More opera lovers ought to take advantage of presentations at our music conservatories because, uncircumscribed by the need to fill halls with La Bohèmes and La Traviatas, they are free to explore forgotten works and the nooks and crannies of the repertoire. The University of North Carolina School of the Arts’ School of Music, A. J. Fletcher Opera Institute, and School of Design and Production pulled out all the stops for Il Mondo Della Luna (The World on the Moon) by Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809). The “dramma giocoso per musica” is in three acts set to a libretto by Carlo Goldoni. It was first performed at Eszterháza in August 1777 in celebration of the marriage of Count Nicolaus (1741-1822), Prince Nicolaus’ second son, to Countess Maria Anna von Weissenwolf. According to John Rice’s article on the opera in Oxford Composer Companions: Haydn it appears never to have been revived until the Twentieth Century.

The plot involves Ecclitico, a clever operator, convincing the gullible Buonafede that he has been transported to the Moon. This is all part of a scam to allow Ecclitco to marry Buonafede’s daughter Clarice and to allow the nobleman Ernesto to marry the old man’s other daughter Flaminia. Buonafede has designs on his maid Lisetta, but Ecclitico plans to pair her to the old man’s servant Cecco. In the Act II charade, Cecco is disguised as the Emperor of the Moon and Ernesto is the star Hesperus, while students of Ecclitico are members of the Lunar Court. Buonafede’s rapid switch from rage over the scam to consenting to both the marriages and generous dowries is far from convincing but Haydn’s score assuages doubts.

The three performances of Haydn’s opera took place in the intimate confines of the Agnes de Mille Theatre. Conductor James Allbritten kept very close coordination between the very active singers onstage and his fine chamber orchestra hidden deeply in the pit like Jokannan in Richard Strauss’ Salome. The horns were superb, the woodwinds were agile and strongly characterized, and the strings withstood every challenge. Some eerie high violin harmonics were memorable.

Stage Director Steven LaCosse gave his lead singers and his small chorus a very active and complex blocking. The Second Act, the bogus world of the Moon, was a triumph. The wild lunar costumes, designed by Dina M. Perez, were hilarious and the grand entrance of the emperor of the Moon was a hoot! The sets, designed by Brooke Robbins, were dominated by sets of gears within gears and as crooked a telescope as ever to be found outside a 1930s animated cartoon. This was a nice conceit alluding both to the mechanistic cosmology of the Enlightenment and to the machinations of Ecclitico. Drop curtains, folding units, and movable weird trees helped conjure up the World on the Moon. The very effective lighting was designed by Rob Ross. Recitatives were delivered clearly in English while the arias and choruses were sung in Italian with the translations, by Nancy Goldsmith, projected as supertitles. This helped keep the audience in sync with the complex comic business.

Each performance had slightly different casts. The overall impression was the level of singing, though generally good, was somewhat more uneven than that of past joint productions I have reviewed. I suspect tenor Joseph Ittoop, as Ecclitico, may have been singing despite an allergy or a slight cold. His acting was excellent but while his singing was usually good, it was marred from time to time by a cracked note that may have been due to phlegm. Baritone Scott Schumpert exhibited considerable comic flair, singing with even support while dashing all about the stage. The role of the nobleman Ernesto was composed for the castrato singer Pietro Gheradi. The Early Music Movement has never taken up this challenge!

Tenor Kyle Guglielmo combined solid vocalism with effective acting as Ernesto. Both sopranos overcame fleeting unsteady notes under pressure heard in the first act. A highlight of the production was the Act III love duet, “Un certo ruscelletto,” between Guglielmo and the even, seamless vocalism of his Clarice, soprano Alona Metcalf. The role of Flaminia gave soprano Anna Jackson plenty of scope for coloratura display. The most accomplished singing and acting was consistently delivered by mezzo-soprano Karen Hayden as Buonafede’s servant Lisetta. She had considerable stage presence and her pleasing and warm timbre was flawless across its range. Tenor Marvin Kehler made a good foil as Cecco by providing vigorous singing and over-the-top acting as the Lunar Emperor. The small chorus of eight was superb whether singing or carrying out elaborate blocking.