sat 13/07/2024

Life on the Moon, English Touring Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Life on the Moon, English Touring Opera

Life on the Moon, English Touring Opera

Costumes, conductor and star tenor keep this mundane Haydn opera afloat

Lunacy in the court of an extra-terrestrial empire in Life on the Moon's Act Two finaleAll images by Richard Hubert Smith

You may be more familiar with the Italian title, Il mondo della luna, but chances are you won’t have seen this or any of Haydn’s other 16 operas. You haven’t missed much, at least until the last of his works as court composer to the Esterházy family, Armida, an "heroic drama" rather than the slim comedies which don’t seem to have inspired the composer to the heights of his symphonies and string quartets.

Glyndebourne failed to trigger a revival with La fedeltà premiata in 1979 – my first acquaintance with the house as a teenager; young Simon Rattle was conducting – and more recently the Royal Opera staged L’anima del filosofo ossia Orfeo ed Euridice, the one extra-Esterházy opus, as a vehicle for Cecilia Bartoli.

Should English Touring Opera have bothered with Life on the Moon, which started out last night with one performance only at the Hackney Empire? Everyone tries hard, sometimes too hard in the would-be knockabout staging of Cal McCrystal, “Physical Comedy Director” of the irrepressible One Man, Two Guvnors. It wasn’t a bad idea to get him to work on another piece originating in a Goldoni plot – the Venetian comic master’s libretto already had several settings by the time Haydn got hold of it in 1777 – but few singers are born to master disciplined slapstick. With the exception of a laugh-out-loud routine as Ronan Busfield’s servant Cecco keeps on dropping a telescope leg every time he tries to pick another up, repetition palls.

ETO Life on the MoonA lot of fleshing out is needed for a slender plot in which a miserly widower, turned into a sexist old lech in ETO General Director James Conway’s translation, finds himself gulled by a quack astronomer into believing that there’s a better life, including hot running girls 40 years his junior, on the moon. Conway, whose rhyming couplets for the recitative are better and funnier than the sometimes ungainly word-setting of the arias and ensembles, has pared away a second miser’s daughter and her boyfriend, but McCrystal doesn’t seem inclined to take the principal lovers seriously. Soprano Jane Harrington has to wearily upstage her own bravura as Clarice, while Martha Jones as her father’s maid Lisetta (pictured above on the right with Harrington, Christopher Turner and Busfield) – though she gets some nice tripping 6/8 passages – struggles to take on the role, and the interminable aria, of Lunar Empress.

The men fare better. Stalwart bass Andrew Slater rolls out a frog-footman comic turn as old bore Buonafede, presumably meant to be deliberately unpleasant beyond opera buffa bounds at times, and Busfield flashes a nice set of teeth in the constant upstaging with which McCrystal entrusts him; but the most stylish of the bunch is Christopher Turner as Ecclitico (eclipse, get it?), whose lyric-tenor phrasing gives his first big aria more grace than its typically generic material really deserves.

He’s part of a triumvirate which really saves the evening. Harpsichordist turned conductor Christopher Bucknall, a pillar of the period-instrument scene, injects life into every line from the spirited Old Street Band, with horns especially fine in thrusting home the minor-key anger of duped Buonafede in the act two finale. And designer takis (sic) complements rather ravishing 18th-century silks in the first act with lunatic caprices on their styles and wacky hats as the formal garden is transfigured into an all-white moon. So time passes not unpleasantly, and certainly less tediously than in Glyndebourne’s production of Mozart’s La finta giardiniera – composed two years before Il mondo della luna, when Mozart was 19 and Haydn 43. That staging is also set for a UK tour.

Life on the Moon may not have the Counterfeit Garden-Girl’s sudden depths, but it’s never less than a professional job on Haydn’s part. You just won’t come out humming any of the tunes.

Christopher Turner's lyric-tenor phrasing gives his first big aria more grace than its typically generic material really deserves


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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I've been waiting for a decent production, well cast, of a Haydn opera since John Cox's La fedelta premiata at Glyndebourne under Rattle in 1980. (Were we there at the same time, David?) The key issue, it seems to me, is believing in the work in hand. Doesn't seem like this is the one...

Well, Roger, it's certainly not bad. The real question is, are this and any of the other Haydn operas really worth staging? And yes, I saw a performance of La fedelta premiata in the 1980 revival run. How frustrating it was to see Rosenkavalier as the star show of the year from Erte's design on the programme cover. Still, I enjoyed it.

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