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REVIEW: Older Humor in The Italian Straw Hat (Minnesota Opera)

Wedding planning runs into some snags in Minnesota Opera’s production of The Italian Straw Hat. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Alignment is key. Whether it’s about car wheels, shakras, or humor, it’s essential that elements designed to work together be arranged so that they complement and build upon individual virtues and needs, rather than clash in opposition. The humor in Minnesota Opera’s The Italian Straw Hat does not align with what I want as an audience person.

My editor likes to say that half of good alignment is marketing to the right people. Certainly the prospect of hearing an opera by the film soundtrack composer of The Godfather, Part I and The Godfather, Part II piqued my interest. Nino Rota’s stage works are not performed very often in this country, although Shakespeare fans may have heard his soundtrack for Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 screen adaptation of Romeo and Juliet starring Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey. The music is pretty and interesting, and well-performed, so the misalignment seems to lie elsewhere. The fluffy yet frenetic staging and story do not suit my tastes.

Don’t you just hate it when a horse eats a hat so your lover needs a replacement so her husband doesn’t want to kill her, all on the day of an important wedding that you’d like to make sure actually happens? This is more or less the story of The Italian Straw Hat. Photo by Cory Weaver.

As a member of Generation Z, it’s perhaps no surprise that a 1955 opera adapting an 1851 play seems a bit quaint and not quite what I’m interested in. Yet, at the same time, there are many operas that still speak profoundly and wonderfully to me – a few bizarre and ill-intentioned “update” attempts aside. I probably fall outside the target audience imagined by stage director Andrea Cigni, whose provocative re-imaginations of classic works often seemed designed to give people who’ve seen a work a dozen times an excuse (some would say outrage) to see it again.

Be that as it may. Fluff though the plot may be, Andrew Steson (as Fadinard) sings such an enchanting Act I arietta “Io voglio quel cappello” that you would hardly think it’s about a trifle like a hat. Victoria Vargas as the Baroness and Dale Travis as Nonancourt give standout comic performances, and Lisa Marie Rogali (as Elena)’s beautifully rendered duet “Trema nell’estasi d’amor” / “Oh si…è gioia” with Steson/Fadinard was one of the highlights of the opera.

The orchestra was well-led by Maestro Jonathan Brandani, in fine sound. The opera’s pacing – one of those unclear jurisdictional areas between stage and music directors – was at times too frenetic, depriving the audience of needed time to breath and digest. The weakest – and most subjective – elements were the piece’s visual humor and farcial leaning, both of which were much too crude for my tastes. But you do get to hear Pietro di Bianco sing a terrific “È una cosa incredibile” in Act III, which actually is quite incredible and well worth waiting for.

A Mid-Synopsis Teaser

Everything is upset and it appears that the wedding of Fadinard and Elena will have to be called off. The wedding party has gotten lost in Paris and arrested; Beaupertuis still wants to kill his wife; Nonancourt wants to cancel the marriage and take Elena home.

Minnesota Opera’s production of The Italian Straw Hat plays at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, MN through February 3, 2019.

Amy Donahue