The Gotham Chamber Opera at the Hayden Planetarium on Wednesday, January 10.
Il mondo della luna—both the opera in general and this production in particular—is like one of Shakespeare’s fluffier comedies, the ones with identical twins and widespread cross-dressing and absurd misunderstandings. They’re interchangeable nonsense, as far as I’m concerned, so if you sit down to watch As You Like the Two Gentlemen of Errors expecting something dignified and august, the utter lunacy is disconcerting, even off-putting. But if you just go with it, embrace the mayhem, it’s endearing—not a masterpiece of Western civilization but sharper than you might expect. Plus, there’s something somehow comforting in the realization that people—even properly bewigged historical people—have always gotten a kick out of so-called low-brow pleasures we’re supposed to feel all high-brow guilty about.
Composer Franz Joseph Haydn came around about a century and half after Shakespeare, and Il mondo della luna doesn’t feature identical cross-dressing twins separated at birth (which is sad because who doesn’t love that plot device?), but the silly story of a con man who tricks a wealthy, overprotective father into believing he and his daughters have traveled to the moon is the kind of thing the Bard would have loved: broad farce with an improbable but adorable happy ending. As for the music, Haydn will always pale to his contemporary Mozart (as unfair a standard as there ever was), but at his best, he produced some of the greatest music of the Classical period, and for this production, the Gotham Chamber Opera have shamelessly trimmed more than three hours down to an hour and half of his best.
Gotham’s Il mondo, directed by Diane Paulus, is an unabashedly silly production of a silly opera, and one could make the argument that it takes the zaniness too far, what with the wild, practically disco-esque costumes; bizarre, hallucinatory planetarium visuals; and silly, go-go-go dancing. The performers constantly pitch the energy level to 11, which is in a problem, in a few places: breathlessness in a singer is not becoming. But looking past the few moments when I thought a soprano should just be still and sing, for god’s sake, so she could give her high notes a bit more space, I thought this Il mondo was pretty damn delightful.
The stroke of genius was setting Il mondo at the planetarium and giving the director and her crew full run of the its library. The trip to the moon is a hoax, of course, so lunar projections are mixed up with comets and stars and trippy imagery that seems to have been taken from some sort of Moby project. (Yeah, I don’t know what that’s about.) The effect is dreamy and beautiful and utterly charming. There might even be something magical about looking up at the firmament rather than down at the stage that puts one in the mood to experience wonder, and if so, this Il mondo takes advantage of that. Even the supertitles are projected on the dome, and the singers are constantly looking up, directing our attention there as well.
Each of the seven singers gets an aria in which to shine. Baritone Marco Nisticò, who plays foolish father Buonafede, is the standout (it’s no coincidence that he’s the one who “appears courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera”), but the other six are talented, too. Tenor Nicholas Coppolo gives grifter/faux astronomer Ecclitico a rakish appeal, and soprano Hanan Alattar, playing Clarice, one of the daughters, takes the gorgeous “Quanta gente che sospira” at a sensitive, stately pace, lingering tenderly on its long, elegant lines and her own lovely voice.
In fact, that aria might have been my favorite moment in the opera, an oasis of calm amid the wackiness, making both it and said wackiness the better for it. And it, too, reminded of Shakespeare, specifically the play-within-a-play at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In some productions (this would be my preferred interpretation), all the craziness melts away toward the end when Flute, as Thisbe, somehow delivers a truly affecting performance, while Starveling’s Moonshine looks on. “Quanta gente che sospira” didn’t have quite the same air of understated profundity (Shakespeare, after all, might be an even more unforgiving standard than Mozart), but it nonetheless felt surprisingly sincere and delicate, a crystalline moment of moonstruck beauty.