Il capello di paglia di Firenze was the perfect cure to the mid-winter blahs – splendid colorful sets and costumes, great orchestral playing and above all, top-notch singing. Add subtle but brilliant directing and acting, and you have a perfect formula for enchantment. This UNCSA Flectcher Opera Institute production is a farcical opera about love and jealousy in 1913 in Paris – and hinges on the need to find the exact duplicate of a lady's Florentine straw hat that had been eaten by a horse in a park while the lady had been cavorting (off the beaten path) with a suitor. Even though written in mid-20th century, it could have been composed a century earlier – but for some colorful harmonic twists.
Nino Rota burst on the musical scene as a wunderkind at age 12 with performances in Milan and Paris of his oratorio about the young John the Baptist. He studied at the Curtis Institute and was coached from a young age by the likes of Fritz Reiner and Arturo Toscanini. He started composing for films on the advice of classmate Aaron Copland, and was Federico Fellini's most frequent collaborator. In his lifetime he composed scores for over 150 movies. He received an Oscar for his score to Godfather II in 1974. Il capello di paglia di Firenze was composed in 1955 and can be seen in the La Scala film here.
The hero of the story is the about-to-be-married Fadinard, magnificently sung by tenor Simon Petersson, who spends most of the opera chasing down the ill-fated hat which his horse has eaten earlier that morning. His fiancée, Elena, was sung by Megan Cleaveland, whose lovely pure soprano rung out over the orchestra clearly. The first act duet of the betrothed was one of the high points of the opera. And when they sang of the approaching night of rest, the brief coloratura passage of Cleaveland was an unexpected sparkle of delight.
The opera opens with the bride's deaf Uncle Vézinet (Taylor Mason Boone) engaged in pleasantries with the groom's butler, Félice (Anthony Zanghi). Uncle Vézinet delivers a wedding gift and after eating all the available chocolates, goes on his merry way.
Patrick Scully's considerable acting skills make him a very convincing prospective father-in-law, Nonancourt, (which transliterates in French to "No! Once again!") ready to call off the wedding at the drop of a hat. His tight shoes have made him irascible and mean, and his outlandish costume (stripes, polka dots and mismatched colors) gives him the air of a country bumpkin.
Anaide is the name of the original owner of the straw hat, given to her by her jealous husband, Beaupertuis. Her role was sung by soprano Jenny Schuler, the perfect combination of the giggling effusive lover and the bossy strict wife. Emilio (baritone Cody Montá) is her officer lover who insists that her hat be replaced. Both voices blend well and complement each other.
Part of the search for the eponymous hat takes our groom to the salon of the wealthy Baroness de Champigny, seductively sung and played by mezzo-soprano Lindsay Mecher. The baroness mistakes him for the famous violinist, Minardi, whom she expects to entertain her guests before a scrumptious dinner. The guests arrive all dressed formally in gorgeous costumes, ivory and black (from the French "nacre et bistre," mother-of-pearl and lampblack). When they are joined by the itinerant wedding party, by now "three sheets to the wind," the stage is a riot of colors – kudos to costume designer, R. Clare Parker.
Act III introduces a new character to the stage, but one we have been expecting, the jealous and violent Beaupertuis, the cuckold husband of Anaide, sung by bass-baritone Cameron Jackson, whose long diatribe against his wife's indiscretions has the audience in stitches. This is a rich and powerful voice one hopes to hear more often.
The chorus was excellent throughout and the women at their best in the millinery scene at the beginning of Act II, where their staccatos were as sharp as the needles they wielded. The gentlemen excelled as policemen in the last act, parodying the music with a march step that incorporated a hop on the upbeat.
The lengthy and charming overture gave Director Steven LaCosse the opportunity to introduce each of the colorful characters of the farce, while this attentive listener was impressed by the clean and strong playing by the UNCSA student orchestra, led by faculty member Christopher James Lees. Attacks were crisp and accented and the balance was excellent. Numerous solos added color to the staging; violin, oboe, piccolo and bassoon added spice; and there was a humorous trombone benediction in the third act. Only in some scenes did the orchestra threaten to overpower the singers, particularly in the opening moments.
I was very impressed by the sets by Jenna Snyder and by the seamless and elegant transformations from one scene to the next. The Act IV storm rivaled Beethoven and Rossini in musical intensity, and the lighting and lightning of Noah H. Trimner were spectacular.
The opera will repeat Sunday afternoon, February 7, 2016 at 2:00 pm and Tuesday night, February 9 at 7:30 pm at the Stevens Center in downtown Winston-Salem. See our side bar for details.