Tuesday, 21 October 2014

There’s life on the moon

Ronan Busfield (Cecco - disguised as Lunar Emperor), English Touring Opera // Haydn, Life on the Moon (Il mondo della luna). Photo: Richard Hubert Smith.
Ronan Busfield
Photo credit - Richard Hubert Smith
Haydn Life on the Moon; English Touring Opera, dir. McCrystal, cond. Bucknall; Hackney Empire
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Oct 17 2014
Star rating: 4.5

Enjoyably funny performance of rarely performed Haydn opera

The English Touring Opera (ETO) have a comic hit on their hands with Haydn’s 'Life on the Moon’ seen last night (Friday 17 October) at Hackney Empire.

Sung tonight in English, 'Il mondo della luna’ was written by Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), to a libretto by Carlo Goldoni, for the wedding of his patron Nikolaus Esterházy’s second son in 1777. Its small scale of seven performers reflects the materials at Haydn’s disposal, an in-house orchestra of 14 plus whatever soloists he could persuade the Prince to procure.

A contemporary and friend of Mozart, Haydn is perhaps best known for his instrumental work and 'The Creation’. My ancient copy of David Boyden's An Introduction to Music describes Haydn as being "the father of the symphony and string quartet" but also waxes lyrical about Haydn’s good humour and love of a musical joke. It can be no surprise, therefore, to realise that of Haydn’s 16 operas, 12 were variants on opera buffa – most written for Prince Esterházy’s opera troupe in the twenty years between 1762 and 1783.

Andrew Slater (Buonafede), Christopher Turner (Ecclitico), English Touring Opera // Haydn, Life on the Moon (Il mondo della luna). Photo: Richard Hubert Smith.
Andrew Slater and Christopher Turner
Photo credit Richard Hubert Smith
The plot is lightweight and silly. An astronomer and conman Ecclitico and his servant Cecco cook up a plot to marry the girls of their dreams (Clarice and her servant Lisetta), while simultaneously relieving Buonafede, the overbearing father and master of the girls, of his fortune. In order to do this they persuade him that he has travelled to the moon where he swaps his Earth money for lunar trinkets and can no longer control the girl’s fate. Of course at the end all is revealed as a farce.

Like the production of 'The Magic Flute’ the ETO put on in spring this production is unfussy and without pretention. By keeping true to the 18th century, the science and confusion about astronomy remain acceptable to the modern mind, and director Cal McCrystal has been able to let rip with bawdy humour. The clever scenery for the Earth was designed with comic potential, and its transformation into the moon (mostly achieved with lacy sheets and tablecloths - much as you might expect an impecunious confidence trickster to do) was delightful. The costuming took the same lines with the moon costumes being made from mostly underwear and skirt frames – albeit with a few modern touches.

Even before the performance began Ronan Busfield (Cecco) came on stage to mock the audience, explain the plot, and introduce the performers to give them their fictional back-story. This included Christopher Turner (Ecclitico) wanting to emulate his idol Beyonce, Jane Harrington (Clarice) sipping from a flask and wondering if her costume made her hips look big, and Martha Jones (Lisetta) wandering on stage in her towelling robe. No one escaped, not even Andrew Slater (Buonafede). We were told that "The good news is that there are no understudies [...], the bad news is that that you will probably wish there were" and, commenting on the conductor, "He likes his applause before the show – it’s much safer that way".

Jane Harrington (Clarice), Martha Jones (Lisetta), English Touring Opera // Haydn, Life on the Moon (Il mondo della luna). Photo: Richard Hubert Smith.
Jane Harrington and Martha Jones
Photo credit - Richard Hubert Smith
Getting into the show, aided by the scenery and costumes, any opportunity for silliness and slapstick was not overlooked. However throughout the mayhem the performers (cut down to five) and the orchestra, conducted by Christopher Bucknall, performed with great skill and to a high and serious standard - the Old Street Band provided the period performance, including a theorbo. The reduced number of performers necessitated some cuts including the secondary love story between Buonafede’s other daughter Flaminia and her lover Ernesto.

The music itself was charming and typical Haydn. He obviously liked what he had achieved, because the instrumental introduction would eventually re-emerge as the first movement of 'Symphony No. 63’. The performer cut no corners with the authenticity of the music just because the opera was funny: there were lots of tricky fast ornaments from the singers, despite them having to maintain character throughout. In some ways their performances were more impressive because they did not slip out of character, and in fact made more of their characterisation because of it.

For all those who say "I didn’t know opera could be funny" – well it definitely can and here is a perfect example. For those who want their opera to be serious, meaningful, or tragic I’d suggest going to Ottone reviewed by Robert Hugill instead.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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