Haydn’s Life on the Moon Back

The first documented performance of Joseph Haydn’s Il mondo della luna, Hob. 28/7 (translated literally as The World of the Moon), was at Eszterháza on 3rd August 1777, although it may have been performed as early as July of that year. It was Haydn’s third opera set to a libretto by Carlo Goldoni, and the Eszterháza performance marked the wedding of Price Nikolaus of Eszterházy’s second son to the Countess von Weissenwolf. Preparations were a hurried affair: the set designer had been employed only a few days before the event, and one of the tenors performing in the opera, Leopold Dichtler, was required to copy all two thousand pages of the vocal and orchestral score. Today, only fragments of Haydn’s original score survive as a fire destroyed the Eszterháza opera house in 1779, just two years after the performance of Il mondo.

The English Touring Opera [ETO] have revived Haydn’s opera for their Autumn Season as a new production, Life on the Moon. The plot follows a quack astronomer Ecclitico [Christopher Turner] and his apprentice Cecco [Ronan Busfield] as they team up to trick an old miser, Buonafede [Andrew Slater], into allowing them to marry his daughter Clarice [Jane Harrington] and maid Lisetta [Martha Jones]. Ecclitico and Cecco convince Buonafede into believing that he is witnessing scenes of life on the moon when he looks into Ecclitico’s telescope. Observing, among other things, a young girl caressing an old man and a husband aggressively punishing his wife for being disobedient, Buonafede wishes life on Earth could be so. As a sign of friendship, Ecclitico agrees to share a potion with Buonafede that will transport them to the moon. Buonafede faints upon drinking the potion, and the others swiftly transform Buonafede’s gardens into a lunar landscape. Awakening to believe he is on the moon, Buonafede accepts the conditions of marriage and releases the respective dowries. There were some cuts to Haydn’s score, including the characters of Buonafede’s younger daughter Flaminia and her lover Ernesto, but the rationale behind this was not explained or even acknowledged in the programme.

Sung to another of James Conway’s witty new translations, director Cal McCrystal states in a promotional video for Life on the Moon that his main ambition for the opera was to have the audience ‘creasing’ with laughter. Both McCrystal and production designer takis [sic] emphasised the importance of drawing humour from what the eighteenth-century characters might have thought the moon looked like. Both were reluctant to attempt a move into a contemporary setting or create something ‘otherworldly’, because the comic genius is the act of trying to create a moon in the garden. Indeed, the ETO’s Marketing and Press Officer, John Walker, also stresses in an informative programme note the fact that, in the eighteenth century, the idea of there being life on the moon had not actually been discounted; finding it ‘might only [have been] a case of building the right telescope’. Certainly, taking this attitude for the production was the right decision, and takis’s set designs were perfect. Act 1 was staged in an ornate garden with evergreen hedges and pink roses, set against a backdrop of a starry sky and large bright moon. In the second half everything, including the cast, was decorated with white sheets or white costumes; the characters’ wigs had been replaced with nonsensical hats; and the large moon positioned in the backdrop was humorously replaced by a large Earth.

Busfield, nominated as ‘the youngest cast member’, had the audience in stitches before the production had even started with a funny announcement in which he introduced the cast.  Indeed, McCrystal really pushes the boat out to elicit laughter from the audience. Tactics ranged from some truly ridiculous choreography and exaggerated posing on stage, to particularly successful slapstick comedy from Cecco. This included a stage manager appearing onstage in exasperation as the characters vandalise the props, and Cecco repeatedly dropping a leg of a telescope stand every time he tries to pick up another. This went down a storm. Similarly, ‘on the moon’, odd animals would dance across the stage during arias, and there was a frequent play on the similarity between the words ‘lunar’ and ‘lunatic’. Other aspects of the intended humour, however, were not as successful, although this was more to do with the nature of the plot than the staging. The scene in which Buonafede glimpses some overblown lunar seduction (‘men of sixty, girls of twenty, what a fine world that would be’) and misogyny through Ecclitico’s telescope, elicited only a token chuckle. It seems that this is not the kind of thing a modern audience finds funny, and was perhaps a little too much for the many parents in the audience who had evidently thought that a space-theme opera called Life on the Moon might be an appealing introduction to the genre for their young children.

As always with ETO, the singers were all excellent, each well suited to their role. At this performance there were no subtitles, and this was actually a blessing. My usual experience of ETO subtitles is that of frustration, as they are frequently inaccurate, out of sync, or inconsistent with their level of description. This distraction had been removed from this production, leaving the audience free to focus entirely on the singers whose diction, as always, was perfectly clear – or perhaps we were listening all the more intently? Turner’s first aria was beautifully sung, demonstrating both the lyrical and more virtuosic capabilities of his tenor. Philip Turbett’s expressive bassoon playing perfectly complemented Turner’s voice here. The duets between Harrington and Jones were especially noteworthy, their ornamentation crisp, precise and exactly together every time. ETO’s period instrument orchestra, The Old Street Band, brought Haydn’s score to life under the baton of Christopher Bucknall, instilling energy into the performance throughout.

ETO’s staging of Life on the Moon has elicited mixed reactions among critics to ‘Haydn the opera composer’. The general consensus surrounding Life on the Moon is that both Haydn’s music and Goldoni’s libretto fail to inspire both emotionally and dramatically. However, no one has denied the opera’s (albeit ‘mindless’) entertainment value. This raises interesting questions about the nature of opera: is it risky to stage a production that lacks the substance seasoned opera-goers may have come to expect but delivers on comic value instead? Usually, attempts to make opera more appealing revolve around making one of the ‘classics’ more accessible, and yet the Hackney Empire was completely sold out to a diverse audience. As McCrystal states in his promotional video, “I’ve never seen a funny opera before…operas that really have the audience creasing up”, and perhaps that is the real achievement with Life on the Moon. In all, this is an excellent opportunity to see a witty adaptation of a rarely performed work.

ETO is touring the country with Life on the Moon until 20th November 2014.