NCO’s Rare Haydn Opera is an Enchanting Oxford Evening


United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn: Soloists of New Chamber Opera and The Band of Instruments / Steven Devine (conductor/harpsichord), New College, Oxford, 4.7.2018. (CR)

Bonafede (Thomas Kennedy) and the telescope
(c) Michael Burden

Haydn Il mondo della luna


Ecclitico – Daniel Shelvey
Ernesto – Daniel Keating-Roberts
Bonafede – Thomas Kennedy
Clarice – Kate Semmens
Flaminia – Rachel Shannon
Lisetta – Indyana Schneider
Cecco – Alexander Gebhard

Director – Michael Burden
English Translation – Simon Rees

Haydn’s operas have lain too long and deeply in the shadow of those by his younger contemporary, Mozart, such that it is a great pleasure that Oxford’s New Chamber Opera should choose to promote the cause of this delightful comedy for its al fresco summer production in the grounds of New College. The libretto by the celebrated Italian playwright, Carlo Goldoni, had already done service for an opera by Galuppi, among others, but Haydn’s setting (1777) has probably retained the most – if modest – fame in the present time, either in respect of that text or the handful of other libretti by the Venetian writer.

The drama presages Mozart’s Così fan tutte in some ways by satirising some of the principles and cherished beliefs of the then-contemporary Enlightenment, such as the dictates of reason and order to determine the human heart in its own affairs and predilections, and an interest in scientific discovery and progress particularly with regard to the cosmos at large. When Haydn visited the astronomer William Herschel on his trip to England in the 1790s and was shown his telescope and learnt about the recent discovery of Uranus, the composer must surely have raised a wry smile as he remembered his earlier operatic comedy which sent up the pretensions of such ‘star-gazers’.

In the case of the opera, the doctor Ecclitico claims to be an astronomer and uses his telescope and a potion as an elaborate ruse to dupe the foolish old Bonafede into believing that he is whisked away to the moon, in order to trick him into consenting to the marriage of his two daughters, Clarice and Flaminia, to Ecclitico and Ernesto respectively. Outside in the gardens of New College with the sky of emerging dusk overhead, Michael Burden’s resourceful production puts a telescope at the centre of Act I whilst also sending up contemporary technological advances, in that Ecclitico’s assistant places an iPad in front of the lens (rather than using a magic lantern) to project images purporting to originate in the moon, in order to enthral and titillate Bonafede. Thomas Kennedy’s performance fits the buffoonery of that part well, as he willingly surrenders himself to the ostensible customs and etiquette of life on the moon with comic vigour.

But Daniel Shelvey dominates proceedings with his black-clad, suavely roguish figure of Ecclitico, who yields nothing in confidence and determination as he leads the attempt to fool Bonafede, for the good of the latter’s daughters, their lovers, his servant Lisetta (whom he has kept, Doctor Bartolo-like, under close guard at home since he has designs on her himself), and her lover, Cecco. Shelvey’s astute characterisation and attractive manner of singing surely stand him good stead for much other repertoire, and having already appeared at Glyndebourne, he is clearly a name to watch in the future.

Daniel Keating-Roberts in the countertenor role of Ernesto is initially somewhat breathy and unfocussed in his pursuit of Flaminia, but the excitability of his performance, with his whimpers and sighs, amusingly evokes this character’s whimsicality as compared with the contrasting steadiness of Ecclitico. Kate Semmens and Rachel Shannon as the young women sing brightly and radiantly, particularly in the more extended, virtuosic passages which Haydn asks from them in more effusive moments, where the vocal writing is as demanding and rewarding as much of that by Mozart for soprano. Indyana Schneider is rightly more assertive as the servant Lisetta, who fends off the attentions of Bonafede, in favour of Ernesto’s servant, Cecco. Alexander Gebhard brings both playfulness and gravitas to that role, as necessary for the topsy-turvy lunar world as he assumes the position of emperor there, in disguise, and together with Schneider enthroned in silvery majesty, they evoke dignity and authority as the plot to gain Bonafede’s consent to a triple marriage reaches its successful conclusion.

Steven Devine leads the one-to-a-part The Band of Instruments to provide lean and vital accompaniment, with often sweet-toned violins complementing the bolder tone of the oboes. Their support is not mere background reinforcement, however, but frequently takes the musical lead in arias of symphonic weight, and in the overture which Haydn fans will recognise through its re-use as the first movement of the Symphony No.63 (‘La Roxelane’). There is some particularly evocative music to depict the supposed journey to the moon, and Act II opens with some unearthly harmonics in the strings to evoke the strange lunar environment; the ensemble here captures those distinctive colours vividly. Even before Bonafede imitates the birds he believes he hears on the moon (in reality in Ecclitico’s garden) with whistles, the performance by the orchestra and singers already prompts the birds over the grounds in the ancient centre of Oxford to contribute their own song, complementing an evening that is as enchanting as the potion administered to Bonafede in the opera itself.

Curtis Rogers

Further performances on 7, 10, 11, 13 & 14 July for more information click here.

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