As the moon looms closer—huge, tangible, and practically in reach—strains of awed majesty, eagerness tinged with fear, and otherworldly strangeness coalesce, giving new meaning to the phrase "music of the spheres."
One of the most inspired concepts in recent memory, Gotham Chamber Opera's incarnation of Joseph Haydn's "Il Mondo Della Luna" ("The World on the Moon"), staged by Diane Paulus in the Hayden Planetarium, is still an unlikely success. Set in a 180-degree dome, where video projections courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History and NASA become stage sets, the production is not just innovative; it also deals admirably with the opera's inherent challenges: a score the company admits is uneven, typically flimsy drama, and, most interestingly, the odd, time-bending way in which Haydn looks ahead to space travel and virtual reality while a contemporary audience looks back on classical-period music and life.
Buonafede (the charmingly starry-eyed bass-baritone Marco Nisticò) won't let his daughters or maid marry men he considers beneath them. But the women and a trio of suitors conspire to make him consent. Buonafede's weaselly astronomer, Ecclitico (tenor Nicholas Coppolo), feeds him an elixir he says will make it possible to fly to the moon. In reality, it's a sleeping potion. While in a daze, Buonafede finds himself in a world of celestial splendor where earthly problems reverse themselves—mistresses obey masters, for instance. Enchanted, he gives in to the schemers' demands for money and permission.
GCO makes the most of Haydn's music, cutting the opera from about three hours to 95 minutes. Standouts include a Queen of the Night–worthy showpiece about losing reason in love for Flaminia (sung with bright confidence and character by soprano Albina Shagimuratova); a high-lying lyrical setting for her sister, Clarice (the sweet-voiced Hanan Alattar); and imaginative ascent music for Buonafede. As the sisters' fiancés, Coppolo and baritone Timothy Kuhn as Ernesto sing and move with gratifying fluidity. GCO artistic director Neal Goren conducts an energized account.
Still, visual effects tend to draw the most interest, at least in the moon scenes. An encompassing vortex of swirling color rapidly descends on the seats as Buonafede's new surroundings take him in. Cirque du Soleil–style dancers twirl glowing hoops, and Anka Lupes' shimmering space-age costumes are equipped with touches of lights—a corset here, a torch there—that serve both fashion and function. Lupes' contribution in the earthly scenes is more subtly effective: amid 18th-century ruffs and short pants, the earthier servant characters (mezzo-soprano Rachel Calloway as Lisetta and standout tenor Matthew Tuell as Cecco) get contemporary accent pieces, such as fish-net socks.
The spherical stage with the orchestra raised up behind the singers works surprisingly well in terms of acoustics and ensemble, though not completely. As for the issues presented by the stage shape and its main accoutrement—wide roll-on staircases such as Buonafede might climb before entering a shuttle—Paulus manages not only to keep things visible, audible, and coherent but also draws out the giddy humor. Character types get blown up to cosmic proportions, with the noblewomen prone to histrionics and Lisetta extra saucy. The number of hip-swivel and shoulder-shimmy dances may be a bit high—as is the frequency of squeals from the ladies—but as this opera gleefully points out, in the land of the "lunatics," there's room for a little leeway.