Life on the Moon (English Touring Opera)

ETO launches its autumn tour – at Hackney Empire – with a rarely-performed Haydn opera

There’s a certain Sunday newspaper that would have us believe the moon is littered with the debris of human history and even that there are a few well-known renegades residing there. You’d have to be pretty simple minded to believe such hoaxes but we do see the most extraordinary claims spouted as gospel in everyday life, so the plot of Joseph Haydn and Carlo Goldoni’s Il mondo della luna may not be as far-fetched as it first appears.

From Life on the Moon (ETO)
From Life on the Moon (ETO)

The problem with this half of English Touring Opera‘s autumn offering is that the work, recast by James Conway as Life on the Moon, lacks musical or dramatic substance. It’s hard to believe it’s by the composer of The Creation and the writer of Il Campiello and the Villeggiatura trilogy. They were both having a bad day at the office.

Among the 150 or more comedies that Goldoni wrote in his long career there are a number of masterpieces and a fair few stinkers. He churned plays out at an astonishing rate, so it’s hardly surprising that the quality is variable. He wrote many opera libretti, some with the greatest composers of the day, but none of them have survived as more than curiosities. Haydn himself wrote some 16 operas and, based on the handful I’ve seen in 40 years of operagoing, they are pleasant but dull. If you want undiscovered gems, it’s best to look elsewhere.

As with the Sunday Sport’s headlines, there’s plenty of comic potential in the scenario, which sees a scammer trick a gullible old fool into believing he’s been transported to the moon, peopled by weird and wonderful creatures. ETO are fortunate in having attractive and inventive designs by takis (sic) and spirited singing, particularly from Jane Harrington as Clarice and Martha Jones as her maid Lisetta.

Also, on the plus side is Christopher Bucknall‘s direction of his nine-person Old Street Band who overcome a thinness of sound to give an energetic account of Haydn’s score.

Where the evening really falls down is in the feebleness of the gags that director Cal McCrystal gives the cast as a means of remedying the weaknesses of the plot. He comes from directing the physical comedy of the smash-hit One Man, Two Guv'nors and prestigious gigs such as Cirque du Soleil but you wouldn’t know it from this showing. The amateurish cavortings resemble village hall panto, although it’s fair to point out that this works for some people and the first night audience at Hackney was appreciative.

Haydn operas are rarely seen and if that’s a box you want to tick, give it a go. As always, ETO will do its sterling work of bringing opera to starved areas of the country throughout the next few weeks, touring Life on the Moon alongside Handel’s Ottone.