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Donald Feldman
American Record Guide, July 2011

The video is near perfect. The staging is very creative, the setting believably falling between the Enlightenment and the 20th Century. The music is faultless, reflecting Harnoncourt’s stature in period performance practice. The softer tone of the winds and emphasis on dance and melody reflect the baroque style and musician’s skills.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

James H. North
Fanfare, May 2011

HAYDN, J.: Mondo della Luna (Il) (Theater an der Wien, 2009) (NTSC) 703508
HAYDN, J.: Mondo della Luna (Il) (Theater an der Wien, 2009) (Blu-ray, HD) 703604

This 1777 opera will surprise listeners who know Haydn through his instrumental works: Its finest quality is not the wit of its comic scenes but the lyrical beauty of its vocal love music. Act I and the first half of act II are mostly farce and tomfoolery, stretched and strained by the extended recitatives and da capo arias. Then come three glorious arias (for Lisetta, Flamina, and Clarice) worthy of Mozart at his finest, each more tender than the last. They are followed by a superb ensemble for the seven principals. Act III—barely over 10 minutes—consists of an equally Mozartian love duet between Ecclitico and Clarice, plus a brief final ensemble. All of this, mind you, five years before Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Multiple versions of Haydn’s score exist; Ernesto is sung here by a contralto rather than a countertenor.

Goldoni’s libretto concerns a swindler (Ecclitico) who cons his mark (Buonafede) into believing he has traveled to the moon, part of a complicated plan to secure permission for his daughters’s marriages. All’s well that ends well, with a joyous moral: “Let’s rejoice at this good fortune. …Let’s live in friendship and love.” The inhabitants of the Moon—who are, of course, crazy people on Earth—are referred to by one and all as “lunatics.” This delicious pun doesn’t work as well in the sung Italian, nor in German or French.

This performance is unbalanced; the women sing well but in stand-and-deliver mode, whereas the merely passable male vocalists are fine actors—even to the point of athletic acrobatics: Bernard Richter leaps fences, Dietrich Henschel skinnies up a pole. To be fair, Christina Landshamer does slither down a knotted-sheets rope. It all works. I’m not fond of Concentus Musicus Wien’s dull strings (period ensembles have come a long way since its founding), but Harnoncourt—on his 80th birthday—keeps things moving along nicely. Doráti’s 1977 stereo recording glitters with stellar soloists: Arleen Augér, Edith Mathis, and Frederica von Stade. I prefer his crisp (modern-instruments) orchestra and his brisk allegros, and the Philips studio sound is clearer than that on this DVD. Yet those arias strike me as spectacular vocal displays more than expressions of their characters’ plights, and the whole as a vocal collection rather than an opera recording.

Costumes and sets don’t contribute much beyond the obvious: Ecclitico wears a leather jacket, Buonafede a modern suit (plus outrageous-pink harem pants in act II); his daughters sport colorful silk tops, the maid (Lisetta) plain cotton. Some physical gimmicks (raising the drugged Buonafede’s lawn chair into the air, on his way to the moon) require an Erector-set of steel towers on stage. The bogus astronomer’s telescope is a computer that displays his associates’ videos of the lunatics. A revolving stage revolves, if only to justify its existence, without noticeably influencing the action. The performance took place at Vienna’s second opera house, Theater an der Wien. Audio (PCM 2.0 stereo or DTS 5.1 surround) and video (“filmed in high definition, mastered from an HD source,” NTSC 16:9) are decent but not exceptional. A 25-minute bonus extends the listed timing. It consists of conventional, poorly edited interviews with director Tobias Moretti and Harnoncourt, but both men deliver some interesting, revealing comments. There are also trailers for four other Unitel video productions: The Ring, Turandot, Handel’s Admeto, and Aida...

One must be patient with Il mondo della luna, as all the goodies come in its final 40 minutes. The first two hours could have been pared down by shortening recitatives and eliminating some da capo repeats, which would make the comedy funnier. That was done, with much success, in a recent live performance in New York. We are prisoners of today’s performance fashion: completeness at all costs. Nevertheless, this is a great improvement over the first commercial Haydn opera DVD: Orlando Paladino.

