21 Jul 2019

Haydn – Overture to Il mondo della luna (The World of the Moon)

by Michael Clive

Instrumentation: 2 oboes, 2 bassoons; 2 horns, 2 trumpets; strings; percussion.

Joseph Haydn

The operas of Joseph Haydn are like astronomical dark matter floating in the musical universe: We know they’re out there because the experts tell us so, but unlike the choruses and arias of his oratorios, their greatness can almost never be heard by the rest of us. So we’re especially fortunate when something like the delightful overture to his opera Il mondo della luna comes along. This tuneful, beautifully constructed overture raises the curtain on a raucous romantic comedy in the Italian opera buffa tradition. It’s as giddily formulaic as any current rom-com, and no less sexy — opening with a would-be astronomer convincing his girlfriend’s father that, with the aid of a powerful telescope, they can spy on ladies undressing on the moon. Is that what we expect of the sober, temperate Haydn, whom two generations of great composers called “Papa”?

Well, why not? Written in 1750, Carlo Goldoni’s libretto for Il mondo della luna had already been set by a half dozen or so composers before Haydn got his hands on it in 1777. He composed his version for the wedding celebration of Count Nikolaus Esterházy, the younger son of his most important patron. Though the opera relies on Italian forms and stock characters, it is sometimes performed — very rarely — in German, as Die Welt auf dem Monde.

Composed in C major, the overture treats us to some serious fun, mixing the energy and cheer of outlandish comical doings with the dignity expected by the royal listeners for whom Haydn composed. Like some of Mozart’s operatic overtures — Don Giovanni, for example — it ends with an “open cadence” that leads us directly into the action of the first scene without pause. In recycling materials from this overture for the first movement of his Symphony No. 63, Haydn actually had to reduce his instrumentation to fit his symphonic orchestra.