NEW YORK — Opera impresarios looking for authentic settings have sometimes gone to the ends of the Earth, presenting Verdi's "Aida" at the base of the Pyramids and Puccini's "Turandot" in Beijing's Forbidden City.
But it's unlikely anyone ever thought of staging an opera in a planetarium before the plucky Gotham Chamber Opera decided it would be just the place for Joseph Haydn's "Il mondo della luna" ("The World on the Moon").
The production, which premiered Tuesday night at the Hayden (no relation) Planetarium of the American Museum of Natural History, offers a condensed, 90-minute version of this uneven but ultimately charming work.
First performed in 1777, it tells the comic story of an overprotective father, Buonafede, who is duped by an astrologer, Ecclitico, into thinking he has been transported to the moon. Once there, he is persuaded to let his daughters unite with their sweethearts, and also to let his maidservant – on whom he has his own lecherous designs – marry her beau.
If the first act remains somewhat earthbound, with a lot of exposition to get the plot going and some less-than-inspired music, both the opera and the production take flight as soon as Buonafede is launched on his journey.
Then the 350 or so spectators in the circular auditorium are treated to a delightful sound and light show, with projections both astronomical and fantastical exploding on the spherical ceiling overhead. The singers perform at times atop rolling ladders that are moved around the middle of the auditorium, with the orchestra perched on a platform behind them. Lighting is provided mainly by bulbs sewn into the ornate, outlandish costumes of the moon creatures, who include three dancers wearing luminous hoops.
The cast performs with great enthusiasm and affection for the foolish goings-on. Vocally, the strongest singers are soprano Hanan Alattar as one of the daughters, Clarice, and baritone Timothy Kuhn as one of the suitors, Ernesto.
Diane Paulus, artistic director of the American Repertory Theater, keeps the production moving nicely for the most part, though there some dead spots in the first act and perhaps one too many chorus-line routines for the women. Neal Goren, founding artistic director of the company, conducts the scrappy orchestra with verve.
Though Haydn's many operas are rarely performed today, some of the music he wrote for "Il mondo" – particularly the extended second-act finale and a sublime third-act love duet, deserve to be heard.
Performances run through Jan. 28.
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