James Reel
Fanfare, May 2011

HAYDN, J.: Mondo della Luna (Il) (Theater an der Wien, 2009) (NTSC) 703508
HAYDN, J.: Mondo della Luna (Il) (Theater an der Wien, 2009) (Blu-ray, HD) 703604

Lest you suspect that my colleague, Fanfare’s leading Haydn advocate, is exaggerating the merits of Il mondo della luna, let me assure you that Jim North seems exactly on-target with both his praise and his criticism of this Unitel release. He watched the DVDs; my assignment was the Blu-ray version…

So, if you’re interested in this production, should you opt for the Blu-ray if you have that playback capability? I don’t know that it’s absolutely necessary. The “lunar” scenes take place on a rather dark stage where most of the colors of the set items as well as the costumes (aside from those hot pink harem pants) are subdued, so nothing is likely to pop off your screen. On the other hand, the various shades of gray and black are always distinct in the HD version, so although the overall picture is dark, it’s never murky. The DTS-HD 5.0 audio track (that’s how it’s labeled on the Blu-ray, rather than 5.1) is quite lovely, and does a better job of balancing and clarifying the voices and the orchestra than I have often encountered in surround-sound operas. One sign of inattention in the packaging: Although the opera and features are contained on a single Blu-ray disc, the printed track listing restarts the numbering with act II; thus, the first track of that act is labeled “1” while the disc displays “26.” If you want to cue up individual tracks, you’ll have to employ some basic math skills. Indeed, following my colleague’s lead, I would suggest that when you first play this, turn off the video and start with, say, track 50 (the last 20 minutes of act II) and play through to the end of the opera; you’ll hear a straight 30 minutes of some of this work’s most beguiling music, which should then give you the patience to go back and persevere through the work’s less even first couple of hours.

Richard Wigmore
Gramophone, January 2011

HAYDN, J.: Mondo della Luna (Il) (Theater an der Wien, 2009) (NTSC) 703508
HAYDN, J.: Mondo della Luna (Il) (Theater an der Wien, 2009) (Blu-ray, HD) 703604

Haydn’s farce is both piquant and enchanting

After the 1777 premiere, an Esterházy family friend dismissed Il mondo della luna as “Une farce pour la populace et pour les enfants”. Perhaps he was echoing the opera-made Prince Nicolaus’s own view: unusually, it was never revived at Eszterháza. Today, though, Haydn’s lunar fantasy is probably his least neglected opera, with good reason. Others may contain richer music. But Goldoni’s satire on human folly and gullibility, centring on the manipulative “astronomer” Ecclitico and the credulous booby Buonafede, is delightfully absurd, while Haydn’s piquant score meshes perfectly with character and action. Amid the farcical silliness, too, are moments of lyrical enchantment that might surprise the unwary: say, the aria “Se la mia stella” for Flaminia, or the voluptuous nocturnal love duet for Ecclitico and Clarice.

“The piece is extreme, completely insane and very funny,” comments Nikolaus Harnoncourt in a “bonus” interview. With the ever-responsive Concentus Musicus he duly mines the comically disruptive potential of Haydn’s music with unabashed glee, while allowing plenty of space for expressive phrasing and colouring in the opera’s serious moments. The opening of the Act I finale, as the drugged Buonafede imagines himself flying to the moon, has a magical gossamer delicacy. Tobias Moretti’s production, set on a revolving stage, manages a neat balancing act. He updates the action to the age of sci-fi, with assorted technological trickery, while preserving something of the spirit of the 18th-century original, as when Flaminia and Clarice arrive on the “moon” in a flying machine. Crucially, too, Moretti never compromises the moments of stillness—say, the Act 3 love duet—with distracting stage business.

I would wager, too, that Harnoncourt’s youthful-looking singers—all of them convincing actors—measure up well to their 1777 counterparts. The comic leads are ideally cast: Bernard Richter, a spivvish, formidably athletic Ecclitico, Dietrich Henschel presenting an increasingly bemused, even hangdog figure as Buonafede and singing with fine, dark resonance. By the end you even sympathise with the chastened chauvinist, ruthlessly cheated of his daughters and maid. As the two sisters in revolt against paternal tyranny, Christina Landshamer and Anja Nina Bahrmann sing with spirit and feeling, and skilfully negotiate their bouts of coloratura. Of the servant pair, Markus Schäfer is hilarious as the Emperor of the Moon, while Maite Beaumont’rs s lubriciously self-willed Lisetta, looking like a Carmen in a maid’s uniform, understandably reduces the lusting Buonafede to a drooling wreck. Vivica Genaux brings an intense, flavoursome mezzo and a vivid presence to the apparently unpromising castrato role of Ernesto, Flaminia’s lover. In sum, then, an inventive, thoroughly entertaining performance of a zany, sometimes touching comedy. If you’re still sceptical about Haydn’s operas, this may convert you.

Jeffrey Kauffman, October 2010

Joseph Haydn is often referred to as “the father of the symphony,” or even “the father of the string quartet,” but he is rarely if ever thought of as an opera composer. That’s more than a bit peculiar, as opera actually was a regular part of Haydn’s formidable oeuvre. Though few of the composer’s operatic pieces have made it into the standard repertoire, his facility with the genre demonstrates a wonderfully ebullient nature that is virtually Mozartian at times. That free wheeling approach is fully on display in his 1777 dramma giocoso Il Mondo della Luna, which was the first Haydn opera to be staged after musical theater became a regular season offering at the court of Esterhazy. Il Mondo della Luna is, to pun intentionally, a lunatic farce of comeuppance and starcrossed love, which is set in a rather odd, almost science fiction, world of supposed trips to the moon. Of course the moon is the orb of the emotions, and passion and its urges plays an important part in the love story angle of this piece. While purists are often upset at modern stagings of classical pieces, in this case the science fiction aspect plays perfectly into a decidedly 21st century reimagining by the Theater an der Wien, with some inventive stage direction by noted German actor Tobias Moretti. Interestingly, but strangely not at all disconcertingly, the period instrument troupe Concentus Musicus Wien plays marvelously under the inspired direction of Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

The etymology of buffa is obviously related to our English word buffoon, and there is probably no greater buffoon in 18th century opera than Il Mondo della Luna’s primary object of derision, the hard hearted father Buonafede (Dietrich Henschel). As the opera opens, Ecclitico (Bernard Richter), who has eyes for Buonafede’s daughter Clarice (Christina Landshamer), convinces his perhaps future father-in-law that he is an astronomer of some exceptional skill, supposedly showing the old curmudgeon scenes of life on the moon, which are in fact (in this version) closed circuit televised elements being broadcast from one of the levels of Renate Martin and Andreas Donhauser’s extremely inventive set design. Buonafede also has another daughter, Flaminia (Anja Nina Bahrmann), who is the object of amorous longing by Ernesto (Vivica Genaux). A third woman, Buonafede’s maid Lisetta (Maite Beaumont), is sought after both by Ernesto’s servant Cecco (Markus Schäfer) as well as by Buonafede himself. And so the pickings are ripe here for the typical farcical elements of mismatched lovers and a father who is not especially well disposed to give either of his daughter’s hands in marriage.

Where Il Mondo della Luna takes a decidedly innovative turn (especially when one considers its 18th century heritage), is in its supposed “trip to the moon,” which is of course purely a trompe d’oeil conceived of by Ecclitico after he drugs Buonafede and then converts a garden into a moonscape. Ecclitico’s moon conforms perfectly with Buonafede’s ideas of a subjugated womankind, and Ecclitico is of course able to weasel the elder man into releasing his daughters to marry whom they choose, before the illusion is dispelled and Buonafede, after a brief temper tantrum, comes to his senses and begins to act more reasonably.

