Bampton Classical Opera – Haydn’s Fool Moon


Il mondo della luna – Opera in three Acts to a libretto adapted from Carlo Goldoni [sung in English to a translation by Gilly French]

Ecclitico – Nathan Vale
Cecco – Sam Harris
Buonafede – Jonathan Eyers
Ernesto – Catherine Backhouse
Flaminia – Siân Dicker
Clarice – Iúnó Connolly
Lisetta – Margo Arsane
Servants / Moon nymphs – Harriet Cameron & Tilly Goodwin

The Orchestra of Bampton Classical Opera
Thomas Blunt

Jeremy Gray – Director & Designer
Karen Halliday – Movement Director
Anne Baldwin – Wardrobe

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 22 July, 2022
Venue: The Deanery Garden, Bampton, Oxfordshire, England

If the eighteenth-century Enlightenment project sought to return to first principles and restructure society according to the precepts of reason, then its exponents in the arts sought to achieve something similar but often with more of a sense of irony and wit harnessed to their creative ingenuity, than the earnest rational approach of philosophers and theorists. Haydn’s opera from 1777, using a libretto based upon an earlier work by Carlo Goldoni, takes up contemporary scientific researches and enquiries by imagining what life might be like on the moon, shorn of the conceits, hierarchies and assumptions of societies on earth. At the same time it casts a satirical eye upon those scientific methods in the person of the charlatan astronomer Ecclitico, who uses the discipline to dupe the miserly Bonafede, the father of the woman, Clarice, whom he loves. 

Jeremy Gray’s production deftly preserves both serious and comic elements. On the one hand, costumes hint at the early-twentieth-century, as does the Picasso-like, Cubist portrait of a woman’s head which Ernesto is seen creating at one point during the narrative, indicating a time of radically changing cultural perspectives upon the world, as well as being roughly contemporary with discoveries in the fields of astronomy and physics by the likes of Einstein and Hubble. On the other, just as the work presages Mozart’s Cosí fan tutte in lovingly sending up the intellectual discourses of the Enlightenment as well as the format of opera, the science of astronomy here is not all it seems: Ecclitico first purports to show Bonafede the world of the moon through his ‘ecliptic’ machine, projecting images to him which exploit his own somewhat lascivious and misogynist outlook; Ecclitico’s hobby is tellingly referred to in a few instances as ‘astrology’ rather than ‘astronomy’ in Gilly French’s often wry and deliberately glib rendering of the text; the ‘moon nymphs’ first appear as mice munching sage Derby, as the metaphor for the old fable of the moon being made of green cheese (and the ecliptic becomes a huge grater); and in a clear nod to Cosí, Bonafede is brought round from his drug-induced sleep by means of a magnet. With the recent, vainglorious attempts by some billionaires to hurtle themselves into space, the opera reminds us that the cosmos remains a place for the projection – both literally and conceptually – of all sorts of fantasies, for good and bad. 

Just as Haydn’s original score makes ironic use of certain set pieces of operatic form, such as the pompous triumphal march for the Emperor of the Moon (really Bonafede’s servant, Cecco, in disguise) the production wittily sends up the coloratura of Flaminia’s aria by having Clarice fan her after her heated vocal exertions, and there are a few references to appropriate popular songs in the work such as ‘Fly me to the moon’. Taken together with the fancy dress and frolics of the characters in the mock lunar landscape (actually Bonafede’s garden, and therefore aptly taking place outside in the Deanery Garden at Bampton) it all adds up to a delightful whole which successfully captures the effervescent spirit of Haydn’s delectable opera. 

The idiomatic cast ably realise the range of roles in this work, above all Jonathan Eyers’s wonderfully self-effacing performance as Bonafede, discharged with such brio in both his singing and choreography that we almost forget he is the tyrannical father who has had to be tricked in order that his daughters may be able to marry their lovers. Nathan Vale remains a calm, cool presence as the astronomer in carrying out his trick, acting more like the wise Alfonso of Cosí instead of seeking to upstage Eyers’s Bonafede in any buffoonery, and demonstrating his worth as the spouse of Iúnó Connolly’s forthright and determined Clarice. Siân Dicker is equally committed as her sister, Flaminia, with sprightly control of her coloratura, resulting in some of the musical highlights of this performance. Catherine Backhouse takes the trouser role of her lover, Ernesto, singing with somewhat wide, wiry vibratowhich offers contrast if not always absolute musical assurance. As the servant couple Lisetta and Cecco, Margo Arsane and Sam Harris sing competently and without affectation.

Thomas Blunt leads the Orchestra of Bampton Classical Opera in a rigorous account of the music.  Flutes, oboes and bassoons bring out picturesque detail and colour, whilst horns, trumpets and timpani underpin more dramatic moments. Strings and harpsichord maintain consistent energy and good spirits with rarely any of the weaknesses which can arise when necessarily reduced numbers mean that the parts remain exposed. Here the whole ensemble coheres to good effect in Haydn’s always congenial music. Even if Il mondo della luna is not an entirely neglected work, it is a timely reminder of his sizeable operatic output which unfairly remains in the shadow of Mozart’s later masterpieces. 

Further performances on July 23 (Bampton), Westonbirt (August 29) & St John’s Smith Square, London (September 16)

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