Papa Haydn at the Hayden

Lisetta (Rachel Calloway) and Buonafede (Marco Nisticò) travel to the Moon

How often do you get to see a Haydn opera? Okay. How often do you get to see a Haydn opera staged at New York’s Hayden Planetarium? You can still answer yes to both questions if you get yourself to the Planetarium before Gotham Chamber Opera’s production of Papa Haydn’s Il mondo della luna closes on January 28th.

This delightfully oddball but marvelously inventive production showcases the talents of director Diane Paulus, video and production designer Philip Bussmann and costume designer Anka Lupes. Of course it’s about the music and the talented Gotham Chamber Opera deliver top-notch performances.

Set to a libretto by the great Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni, Haydn’s 1777 opera is a loony (pardon the extended astronomy metaphor) farce in the buffo tradition, but the score is also dotted with moments of plaintive beauty and some show-stopping vocal pyrotechnics. Plot-wise it’s filled with standard buffo characters: there’s the wealthy over-protective father smothering his two daughters, a wily astrologer/con-man who loves one of the girls, a saucy maid and an earthy servant who loves her. The plot orbits (did it again) around the astrologer’s trickery as he convinces the gullible father that they can travel to the moon and enjoy life in a magical world. Once there, the daughters and the maid arrive and are ordered by moon emperor to wed moon men (in reality their lovers). It’s fluffy and fun and, like I said, filled with some top-notch Haydn.

The astrologer Ecclitico has a marvelous comic aria and a gorgeous romanza that is the model of elegance. Buonafede, the over-protective father, has some brilliant buffo passages and a lovely aria (with some clever word-painting) when he arrives on the moon. The ladies have the best bits. Ragion nell’alma diede is a show-stopping aria in the tradition of Come scoglio from Mozart’s Cosi or the Queen of the Night’s music from Zauberflote, while Quanta gente che sospira is a model of opera seria pathos.

Paulus and Bussman did a brilliant job of turning the Planetarium into a performance space ideally suited to the opera. The 180-degree dome was splashed with spectacular images from the museum’s space shows that were integrated seamlessly and underscored the fantastic elements of the plot. I think 18th century audiences would have been enraptured by the subject matter and this production delivered that same sense of wonder and fancy. Tossed into the mix were some hysterically campy sci-fi costumes which featured the most creative use of $5 portable library lights I’ve ever seen (you have to see the production to get what I’m talking about) and a crazy dance scene with glowing hula hoops! Sure, the opera does have its gentle moments, like Buonafede’s touching aria about the wonders he “sees” on the moon, but it’s the farce that’s being sold here and it’s infectious fun.

Here’s some of the fun.

Musically it was a fine performance. Naples-born baritone Marco Nisticò was a superb Buonafede and he is a singer I would like to hear in some of the repertoire’s meatier baritone roles. Sopranos Albina Shagimuratova and Hanan Alattar were both vocally secure in their showpiece arias and mezzo-soprano Rachel Calloway delightful as the sexy maid. I was also taken by the clear, bright tenor voice of Nicholas Coppolo as Ecclitico, the burly baritone of Timothy Kuhn as Ernesto and the tenor Matthew Tuell’s fine comic turn as the servant Cecco. The small orchestra led by Gotham Chamber Opera’s director Neal Goren was fine, despite some occasionally scratchy string tone, and featured some especially nice wind playing in Buonafede’s aria about the wonders of the moon.

This is my first encounter with Gotham Chamber Opera and they have made a fan out of me.

There are only two performances left, so you’ll want to get tickets as soon as possible. For details visit the Gotham Chamber Opera’s

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