Poor Papa Haydn does get a bad press for his operas. Much like Beethoven, it seems that you’re allowed to be a master at symphonies, sonatas and quartets but God help you if you then decide that you’ll turn your hand to that most august of mediums, opera. The pedestrian platitudes that get passed about Haydn usually revolve around him not being Mozart or not delving too deeply into the human psyche. I can think of worse crimes, to be honest. If one criticism/defence does have weight behind it then it is that Haydn wasn’t working with top-notch librettists, but comparison of Haydn’s operas with his non-Mozartian contemporaries reveal him to be a perfectly enjoyable writer of often light but well written work which shows the expert touch of a symphonist in constructing long stretches of continuous music, especially in act finales. Admittedly, there might be a bit of forgettable padding involved along the way, however Haydn wasn’t writing for us but for the family he worked for and he had a job to get on with.
This particular job was commissioned for the wedding of one of the sons of his patron Prince Nikolaus Esterházy and was performed in August 1777 at the Esterháza opera house. Based on a libretto by Goldoni, which had already been set by several other composers before Haydn came to it, it is a delightful send up of the Age of Reason rather than a proto-Vernian tale of travelling to the moon or a trip by hippogriff to reclaim the wits of an insane knight. One of the originally billed singers, Guglielmo Jermoli, had performed the role of Ecclitico in an earlier settings of the libretto, and it’s not unreasonable to think that he may have suggested the libretto when he joined the Esterháza company in 1777. Although it doesn’t seem to have been performed again, Haydn thought enough of the opera to re-use some of the music in other works, including his Mariazeller Mass.
The plot tells of how Buonafede, a miserly old man, is duped into allowing his daughters to marry the suitors of their choice. One of the suitors, masquerading as a philosopher, convinces him that by drinking a certain potion he will be transported to the better life that awaits him on the moon. Buonafede awakens and is introduced to the emperor of the moon, who is actually one of his servants in disguise. Ah, opera, where would you be without disguises that wouldn’t fool a three-year old? After much confusion and copious twists and turns in the plot, all is satisfactorily resolved as one would hope from an opera that was for planned for a wedding celebration
English Touring Opera returns to Haydn after performing L’infedelta deluso as Country Matters in 2007. With a running time of less than two and a half hours including the interval, sacrifices were made to the plot and music with two serious characters – Flaminia (Buonafede’s other daughter), and Ernesto, a rare castrato role from Haydn, being removed along with their associated arias. With the subtraction of these, director Cal McCrystal reduced the plot to an outright farce, with the remaining characters too shallow to believe in or really care about, playing a little too obviously to their commedia dell’arte roots. The admittedly inconsequential third act was cut in its entirety, so rather than having a neat resolution with the father being reconciled to the marriages of his two daughters, we were left with the old man blustering as the younger characters mocked his credulity.
Sets and costume designs by takis presented us with a formal 18th century garden with stone terraces and period style outfits for the cast. This setting was generally more successful in Act I than the imagined world on the moon of Act II, which sent the story up too much with singers Riverdancing across the stage or simulating fellatio in a overbright white landscape (yes, I appreciate it’s the moon) covered in diaphanous drapes and which contained more antimacassars than even Mary Whitehouse would have approved of. If the sum of its parts were greater than the whole, the various entertaining vignettes were enjoyably carried out with some well-timed comic moments.
There was some elegant playing from The Old Street Band conducted by Christopher Bucknall, with some particularly fine horn playing in Clarice’s Act II aria, and the whole ensemble was given the chance to show some heft in the gruff energy of the Act II finale. The flageolet harmonic effects required in the Act II Sinfonia were sadly not attempted, which may have assisted in conjuring up the other worldliness that Haydn was aiming for in introducing the world on the moon, but I suspect they might not be all that practical in any case, with Antal Doráti using a more tonally secure, and audible, glass armonica for his recording of this work.
Cecco’s position as cheeky chappy servant was immediately established by Ronan Busfield who introduced the evening’s proceeding by letting “those…who were too cheap to buy a programme” know who the main characters were and this personable tenor carried out his various factotum roles with a reliably secure voice. If his voice tends towards the more dramatic than continuously lyrical, this is no bad thing. Disguised as the emperor of the moon in Act II, his costume changed to a cross between an over-muscled Superman and Flash Gordon with an engorged codpiece, but his singing was secure with good top notes, despite the crassness of the gesturing. A little more pacing was needed in the recitatives with a couple of entries made too soon which disrupted the flow in places.
Playing his master Buonafede, Andrew Slater took the salacious dirty old man role in his stride, virtually drooling at the thought of life on the moon where adultery, wife-beating and general misogyny are the rule. It would have been distasteful if we hadn’t all known he was going to get his comeuppance. He brought an aptly bluff presence to the role, even if his voice felt lightweight and lacking in depth. He sang with wolflike glee at the thought of a young woman loving a miser like himself and as an additional skill, he got to tunefully whistle along with the orchestra in his Act II aria ‘Che mondo amabile’, as required by the score.
Christopher Turner as the charlatan Ecclitico gave a dandified characterisation that wasn’t entirely convincing in his aria ‘Un poco di denaro’ declaiming his true love for Clarice, but it was well-executed with a warm tone showing through the sinuous vocal line. One wonders quite why he was after the Clarice of Jane Harrington until the finale showed the true avaricious nature of the quartet of lovers, as they greedily hovered over Buonafede’s casket of treasure. Harrington’s Clarice was a gin-soaked little minx, having fun with this less than serious piece. If she tended towards too much aspiration around vowels in ‘Son fanciulla da marito’ with ‘Ah’s sounding more like ‘Ha’s, she provided a teasing bottom note in a deadpan manner towards the end of the aria and her performance in Act II was much neater and precise. Her voice blended well with the Lisetta of Martha Jones during the Act I finale and Jones herself as Cecco’s female counterpart parried with Buonafede in an S&M fantasy during the tuneful duet ‘Non aver di me sospetto’.
The loss of the two more serious characters not only caused the piece to veer towards the slapstick of commedia dell’arte but also resulted in heavy musical losses with several fine arias being cut. Haydn is worth performing but a surer directorial hand seems necessary to mix the serious with the comic elements that are present. Vocally there were some pleasant performances but the strengths were more closely linked to the acting, with not enough music of quality remaining to be memorable.
English Touring Opera’s Autumn season continues with Handel’s Ottone before touring to towns around England.
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith