A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, around 1777, the Empress Maria Theresa used to visit Prince Esterhazy’s summer palace at Esterhàza, where there was an opera house fully equipped with stage machinery, leading singers, an orchestra, and a guy named Joseph Haydn to compose on cue.
Haydn is often considered the father of the symphony, the string quartet and the piano sonata, but he is seldom mentioned in an operatic context. That’s not because he wasn’t any good at it — he was often very good. But he was seldom consistently good at opera, and he never found — or sought, maybe — the sort of mature libretto that would display his talents as Lorenzo da Ponte displayed those of Mozart, Salieri and Martin y Soler. Haydn’s operas seem a series of amiable misfires with charming moments.
As the operatic world scours forgotten and therefore fresh scores, Haydn, a familiar name, is bound to seem appealing even without Maria Theresa’s imprimatur (“Whenever I want to hear good opera, I go to Esterhàza,” she said, probably as much to goad the management of her court theater back in Vienna as to compliment her host). Haydn’s style is familiar to us, all modern opera singers being trained to perform Mozart, and the forces required are seldom large.
Il Mondo della Luna, using a popular libretto by Goldoni that was set by everyone from Galuppi to Paisiello, is a typical buffo tale of a rich old fool, Buonafede (“good faith”), opposed to the marriage of his two daughters and their maid to the three impecunious men they love, with the sly twist that the old coot has a hobby: astronomy. One of the boyfriends, Ecclitico (“ecliptic”), is a charlatan astrologer who pretends to transport the old boy to the moon. Buonafede, presented to the lunar emperor, is dazzled by Lunatic mores and court etiquette (Maria Theresa probably loved this part), but he regrets his womenfolk are missing the fun.
Quicker than you can say, “May the farce be with you,” they arrive! — beamed by transporter, one presumes. The emperor marries the venal maid, Lisetta, and his chamberlain and master of ceremonies wed the two daughters. Wedding hymns are sung in the Lunatic tongue. Buonafede is puzzled that the girls already speak it so well, and though furious when he learns he has been bamboozled, accepts the fait accompli. In the full libretto, he reflects philosophically that you really need to travel to get the right perspective on life back home — but the moral was one of Gotham Chamber Opera’s omissions.
Gotham has created one of the more dazzling entertainments of the New York season by presenting this nonsense in the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History, replete with instrument panels, space suits (the elegant and witty costumes are by Anka Lupes), globular space helmets, acrobatic “moon nymphs” and above it all, on the 180-degree dome, shooting stars, exploding galaxies, shots of earth and the moon, and the wildest light show since psychedelia fell from fashion. Viewers of a certain age (mine) may recall The Saint in its heyday, but the music was better at the planetarium and the show a lot shorter. The whole run has sold out, and it’s hard to imagine anyone attending who would not gladly go again.
The one exception I would take is, in fact, to the evening’s brevity. Over-anxious not to bore, music director Neal Goren and director Diane Paulus may have left too much out. Over half the opera was omitted — on the grounds, Goren says, that the cuts were less than top-drawer Haydn. That may be true, and no one wants more secco recitative “dialogue” than we absolutely need, but confining most of the singers to one aria apiece means the characters are one-dimensional, silhouettes of slight interest or humanity. You cannot tell the sisters apart, for one thing — from the synopsis in the program, I’m not sure which one marries which lover — and you do not know or care if their feelings are sincere. In a farce, someone ought to want something sincerely or the crazy shenanigans aren’t as funny; there’s no contrast. You need Kitty Carlisle as a backdrop for the Marx Brothers.
In Il Mondo della Luna, Gotham goes for constant entertainment rather than letting the drama merely rest, at any point, upon the skills of the singers, the beauty of the often wonderful music. This is a current trend, and those of us who like singing may find that, fun as it is, it can go too far in an MTV direction. On the plus side, it sure was fun.
Impossible to discuss the event and not mention Philip Bussmann, credited with Video and Production Design, who made a charming evening a spectacular one. And the Gotham team for dreaming this up, and the Museum of Natural History for recognizing a major opportunity when it came their way.