may write successful novels, this doesn’t necessarily imply they can also produce good theatre texts. It’s incomprehensible why the dramaturgist didn’t take a more critical look at the libretto, for it could have been improved by some substantial cuts. Yet probably even these wouldn’t have quite done the trick, for the text itself lacks dramatic quality. Though the subject in itself is interesting enough, it wasn’t elaborated psychologically and none of the characters comes to life. It remains a mystery why Robbert loses faith in his profession and why he has become so immensely popular in the first place. The subplot with the comical cook Ricardo is superfluous, however gloriously Marcel Beekman performed this role.

A good libretto is indispensable for a good opera, therefore Martijn Padding faced a difficult task in setting Laika to music. In his varied and colourful score, he switches fluently between popular salsa, repetitive music and contemporary dissonance, with many subtle interactions and imitations between ensemble, chorus and singers. Uncommon instruments such as electric guitar, accordion and cimbalom make for a warm and sometimes unexpected sound world. The texture is transparent and the singers are never drowned in loud sound bites from the ensemble. The vocal lines however lack lyrical finesse, the singers often having to bounce between their high and low registers in a recitative style.

Etienne Siebens, regular guest conductor of Asko|Schönberg, led his ensemble, VocaalLab and the solo singers with great precision and dedication through the two hours Laika lasted. Yet neither the quality of the music and the performance, nor the ingenious staging were able to save this production. By linking Thomése to Padding and Mik, Pierre Audi failed to create the dream team he’d had in mind. Instead of the expected euphoria, the audience was left with a feeling of deception.