Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Back to that horse. The Italian Straw Hat, set in Paris, centers on a good-natured everyman named Fadinard on the day he is to be married. He is traveling in a horse-drawn cart to make sure that all of the arrangements for the wedding are in place when his whip catches on a low hanging branch. While Fadinard disentangles the whip, his horse munches on a fine white straw hat of Italian design that is also hanging on the tree. Voices from the woods beyond alert Fadinard to the presence of a man and woman in a lustful tryst, and he takes off. The amorous pairEmilio, a burly solider, and Anaidechase after him to retrieve the hat, following Fadinard to his residence. The hat was a gift from Anaide's insanely jealous husband. If she returns home without it, he will suspect her (quite rightly) of deceiving him.
Fadinard does not have the hat, of course, but Emilio insists he replace it, as it was his horse that destroyed it. Fadinard is unwilling, pointing out that he is about to get married, leading Emilio to challenge the hapless bridegroom to a duel. With that, the hunt is on. Fadinard goes to a milliner's shop, then to the home of an extravagant baroness to whom a hat like the one he seeks had been sold, and then to the baroness' goddaughter, to whom she gave the hat, and so on, with amusing and ribald antics occurring at each stop. Fadinard's bride Elena and her blustery father Nonancourt, who threatens at every turn to call off the wedding, and a large assemblage of wedding guests follow Fadinard's trail to hunt down the AWOL groom, feasting and drinking along the way. Being a comic opera, we never fear for a happy ending, and it is all very tidily worked out.
There are comedies that leave you with grist for thought, that spur the audience on to deeper meanings once the laughter subsides. The Italian Straw Hat is not one of them. It is pure silliness, with the frivolity played even more broadly thanks to Andrea Cigni's hyper-comic staging, Lorenzo Cutuli's whimsical sets and costumes, and outsized props assembled by Jenn Maatman. The creative work is phenomenally inventive, but runs the risk of overshadowing the score. The score, too, is primarily humorous in tone, including aspects like a chirping chorus by a group of seamstresses, female wedding guests egging Elena on to her first night of conjugal bliss, and the frenetic rants of Beaupertuis, Elena's husband. There are a couple of lovely, romantic themesFadinard's song to deflect the flamboyant Baroness as she tries to seduce him with array of high camp postures, and a genuinely heartfelt duet between Fadinard and Elena. Overall, Rota's music pleases, but does not leave a lasting impression.
Rota is best known for his lush film scores, especially in a collaboration with Federico Fellini that endured from 1953 to 1979. He scored films for many other notable directors, such as Luchino Visconti, Franco Zeffirelli (Romeo and Juliet) and Francis Ford Coppola (the first two Godfather films, winning an Oscar for The Godfather II). However, Rota began his career in the 1930s composing chamber music, and wrote a total of ten operas, as well as five full-length ballets. The Italian Straw Hat was his third opera, written in the mid-1940's but not performed until 1955 in Palermo, where it was an immediate success. It remains the best known of Rota's works for opera. It is a light-hearted romp that draws upon the Labiche play's skewering of bourgeois conventions and pretensions, but with really no aspirations to illuminate the human condition.
The score is performed with utmost heart and precision by the Minnesota Opera Orchestra, under Jonathan Brandani's direction, finding all the bounce and jauntiness in the good-humored sections, and full-hearted yearning in the few moments when genuine emotion replaces the camp comedy feel that prevails. On stage, Cigni's direction allows for clownish interaction between performers and out-sized setting and props. The design motif places the opera in the mid 1950s, with the three walls of the stage plastered with French advertisements and film posters (including one for Singing in the Rain), and costumes that mirror the decade, an unlikely blend of well-tailored and frumpy. For example, the dress worn by the milliner looks exactly like one that would have been worn by Lucy Ricardo on that decade's "I Love Lucy" TV show. The environment also has a somewhat surrealistic quality, with doors placed on the floor of a raised playing area, itself "carpeted" with more pop posters, and chandeliers hung jauntily askew.
Minnesota native Andrew Stenson makes his Minnesota Opera debut in the central role of Fadinard, and gives a totally winning performance. He has a strong, pleasing tenor that conveys the humor and wit in the libretto, as well as the emotional tenor of his duet with Elena. Stenson also does a swell job with the physical comedy the part demands. As the bride, made to traipse all about Paris after her hat-seeking husband, Lisa Marie Rogali sings sweetly, her soprano rising to convey her love for Fadinard. She does a fine job expressing her conflicted emotions between romantic love and the ordeal of her run-amok wedding day.
The rest of the cast all give shining performances, with Victoria Vargas as the self-indulgent Baroness, Dale Travis as Fadinard's put-upon father-in-law, and Pietro di Bianco as Anaide's wizened and short-tempered husband Beaupertuis making the strongest impressionsthough, to be fair, these three parts are written with the highest degree of exaggerated comic panache, and draw numerous laughs from the audience. Siena Forest, in a brief appearance as the milliner, brings authority to her goading of her seamstresses and her advice to Fadinard. The chorus sings heartilyand wearily, as bedraggled wedding guests.
The Italian Straw Hat is an amusing but not essential contribution to the realm of opera. One can hear in Roto's score the brash and yearning qualities that showed up in his film work. It is witty and good humored, though the response is more often a tame chuckle than a belly laugh. Given its modest nature, Minnesota Opera has lavished their production with wonderfully inventive design and staging, a strong cast led by Andrew Stenson, who we hope will be returning often, and a beautiful rendering of the score by the orchestra. It makes for a thoroughly enjoyable evening, with a look that will be memorable, even if the music fades.
The Italian Straw Hat, through February 3, 2019, a production of Minnesota Opera presented at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $25.00 - $143.00. For information and tickets call 612-333-6699 or go to www.mnopera.org.
Music: Nino Rota; Libretto: Nino Rota and Ernesta Rota, based on the play
Un chapeau de paille d'Italie by Eugene Labiche and Marc-Michel. Conductor: Jonathan Brandani; Stage Director: Andrea Cigni; Choreographer: Heidi Spesard-Noble; Assistant Director: Adam Da Ros; Assistant Conductor and Chorus Master: Andrew Whitfield; Scenic and Costume Design: Lorenzo Cutuli; Lighting Design: Marcus Dilliard; Properties Master: Jenn Maatman; Hair and Make-Up Design: David Zimmerman; Répétiteurs: Mary Box, Allen Perriello, Andrew Sun; English Captions: Jonathan Burton; Stage Manager: Jerry K. Smith.
Cast: Danielle Beckvermit (Anaide), Nicholas Davis (Corporal), Pietro di Bianco (Beaupertuis), Siena Forest (Milliner), Stephen Martin (Felice), Conor O'Brien (Minardi), Allen Perriello (Pianist), Dennis Petersen (Vézinet), Lisa Marie Rogali (Elena), Christian Sanders (Viscount Achille di Rosalba/Guardsman), Andrew Stenson (Fadinard) Christian Thurston (Emilio), Dale Travis (Nonancourt), Victoria Vargas (La Baronessa di Champigny).