Russell Hepplewhite - Laika the Spacedog
English Touring Opera - 2013
Russell Hepplewhite, Tim Yealland, Sarah Laulan, Nicolas Rigas, Abigail Kelly, Edward Lee, Maciek O’Shea
Armel Opera Festival, Szeged - ARTE Live Web - 14th October 2013
An opera aimed at 7-11 year olds isn't the traditional kind of work that you would think best suited for judging singers in a competition like the Armel Opera Festival, but the English Touring Opera's production of Russell Hepplewhite's Laika the Spacedog proves to be one of the richest offerings in the programme. As well as providing its competition singers with some interesting challenges, it deservedly took away two awards for the production.
As an opera, Laika the Spacedog is deceptive in the apparent simplification of its appealing doggie-does-good story when in reality it works well on a number of levels. The story of the Russian space-programme's race to follow its successful Sputnik I launch by putting the first living creature out into space in 1957 introduces a younger audience to modern history, politics and science, but also emotionally engages them to these concepts through an appreciation of opera, theatre and music that makes effective use of comedy and an inventive staging. And yes, it has a loveable dog.
Musically, it's also a wonderfully composed work that is likewise deceptively simple in its chamber construction but in reality vibrant, playful and complex in its interweaving of instruments and themes. There's a deep rhythmic pulse provided by cello and bassoon, with a clarinet weaving in and out of it and clever use of vibraphone and in even electronic instruments like a Theremin to give a playful lightness and suggest space and science concepts with a little bit of a "period" feel to them.
Most importantly, it involves young people by making them part of the on-stage chorus and audience. Here at Szeged, you can see how successfully the work inspires the imagination of the children and holds them rapt by how thoroughly the young members of the Laika Choir of the Tisza-parti Elementary School become engaged in every aspect of the performance. A young audience would be no less delighted by the work and the performance and the cast likewise try to engage the audience in the exploration of the science concepts behind the work.
That's where the challenge comes in for the performers. For the competition singers, Sarah Laulan, Nicolas Rigas - both French - there's challenge enough in making the English diction clear and the singing melodic when exposed with only a chamber arrangement. The performances however have to be vital, spirited, intense and playful, requiring some degree of charm and comic timing to interact with the other singers and reach out through audience participation. Bass-baritone Nicolas Rigas perhaps fared better in terms of finding the right tone and character for the work, bringing a more musical and melodic touch to the performance, coping well with the English diction. Mezzo-soprano Sarah Laulan on the other hand might not have found this type of work best suited to her talents, but sang well and within the spirit of the piece.
Both fitted in well in this respect with the rest of the production as a whole, which is just an important a consideration. Jude Munden's sets were inventive and dynamic, making use of projections and animation to cover everything from travelling on the Moscow metro, recreating a laboratory, showing the solar system and displaying a rocket launch. Maciek O’Shea's handling of the puppet Laika was of course vital in making this all work so successfully. Supported by the fine playing of the orchestra conducted by Russell Hepplewhite himself and with the experienced supporting cast of Abigail Kelly and Edward Lee (although all the roles bear equal weight here), this was at least a worthy winner of two production awards.
The Armel Opera Festival performance of Laika the Spacedog can be viewed for free for six months after the performance on the ARTE Live Web streaming service. The opera is sung in English with French subtitles only.