Monday, 1 December 2014

ETO: Life on the Moon

Hackney Empire, October 17

[From OPERA, December 2014, pp. 1572-3]

At a time when Haydn seems increasingly sidelined in the concert hall—at least in Britain, where not a single work of his was programmed in the 2014 BBC Proms—we should welcome any opportunity to hear one of his 15 operas. It’s just a shame, then, that despite ETO’s best (and arguably slightly excessive) efforts, his Il mondo della luna proved so forgettable on the first night of the company’s autumn season. There’s plenty of charming music, of course, the Act 2 finale in particular, but it does nothing to flesh out the entirely conventional characters of Carlo Goldoni’s libretto, two of which, including the castrato role of Ernesto, had in any case been quietly excised from ETO’s show (performed in James Conway’s witty translation). It’s also a work that betrays the circumstances of its commission in every bar: as a jolly entertainment composed to celebrate an Esterházy family wedding in 1777, it’s a comedy that’s all molar and no incisor.   

Perhaps acknowledging its deficiencies, the company had engaged Cal McCrystal (whose credits include being Physical Comedy Director for the National Theatre’s One Man, Two Guvnors) to squeeze the laughs out of the material—and then pile on plenty more on top. As such, with a cast giving its all, and attractive designs by takis—a Baroque garden that gave much scope for visual gags, and which was draped in white for the ‘moon’ in Act 3, plus lots of imaginative lunar costumes—there was no denying that there was a full evening’s worth of clowning around, even if, by the second half at least, I’d started to feel immune.

The whole thing would have been a lot less convincing, however, had it not been delivered by singers so clearly having a great deal of fun, right from an introduction—containing an account of the action, as well as gentle mocking of the cast—by the tenor Ronan Busfield. He also bore a great deal of the comic burden as the servant Cecco, which drew attention away from some eminently decent singing. As his boss, the quack astronomer Ecclitico, Christopher Turner sang and acted with relish. Andrew Slater brought easy volume and plenty of comic bluster to the duped Buonafede. Jane Harrington, as Clarice (the two daughters for Buonafede in the original were here amalgamated into one) didn’t quite have the agility for all of Haydn’s demands, but sang with spirit, as did Martha Jones as Lisetta, Buonafede’s predictably spunky maid.

Christopher Bucknall managed to highlight some of the score’s delights, which mainly featured the mellifluous wind soloists of the period-instrument Old Street Band; the string playing was occasionally a little raw, but buoyant and lively.

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