Saturday, 25 July 2009

Il mondo della luna, Opera East Productions, 25 July 2009

(sung in English, as A World upon the Moon)

Ecclitico – Andy Morton
Buonafede – Colin Morris
Ernesto – Håkan Vramsmo
Cecco – Alexander Anderson-Hall
Flaminia – Lara Martins
Clarice – Katie Bird
Lisetta – Kate Flowers
Prospero – Damian Dudkiewicz
Fabrizio – Ivan Luptak

Jeff Clarke (director)
Elroy Ashmore (designs)
Chris Ellis (lighting)

Orchestra of Opera East Productions
Benjamin Bayl (conductor)

Haydn’s operas require no apologies. Rarely, if ever, do they show the composer at his very greatest; they fall short, especially in modern terms, when it comes to characterisation; and, of course, they are not written by Mozart. However, they are full of splendid music; without exception, they satisfy in formal terms; the comedies, this one by Goldoni no less, are excellent fun; and, quite frankly, they are superior to a considerable number of works considered far more central to the operatic repertoire. Armida received a landmark Salzburg Festival production in 2007, to be revived this summer. Il mondo della luna is perhaps a slighter work but a wonderful opera nevertheless. Here, marking the two hundredth anniversary of the composer’s death, the fortieth of the lunar landings, and the tenth of Opera East Productions itself, we were treated to rather a riotous commemoration.

Jeff Clarke, quite astonishingly, was presenting his third production of Il mondo della luna. Great attention had clearly been paid to the characters, lending them greater ‘personality’ than libretto and music might in themselves suggest. Some might object, but I thought this a good thing. Elroy Ashmore’s costumes start off in what seems to be an increasingly fashionable vein: eighteenth-century with a modern, stylised twist, poised on occasion between surrealism and simply sending the whole thing up. Garsington’s recent Mirandolina – another Goldoni comedy – was similar in this respect. Once the old fool Buonafede has been persuaded that he has been taken to the moon, the costumes and designs become straightforwardly outrageous, likewise much of the acting. As an exercise in high camp meets slapstick, this was one of the funniest operatic performances I can recall, though some might think it all a little overdone. My only real objection lay with Clarke’s own translation. This goes beyond mere colloquialisation and becomes pointlessly crude, and indeed considerably remote from Goldoni. In any case, the sound of Italian suits Haydn’s music so much better.

Colin Morris was an impressive, if bizarre Buonafede, better considered in Carry On acting terms than as a purely musical performance, though he did manage to impart the vocal impression of an elderly man without sounding inadequate. For me, the star of the show was Kate Flowers’s Lisetta. As ever in opera buffa, it is the servants who know best – as this Lisetta knew very well. Knowing but also invitingly warm of tone, I wished we had heard more from here. (The work was subjected to a good number of cuts and not only in the recitatives.) Alexander Anderson-Hall’s Cecco was the other, sharply-characterised servant, though I thought it a pity he had been instructed to sing in a Mockney accent throughout. It becomes wearing and cannot really be maintained. Still, that was hardly his fault, and he has a winning stage presence. Andy Morton and Håkan Vramsmo improved as time went along, in the roles of the bogus astronomer Ecclitico and his noble accomplice, Ernesto. Where in the first act they had seemed a little stilted and vocally underpowered, their performances in the second and third acts were more impressive, more integrated into the company as a whole. The objects of their affection – Buonafede’s daughters, Flaminia and Clarice – were given good performances, sure in their phrasing and for the most part their coloratura, by Lara Martins and Katie Bird.

Benjamin Bayl’s direction was flowing and stylish. Some tempo choices I might have quibbled at, but even when arguably erring on the fast side, Bayl withstood any temptation to the merely hard-driven – unfortunately all too common in contemporary performances of eighteenth-century music. He clearly delighted in the score and thereby enabled the audience to do so too. His continuo playing was sprightly and witty too. For the most part, the orchestra played well enough, though earlier on there were a few too many occasions of sour intonation from the leader, Philippa Mo. It is an exceptionally difficult task to play such music one-to-a-part, doubtless dictated by economic circumstances. However, what sounded very much like amplification – unless it were a very strange trick of the acoustic – did not help. The balance remained the same, solo strings remaining underpowered, whilst the sound became unreal. However, this was a performance in which – perhaps wisely, given relatively straitened circumstances – theatrical values took precedence over the purely musical, and those theatrical values often impressed. One does not expect Covent Garden on the Cam, but there was a great deal of enjoyment, musical too, to be had here. Opera East Productions certainly presented a far superior performance to the most recent occasion on which I had heard English Touring Opera, a higher profile but roughly comparable outfit. Oliver Gooch’s company deserves our encouragement and support.