Few composers deal in genial wit better than Joseph Haydn, so it was baffling that his opera buffa Il mondo della luna left me so grumpy in this English Touring Opera production. The stuff and nonsense plot about a fake astrologer, with a libretto by Carlo Goldoni, didn’t inspire the composer to produce a single memorable aria. Despite some spirited performances in the pit and on-stage, director Cal McCrystal’s relentlessly slapstick approach, broadly applied, failed to come to Haydn’s aid.

Andrew Slater (Buonafede) and Christopher Turner (Ecclitico) © Richard Hubert Smith
Andrew Slater (Buonafede) and Christopher Turner (Ecclitico)
© Richard Hubert Smith

The opera was first performed during the wedding celebrations of the younger son of Haydn’s patron, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, in 1777, after which it sank into obscurity until a revival at the 1959 Holland Festival. Presented here in English, the plot concerns Ecclitico, who dupes the buffoon Buonafede into believing that he can spy life on the moon through his telescope. Buonafede witnesses scenes of wife-beating and titillation, much to his delight. The charlatan astrologer is in love with Buonafede’s daughter, Clarice. In a bid to get his hands on her (and her dowry), he convinces Buonafede to drink a potion which will transport him to the moon. Heavily drugged, the rest of the cast conspire in Act II to inflict a bizarre lunar adventure on Buonafede, where he is relieved of both his clothes and his treasure before being duped by the ‘Emperor of the Moon’ (Ecclitico’s servant, Cecco) into allowing Clarice her freedom to marry. The deceit is eventually revealed, Buonafede is humiliated and we can breathe a sigh of relief that the farce is over.

Ronan Busflied (Cecco) © Richard Hubert Smith
Ronan Busflied (Cecco)
© Richard Hubert Smith

ETO has trimmed down the opera’s length by neatly lopping a couple of characters from the cast – Buonafede’s second daughter, Flaminia, and her cavalier, Ernesto – which allows a few arias to be cut. Ironically, Clarice’s two arias here were both originally intended for her sister. These cuts are to be welcomed, as is the decision to present the work in English and without surtitles, James Conway’s bawdy translation ensuring maximum laughs from the Hackney faithful.

The stylish set by takis is complemented by extravagant, colourful costumes, but McCrystal destroys any sense of period charm by having his singers ham up their roles mercilessly. We had to endure endless pantomime mugging to the audience and visual gags which palled with repetition. It was funny when the servant Cecco spills one of the telescope’s legs while attempting to pick up another – but the joke died long before he did it for the fifteenth time.

Vocal performances were mixed. Andrew Slater blustered effectively as the ridiculous Buonafede. His aria about life on the moon (“Che mondo amabile”) demonstrated a lack of freedom at the top of his range, but his whistles and falsettos got him through it nicely. Jane Harrington laboured with her coloratura, but in Clarice’s Act II aria “Se la mia stella” she demonstrated a warmer tone, accompanied by a gurgling bassoon obbligato.

Martha Jones was a plucky Lisetta (a maid), cloudy bottom notes counter-balanced by an agile, attractive upper register. Ronan Busfield’s Cecco was clown chief, a few ill-advised heroic high notes thrown in to his Act II aria, but clearly a crowd-pleaser. Christopher Turner provided vocal elegance as fraudster Ecclitico, with clean ornamentation.

© Richard Hubert Smith
© Richard Hubert Smith

Lively playing from period instrument ensemble The Old Street Band, despite an occasionally scrawny string sound, was a plus, with amiable tempi set by Christopher Bucknall.

Haydn composed 16 operas, yet none are regulars on the operatic stage. On this evidence, in a production that tries too hard to be funny, you don’t need to be Mystic Meg to see why.