Slapstick overload: The Italian Straw HatReview
The Italian Straw Hat (Il cappello di paglia di Firenze) by Nino Rota was an interesting choice for the season at Minnesota Opera. After the romance of La rondine and the drama of Silent Night, my system was a little shocked by the slapstick comedy at the Ordway on Saturday night.
The curtain opened with the same elevated semi-raked platform in the middle of the stage that was used for their production of Silent Night last November. This is where the living room and bedroom scenes took place. All the doors were hatches on the floor that characters clambered in and out of. It was novel in the beginning, but got a little old. (Fadinard has a manservant and seems well-off; why does he live in an attic?)
The costumes by Lorenzo Cutùli were lovely, bright and very period. Standouts were Elena’s pristine white and flouncy wedding dress with matching pumps, shawl and umbrella. The chorus also had a wonderful array of costumes from the milliners working clothes to evening wear at the Baroness’ salon. The set (also by Cutùli) was unique - there were three walls of images from the time (a movie poster of Singing in the Rain, etc.). They always stayed on the stage and provided some scaffolding for additional ensemble members to sing from.
Native Minnesotan Andrew Stenson made his house debut leading the cast as groom Fadinard. His voice was wonderful with many extended high notes, and with the style of a true straight man did his best to keep the zany actions of his costars on track. Dale Travis was a very funny father-in-law to the star, with every entrance marked by his trademark “It (the wedding) is off.” Mr. Travis had a grounded sound that fit perfectly as the controlling and overwhelmed father of the bride.
As the bride Elena, Lisa Marie Rogali did her best with the little character development the composer gave her. Her voice was resonant on her exposed coloratura, but there were a few intonation issues that marred her otherwise lovely performance. The hilarious instigators of the whole hat conflict were Anaide and Emilio played by the Minnesota Resident Young Artists Danielle Beckvermit and Christian Thurston. It was wonderful to see Young Artists having larger roles, and the scenes with Fadinard, Anaide and Emilio crackled with energy. Ms. Beckvermit had hilarious physicality and silky high notes. Mr. Thurston was convincing as Anaide’s lover who was very concerned with her honor. Victoria Vargess as the Baronessa di Champigny and Christian Sanders as the Viscount Achille di Rosalba/Guardsman were an entertainingly decadent pair.
While the first act was very funny and well paced, but there were some comedic moments that felt forced and did not land. (The Baroness using a giant carrot to impale her pianist comes to mind.) At times the stage was so overcrowded with schtick it was overwhelming. Banana jokes, chamber pot humor and smoke machines did not add to the talents of the cast or the beauty of the music.
I was heartily confused for most of the third and fourth acts. In the scene where the whole wedding party thought they were camping out in the groom’s house, but it was actually the house of cuckolded husband of Anaide.
At the house, the newlyweds bedroom was going to be blessed by Nonancourt. Elena is launched into a tizzy about not wanting to lose her virginity and wanting “to go home with Papa where I was happy” while the chorus of well-meaning female family members comforted her. A confusing turn of events, since there was a such an amorous kiss and excitement about the nuptials between the couple in Act I. Perhaps Rota wrote this scene as social commentary in the 1950s - but it did not play off in this performance. (Elena was back to all smiles as Fadinard finally carried her across the threshold in the final scene.)