This production is filled with considerable whimsy and invention, and for once a modern restaging works near perfectly with the source material. The incredibly ingenious set design and use of props provides nonstop delight throughout the opera’s three acts. The opening multi-level staging is really quite enticing, with lots of high tech gear filling the stage and helping the entire audience to understand Buonafede’s remarkable gullibility. When Clarice and Flaminia lament their lot as the daughters of an abhorrently controlling father, they do so from a jail like window on the second floor of their home. Suddenly, when we need to see into their abode, a wall flips down and becomes a cantilevered stage. Later, after Buonafede has been drugged and imagines he’s flying to the moon, he’s really lifted aloft as he slumps on a lawn chair. It’s all subtly anachronistic and hilarious at the same time.

Haydn was slowly exploring the potential of the operatic idiom in Il Mondo della Luna, and while his score may not have the towering arias of some of his contemporaries, his brilliant orchestral technique, including several balletic interludes, are remarkable and extremely colorful. This is music that dances as much as it sings, and under the redoubtable baton of Harnoncourt, whose period music explorations virtually invented the practice as far back as the early 1950s. Here he is working with a number of younger singers, but the entire cast acquits itself quite admirably, with Richter’s Ecclitico and Henschel’s Buonafede easy standouts.

What will probably delight most audiences though is the incredibly inventive staging of Tobias Moretti, a rare actor who seems to put the needs of his script above those of his ego. Here everything works in tandem wonderfully well to support the literally lunatic frenzy of Ecclitico’s valiant attempts to get Buonafede to understand the idiocy of his ways. This is farce as it should be, with just the right amount of over the top shtick playing hand in hand with more heartfelt elements. This piece may not exactly be one giant leap for operatic mankind, but it is a decidedly welcome small step for man in helping to raise awareness of the joys of Haydn’s operatic oeuvre.

Video Quality

Il Mondo della Luna is a big, bold, bright and beautiful staging and for the most part this Blu-ray’s AVC encoded 1080i transfer (in 1.78:1) supports it very well. Colors here are exceptional, with an extremely varied palette that gives us everything from the dark blue-infested opening scene to the bright, sunlit ambience of the garden sequence. The stage design here can be very busy, with lots of wires, lines and other geometries filling the screen, and there are no instances of artifacting with any of those. Unfortunately, occasionally we do get some minor artifacting on some of the closeknit costume designs. The image here is very sharp and well detailed, with great black levels and excellent contrast.

Audio Quality

While there are some very occasional and extremely transitory intonation issues from Concentus Musicus Wien, this Blu-ray’s stunning DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is virtually perfect (there is also a lossless LPCM 2.0 option). Any period instrument aficionado knows how difficult brass instruments especially are to get pitch perfect, and every so often we have a slightly drooping note which is quickly pulled into tune. Other than that anomaly, this is a superb performance under the incredible direction of Harnoncourt, certainly one of the top five (and perhaps the top) conductors of period instrument ensembles. Winds especially sound brilliantly fluid and crisp here, and the strings aren’t overly dry sounding. At times I wished the singers had been brought a bit more forward into the mix, but overall there is a very pleasant balance between the onstage personnel and those in the pit. There’s not a huge amount of directionality here, but there is a very natural hall ambience which fills the surrounds very nicely. Fidelity is excellent, dynamic range, while somewhat muted due to the period instruments, is also supple and well realized, and the DTS track supports all frequencies effortlessly.

Special Features and Extras

A very interesting Making Of featurette (HD; 24:20) is included, which offers some in-depth musings from Harnoncourt and others in the production. The insert booklet has a historical essay as well as a synopsis.

Overall Score and Recommendation

Those of you who regularly read my opera reviews know I am not easily swayed by modern reinterpretations of classical operas. I’m happy to report this is a most welcome exception, with a glittering production design and very smart update to our current times. Il Mondo della Luna is often very funny indeed, and though it might seem odd, the period instruments of Concentus Musicus Wien sound perfectly at home in this ultra-modern world. If you’ve never experienced a Haydn opera, there’s no better place to start than here. Highly recommended.

Kevin Filipski
Times Square, October 2010

Joseph Haydn never wrote a hit opera, and this Vienna production of his fanciful Il Mondo della Luna (Unitel Classica Blu-ray) can’t make a compelling case for a fatally flawed work, despite terrific orchestral playing and singing from a talented and game cast (lone extra: making-of featurette)

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