Haydn’s Moon Opera Brings a Pompous Patriarch Back to Earth

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, Life on the Moon: English Touring Opera, The Old Street Band, Christopher Bucknall (conductor), Snape Maltings, Snape, 14.11.2014 (CS)

Buonafede – Andrew Slater
Clarice – Jane Harrington
Lisetta – Martha Jones
Ecclitico – Christopher Turner
Cecco – Ronan Busfield


Direction: Cal McCrystal
Designs: takis
Lighting Designs: Lee Curran

In the week that a team of scientists from the European Space Agency landed their robot, Philae, on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, English Touring Opera brought the moon to Snape Maltings.  Although few stars illuminated my walk to the Maltings, inside the concert hall there was plenty of lunar radiance during this charming account of Haydn’s seldom-performed Life on the Moon (Il mondo del luna).

Composed for the wedding celebrations of Count Nikolaus Esterházy and Countess Maria Anna Wissenwolf in 1777, the action presents an elaborate, inane plot to deceive a wealthy misogynist, Buonafede (literally ‘good faith’), into permitting and funding the marriages of his daughter Clarice and maid Lisetta to the quack astrologo Ecclitico and his servant Cecco respectively.

Director Cal McCrystal has simplified the action by removing two serie characters, Flaminia (Buonafede’s daughter) and her betrothed, Ernesto, leaving us with just the buffo and mezzo carattere of this dramma giocoso.

Equipped with up-to-the minute star-gazing apparatus, Ecclitico uses his conocchialone to convince the foolish amateur astronomer that on the moon all patriarchal pleasures are permitted – and that the fortunate Buonafede has been invited by the Emperor of the Moon to his extra-terrestial court.  A lunar elixir renders Buonafede unconscious, allowing Ecclitico and Cecco to don ‘moon men’ attire and transform the impressionable aristocrat’s garden into a white moonscape. On awaking Buonafede is well-received by the Emperor and his retinue (the disguised Cecco and Ecclitico); the lunar lordship informs his earthly guest that he has espied Lisetta through his own telescope and, enamoured, now wishes to transport her to the moon.  Putting aside his own predilection for his maid, Buonafede agrees but asks if his daughter might be permitted to accompany her, to console him for surrendering his own amorous designs.  An elaborate charade ensues and the young lovers contrive a moon marriage.  When the deception is revealed, after some puffing and fulminating, Buonafede capitulates, pays up and all ends well.

Rather than presenting us with a futuristic topography, set designer takis [sic] took us back to the eighteenth-century, first to an elegant garden with flower-decked gazebos and graceful balustrades – illuminated by sparking stars and then warm Mediterranean sunbeams – and then to a moon as imagined by contemporary astronomers and star-watchers.  The gap between eighteenth-century conceptions of lunar life and our own modern scientific knowledge and notions provided much of the humour.  When Buonafede awoke after his interstellar ‘journey’, Cecco effected a perfectly synchronised manoeuvre, sliding a disc of the earth to eclipse the spherical moon, and the transformation of eighteenth-century landscaped terrace to cosmic terrain was complete.  Confronted with a world swathed in white moon-dust, the draped topiary and statuary of his garden now transmuted into lunar promontories, it was no wonder that Buonafede was literally and figuratively ‘transported’.

Andrew Slater was a delightfully lascivious and gullible Buonafede, using his strong bass to convey the nobleman’s pretentiousness and belligerence, and displaying good comic timing.  He negotiated the vocal challenges of his demanding solo scene in Act 2: here Buonafede lauds the pastoral pleasures of the moon and seeks a lunar city, before launching into a long aria of adulation, in which Slater’s smooth step-wise lines suggested a child-like awe.  And, despite his oppressive treatment of Clarice and his hounding of Lisetta, Slater aroused some sympathy for the duped aristocrat, who seemed genuinely daunted by his lunar hosts and convinced, pitifully, of their good intentions.

The charlatan astrophysicist, Ecclitico, was played with a sure dramatic sense by tenor Christopher Turner, who demonstrated considerable range as both an actor and singer, and displayed some pleasing resonance and lyricism in the higher lying passages.

Jane Harrison proved she is a fine singer-actress as the disobedient daughter Clarice; her Act 2 aria was beautifully dreamy and she exhibited a focused, strong soprano in her Act 3 love duet with Ecclitico.  Mezzo soprano Martha Jones was a feisty Lisetta, in the model of Despina, and as Cecco, Ronan Busfield used his strong tenor and wide range to good effect.

On the whole, Haydn alternates recitative and aria, with few ensembles, but the finale of Act 1 – in which Buonafede’s hallucinations blend with Ecclicitco’s excited interjections and the young women’s lamentations upon discovering the apparently dying, prone Buonafede – was a fine moment of dramatic theatre.

Haydn’s orchestration is imaginative and conductor Christopher Bucknall drew some lively playing from the Old Street Band; particularly enchanting was the music which suggests the flight to the moon, and the sinfonia at the start of Act 2 was similarly evocative, featuring some fine playing from horns and bassoons.

This was a charming, even ‘enchanting’, production; if Buonafede was convinced by his galactic adventure, then we too were persuaded that Haydn – who directed over 1000 opera performances during his long career as Kapellmeister at the Esterházy estate – has much to say himself as a composer of energetic and tuneful opera.  Occasionally the visual humour and physical theatre – repeatedly dropped telescope tripods, tumbling topiary and tomfoolery with the figurines – felt a bit heavy-handed, and some might find the ‘pseudo-pornographic’ tableaux of ‘delights’ with which Ecclitico titillates Buonafede’s appetite for space travel somewhat tasteless.  But Haydn’s score, while lacking the musico-dramatic slickness and articulateness of Mozart’s operas, makes much of the niceties of the Italian opera tradition, offering melodic charm and ingenuity tempered by moments of serenity.

Life on the Moon is not, as has sometimes been suggested, the first ‘sci fi opera’; rather, it is an opera about the fictitious uses to which ‘science’ can be put. It is less about putting men on the moon, and more – as English Touring Opera amusingly and skilfully demonstrated – about bringing pompous patriarchs down to earth!

Claire Seymour

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