I had never heard of Haydn’s Life on the Moon (Il mondo della luna), and after tonight’s performance by English Touring Opera I now see why. It is by no fault of ETO and it’s very hard working and talented cast and creative team, but in Haydn’s music – pretty though it is. Unlike Mozart, who at the same period in history was perfecting the best of comedy and drama into a new operatic form, dramma giocoso, Haydn’s opera buffa falls mostly flat. With a lack of evenness between the musical and dramatic elements of the opera, captivating moments of melody and humour soon pass unfortunately into boredom. Cal McCrystal has certainly put a huge amount of effort into bringing Haydn’s opera alive and has for the most part been successful. The whole production comes across very cheerfully, an unstuffy and charming atmosphere surrounds the cast and performance. The audience are in on all the jokes and the characters frequently break the fourth wall; there is many a comedy skit and the whole piece is a rude romp of an evening – set falls around the characters and stage hands poke their heads out in the confusion. This style can however become tedious after a while. When it works it works very well, if only for the limitations of Haydn’s music.
With a cut-down cast of only five, from the original seven and chorus, the task of guiding this opera to the stars and back fell on a talented few. Christopher Turner as the astronomer Ecclitico is delightful, with a voice, although warm and rich at the top, not always large enough to travel over even this small orchestra. Ronan Busfield too struggled to be heard at times, his voice tight and very mannered. However, Busfield made up for it with some sublime comic acting that stole the show – his ‘Emperor of the Moon’ was something to behold.
Jane Harrington triumphs in the role of Clarice, making fun of operatic conventions and at the same time dealing very well with some exceedingly difficult coloratura passages. The young Martha Jones brings a subtle musicality and huge amount of fun to the role of Lisetta. Unfortunately for veteran Andrew Slater his voice did not live up to standard required, almost spoken in passages, perhaps to add characterisation to the role of Buonafede, he seemed to struggle with some of the high tessitura.
At just over two hours the opera is just the right length, already suffering terminally from a lack of dramatic pacing in its music. This production is however partly saved by some inspired direction and witty and very characterful performances by its small but highly committed cast.
Life on the Moon is on tour around the UK until 20 November. For more information and tickets, see the English Touring Opera’s website. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith.