Il Mondo della Luna was first performed in the newly completed Eszterhezy Theater in 1777 as part of the marriage celebrations for Count Nikolaus Eszterhezy. As court composer to the Count's father, Prince Eszterhezy, Haydn would go on to write and produce operas for this house for the next 30 years. The fact that versions of the libretto had been set before, and by no less than four other composers, provides a glimpse into our long fascination with the idea of life on other planets and the abiding popularity of science fiction. Haydn's version has been performed infrequently since its premiere, however. This production reveals the treasure that we have long been missing.
Gotham Chamber Opera has just brought a shortened version of the work for a purpose-built stage in the Hayden Planetarium, surely a unique space for opera. While not placed in an acoustically ideal setting, the singers were always audible, although a precipitous drop in volume was noticeable when they were not directly facing the listeners. The orchestra under Neal Goren also seemed somewhat muted, as the sound appeared to be efficiently absorbed by the planetarium dome. Despite this, the orchestra provided a sprightly and melodically elegant accompaniment to the proceedings.
What the planetarium lacked in acoustic qualities, it more than made up for in intimacy, aptness to the plot, and visual effects. The space, which features a 180 degree dome and was designed to create the illusion of other worlds, mirrored the plot of the opera. Director Diane Paulus (responsible most recently for a much lauded revival of the musical, Hair), and video designer, Philip Bussmann, took full advantage of the planetarium's projection capabilities and images provided by NASA to create an aura of fantasy and wonder for the lunar world.
As we sat in our seats, the overture began, the heavens turned a deep red, the Zeiss projector rose up from below, and the cast walked in stage left. Then stars filled the sky. As the cast began to sing, titles were projected in the heavens. With little room for performance, the singers were in close proximity to the audience, adding to the intimate atmosphere. The production used a series of platforms and ladders to raise the singers into the field of view of the star gazing audience. During the faked moon landing, illuminated costumes were used to enhance the otherworldly feel, and to light the singers without disrupting the velvet darkness of space. The denizens of the moon were portrayed by dancers whirling illuminated hoops, adding to the element of fantasy and fun.
Nicholas Coppolo as Ecclitico was a delightful flim-flam man. Dressed in a white coat, black gloves, and techno-goggles, he embodied the archetype of the mad scientist in a 1950's B movie, as he launched his lunar expedition. He sang of the benefits of a little money and a little cleverness with a wonderful comic manner, an attractively colored voice and spot-on intonation. Timothy Kuhn as Ernesto, looking like a young Bryn Terfel, is a marvelous singer with a superb aptitude for physical comedy.
Hanan Alattar and Rachel Calloway were both strong singers and excellent actresses. Albina Shagimuratova, who will sing the role of the Queen of the Night at the Metropolitan Opera in April, was simply superb. She sang with lovely vocal color, dynamic finesse, and seemingly effortless coloratura.
Italian baritone Marco Nistic brought great energy and comic timing to the role of the gullible Buonafede. In one charming sequence he interacted directly with the audience as he delighted in his first glimpse of life on the moon. He drew us into his private dream, connecting us to our universal longing for the stars. His Act 2 aria, reveling in the wonders of the lunar world, provided one of the high points of the evening. Accompanied by twirling lights, the aria received the most elaborate and dizzying of the projection treatments, from the blooming of a thousand eyes to the illusion of being drawn up through a wormhole into space. It felt as if we were being transported along with Buonafede himself.
Amid all this potential distraction, Mr. Nistic's voice remained a strong and shimmering beacon of warmth, conveying all the wonder suggested by the visuals, but grounded in a profound humanity. He is a marvelous singing actor and must be superb in Rossini and Donizetti roles. Mr. Nistic is scheduled to appear at the Met next season. I very much look forward to seeing and hearing him again.
This was a truly unforgettable performance - fun, imaginative, beautifully sung and acted, and magnificently situated. For me, it was a perfect way to celebrate January 27th, Mozart's birthday. A friend and admirer of Haydn, he would have loved it.