Wall Street Journal reviews Gotham’s Haydn at the Hayden

Stars in the Heavens and Haydn on the Stage

by Heidi Waleson

Tues, Jan 26, 2010


New York

As the veteran stripper in “Gypsy” says, “You gotta have a gimmick,” and New York’s Gotham Chamber Opera came up with an original one for its current production. The company is staging Haydn’s “Il Mondo della Luna” (“The World on the Moon”) in the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium, using the facility’s dome and library of space shows to catapult this 1777 rarity into the cosmos. The integration of opera and sophisticated visual technology is in the air—the Metropolitan Opera is heading in that direction with its coming productions of “The Nose” by William Kentridge and Robert Lepage’s new “Ring”—but this show is all about the visuals.

Gotham’s artistic director, Neal Goren, and the production’s director, Diane Paulus, have pared down the three-plus hours of “Il Mondo della Luna” to about 95 minutes of music, sketching a plot outline. It’s a marriage trick: Ecclitico, a charlatan astrologer, tricks Buonafede, a credulous old nobleman, into believing that there is a world on the moon in which men can get whatever they want from women. With a sleeping potion and disguises, Buonafede is “transported to the moon,” where his daughters and his maid are commanded by the “Emperor” to marry their lovers (one of them is Ecclitico), and he has to supply the dowry. Buonafede ends up without a woman—but since it’s a comedy, he forgives everyone.

The directing has the same feeling as the patched-together score—lots of dashing around to get into position for the arias and little sense of continuity. Because the Planetarium is designed for star-gazing, not proscenium-viewing, the singers have to do a lot of clambering up tall ladders and onto boxes and a table, all clustered in the middle of the space, so that the backward-tilting audience can see them. The 25-member orchestra, conducted by Mr. Goren, plays from a specially built platform behind and above the singers. It is not an ideal acoustical environment: At the performance I attended, the vocal sound had no bloom, and the sound faded when the singers weren’t facing the listener directly.

Il Mondo della Luna

Gotham Chamber Opera

The Hayden Planetarium

Jan. 26, 27 and 28

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Richard Termine

Marco Nisticò performs in “Il Mondo Della Luna,” an opera by Joseph Haydn, at the Hayden Planetarium.

But the music felt like a soundtrack for the light show anyway. Video and production designer Philip Bussmann assembled some spectacular astronomical visuals—exploding stars, whirling galaxies, planets, the sky as seen from the surface of the moon—as well as other footage featuring tumbling jewels and hundreds of eyes. It was fun to look at, and there were occasional moments of real connection between sight and sound: For example, during the dreamy aria sung by Clarice, one of the daughters, the rotating Earth floated serenely into view.

The sci-fi costumes by Anka Lupes had built-in lights, a clever idea that made the singers visible without washing out the night-sky projections. They should have been magical, but they were kitschy instead, of a piece with the rest of the elbow-in-the-ribs, eye-rolling, booty-shaking tone of the directing. In case we got bored, three dancers in white body suits brandishing lit-up hoops pranced around as well, adding to the circus-like quality of the production.

The singers performed valiantly. As Buonafede, Marco Nisticò displayed a warm baritone and good comic timing. Soprano Albina Shagimuratova (Flaminia) pulled off some high-stakes coloratura in her big aria (a delightful piece of pre-Rossini vocal theatrics), soprano Hanan Alattar (Clarice) was lovely in the aforementioned moment of serenity, and tenor Nicholas Coppolo brought some elegance to Ecclitico. Mezzo Rachel Calloway was way over the top in her saucy French-maid take on the servant Lisetta; baritone Timothy Kuhn was bumptious as Ernesto, one of the suitors, and tenor Matthew Tuell, as his servant Cecco, was hampered by the silliest costume—a gaudy “Emperor of the Moon” outfit.

Haydn’s operas haven’t enjoyed a modern vogue, so it’s hard to say how stageworthy they are in a regular opera-house milieu. But this much is clear: While the music used in this production of “Il Mondo della Luna” was certainly fine, an opera is more than good tunes strung together with a gimmick. What makes the great comedies of Rossini endure is that beneath all that antic energy, there’s a lot of heart. This opera may have that too, but under these circumstances it didn’t survive the attendant visual noise.

Ms. Waleson writes about opera for the Journal.

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