The opera world has no shortage of silly plots, but Nino Rota’s “The Italian Straw Hat” must rank among the silliest.
Before the curtain rises, a hungry horse consumes a woman’s straw hat while she’s behind a tree cavorting with her lover. As for the horse’s owner, he’s supposed to be getting married. But the woman demands that he find a replacement hat to prevent her husband from twigging on her infidelity. Cue 16 hours of manically dashing around Paris in search of the elusive millinery item, with more goofiness and pratfalls than a “Keystone Kops” movie.
A far cry from his music for Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather” movies, Rota’s opera came to Minnesota Opera on Saturday evening in a production originally seen five years ago at Ireland’s Wexford Festival. With it came the poster-art set designs of Lorenzo Cutùli. And the production’s original director, Andrea Cigni, whose hyperactive staging seemed, if anything, more frantic than it was in Wexford.
At its center was the super-energized performance of Minnesota native Andrew Stenson as the waylaid husband-to-be Fadinard. With a lot of singing to do, Stenson was rarely offstage. His dryish tenor rode the orchestra tirelessly, and he acted up a storm amid the gathering mayhem generated by his horse’s indiscretion.
Bass-baritone Dale Travis hounded him, playing the choleric father-in-law Nonancourt whose specialty was brazenly announcing the cancellation of the wedding. Travis reveled in the buffoonery and sang with sonorous solidity.
As Fadinard’s hapless bride-to-be, soprano Lisa Marie Rogali was shaky on her initial vocal entry, but she sang vibrantly thereafter.
Among the smaller parts, bass-baritone Pietro Di Bianco made a particularly vivid impression as the cuckolded husband of the hatless Anaide.
The chorus was excellent, too, nimbly flipping between various guises as partygoers, wedding guests, seamstresses and soldiers. All of the singers responded skillfully to director Cigni’s detailed milking of the visual humor involved in the opera’s serial instances of misunderstanding and concealed identity.
Busy as it was, sometimes the comedy seemed a touch questionable, dangerously flirting with unnecessary gender stereotyping. Does doing naughty things with a giant banana and pandering to tired tropes of camp effeminacy really qualify as humor in the 21st century?
Cigni’s direction was undoubtedly tight, however, and he found a willing counterpart in the zippy, flexible conducting of Jonathan Brandani. Brandani drew peppery, athletic playing from an on-form orchestra and relished the score’s numerous sly references to Rossini, Verdi, Mozart and Puccini.
But how many sight gags can you take in a two-hour evening? For all its superficial comic stylings, “The Italian Straw Hat” has none of the psychological depth and social insights of Mozart’s and Rossini’s finest comedies.
That leaves the laughter, which eventually rings hollow. Like a cappuccino that is all froth and no caffeine, it looks delicious on the surface — but it’s curiously insipid when you finally get to the bottom.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.