New Chamber Opera’s (NCO) July production of Il mondo della luna was a musical delight that proved more intimate, humorous, accessible, and charming than any opera I have yet experienced. Oxford’s own chamber-opera company fused simplicity with ingenuity to bring new life to Haydn’s lunar-themed comic opera in the sparkling setting of the Warden’s Garden at New College.
The music was a faultless triumph at the practised hand of Musical Director Steven Devine, who led the instrumentalists and singers from behind the harpsichord. The accompanying chamber ensemble, called the Band of Instruments, was integrated and fluid, weaving a silken backdrop for the drama. As an historically-informed performing group, the Band of Instruments adapts its techniques according to period and production, and I found that its litheness and agility were uniquely suited to the intimacy of the performance context, emphasising the wit of Haydn’s shimmering music.
The quality of the singing was remarkable and comparable to that of performances I recently attended at Garsington Opera Festival. Of particular note was Daniel Shelvey, a tenor who is new to the NCO. In the part of Ecclitico, he confidently oversaw the events of the whimsical opera, his height and dominating stage presence complementing the authority of his piercing voice. Mezzo-soprano Indyana Schneider (formerly of Magdalen College) was notable for her rich and earthy voice in the part of Lisetta, as well as her use of space and physical comedy. The role of Ernesto, originally written for a castrato, was taken by countertenor Daniel Keating-Roberts. Other modern productions have either substituted a female contralto for this part or rewritten the role for a baritone but founding NCO director Michael Burden’s decision to cast Ernesto as a countertenor was a satisfying—though unconventional—compromise for modern audiences. Throughout the opera, Burden’s direction demonstrated that he was as much interested in maintaining an historically-informed mindset as he was in replicating an historical operatic production, admitting alterations to suit the occasion and audience—in this case, an outdoor opera in 21st-century Oxford. Consequently, he deftly balanced historically-informed performance practices with accessibility to create a truly winsome chamber opera, as engaging to opera novices as it was to academics.
Perhaps the most remarkable part of this production, however, was the use of a very clever translation of Carlo Goldoni’s original libretto by Simon Rees. His skilfully-wrought English version added immensely to the accessibility and humour of the performance. Translated libretti remain the subject of some debate in modern opera because of the perceived effect of translation on historical and artistic authenticity; this production, however, demonstrated the wonderful advantages of using a witty translation. Remarkably, even the singers themselves ‘updated’ the libretto as events demanded, reflecting eighteenth-century performance practices: I attended a performance on the night of the Colombia v. England World Cup match, and in Act II, countertenor Keating-Roberts readily replaced one of Rees’s lines with his own to reveal the match’s outcome to audience members who were too polite to check the results on their phones during the opera.
Rees’s translation revealed and highlighted the opera’s dialogical humour to English-speaking audiences, but it also refined the plot such that its underlying premise seemed less ridiculous than in the original Italian. Typical of eighteenth-century operatic plots, it revolves around three pairs of lovers, all prevented from matrimony by an unreasonable guardian, Buonafede. His daughters Clarice and Flaminia are in love, respectively, with the pseudo-astrologer Ecclitico and the cavalier Ernesto, but Buonafede does not approve of either match. The girls’ maid Lisetta quite fancies Ernesto’s manservant Cecco, but Buonafede wants her for himself. Thus, the underlying plot conflict is established, and the remedies that are usually applied in such situations are duly employed—namely, disguise and deception. Buonafede, after being titillated by what he saw through a telescope, is obsessed with going to the moon; seeing an opportunity in the old man’s foolishness, Ecclitico convinces him that a magic potion will transport him there.
The plot is absurd. Buonafede’s belief that an elixir will take him to the moon is no less ridiculous than thinking that such a ruse would remove the romantic impasse that Ecclitico, Ernesto and Cecco face. Nevertheless, Rees’s translation cleverly massages the plot into something if not quite believable, then at least charming.
The Warden’s Garden of New College proved an exceptional space for presenting this captivating chamber opera, with high walls that aided acoustics and lent an intimate ambiance to the open-air venue. Only the accompanying ensemble was undercover, situated at one end of the garden in a three-sided marquee that helped project the accompaniment toward the singers and audience. Seats faced inward on an X-shaped performance area, bordered by the instrumentalists’ tent on one end and a garden house at the other. The stage direction of the opera was exceptional. Burden took full advantage of the unconventional venue to ensure the opera was immediate, tangible, and otherworldly: singers moved freely about the X-shaped stage, making the opera effectively immersive for the audience. The intimacy of the space allowed the singers to engage the audience on all sides without sacrificing vocal clarity—the singing was audible and resonant even when backs were turned. Props were minimalistic and appropriate for the size, space and company; the most notable item was a large telescope that dominated the centre of the stage in Act I, used with great comedic effect and appropriately foreshadowing the unfolding plot. The natural beauty of the garden setting was accentuated by pristine weather, and the candle-lit picnic in the New College Cloisters between the first and second acts ensured that the evening was one that would not be forgotten.
NCO’s performance of Haydn’s Il mondo della luna was nothing short of masterful. Even compared with the English Touring Company’s richly-costumed production in 2014 or the Opéra de Monte Carlo’s eclectic HIP performance of the same year, the NCO production remains unrivalled in musical clarity, dramaturgical fluidity, plot accessibility and humour. The opera’s dream-like setting obliged audience members to suspend disbelief from the moment the ethereal music started till the final bow was taken just feet from their seats. Rees’s clever translation, Burden’s deft staging, and Devine’s charming accompaniment combined to cast a spell for the senses that I am unlikely to experience again.
Il mondo della luna was performed at New College, Oxford between 4th and 14th July 2018.