Review: Minnesota Opera’s ‘Italian Straw Hat’ is fast-paced, farcical fun – St. Paul Pioneer Press

Are you serious? I mean: Too serious? Are modern life and the state of the world conspiring to wrap you in a web of worry?

Well, that’s understandable, but it bears remembering that, even in humankind’s most difficult times, brilliant comedy was still being created. While there’s very good comedy around right now, one place you don’t often find it is at the opera. Sure, there are productions of masterful comic operas from the late 18th and early 19th centuries by Mozart and Gioachino Rossini, but almost all the new operas seem to be deadly serious. Witness Minnesota Opera’s recent productions of “The Manchurian Candidate,” “The Shining” and “Dead Man Walking.” Grim stuff.

While Nino Rota’s 1955 opera, “The Italian Straw Hat,” isn’t new, it’s new to us. Minnesota Opera is presenting its first production of it in the company’s 55 years, and it’s an opera reminiscent of Hollywood’s “screwball comedies,” fast-paced affairs in which one absurd situation leads to another. While Rota’s music bears plenty of lovely and clever nods to the classical and romantic eras, this is a comic opera with an emphasis upon the comic. Go to laugh and appreciate some fine singing along the way.

Rota was just hitting his stride as a film composer — who came to be best known for his work with Federico Fellini and the “Godfather” films — when he and his librettist mother, Ernesta Rota, adapted “The Italian Straw Hat” from a 19th-century French farce. And it has all the twists, turns and silliness of that form. On the day of a Parisian wedding, the groom’s horse eats a woman’s hat, inadvertently exposing an extramarital affair, resulting in threats on the groom’s life and his search for a duplicate hat. One destination invariably points him to another as the increasingly drunken wedding party follows behind.

Under the flamboyant direction of Andrea Cigni and employing the colorful and sometimes surrealistic scenic design of Lorenzo Cutuli, Minnesota Opera’s production is a lot of fun. While it doesn’t accelerate to the whiplash-inducing speed of such screwball classics as “Bringing Up Baby” and “His Girl Friday,” those films don’t allow the characters to stop and sing their hearts out.

And this opera certainly does that. Holding the whole madcap chase together is tenor Andrew Stenson as a groom full of incredulity and intermittent dashes of trickery. While his rapid Italian patter consistently impresses, Stenson also stretches out on a lovely love aria while he’s pretending to seduce a baroness (Victoria Vargas in a fine comic turn). Almost equally responsible for keeping the hijinks high is Dale Travis, who makes the father of the bride the model of blustery belligerence. And fellow bass-baritone Pietro Di Bianco shows off a voice of power and tenderness as a cuckolded husband.

While it would seem there’s no time for showstoppers in a show of this pace, Lisa Marie Rogali comes pretty darn close. As the bride experiencing a confounding itinerant wedding reception, she must periodically pause to ponder her commitment to this man, and Rota gives her the opera’s most beautiful music to do it. Rogali makes each aria transporting, her pure, nuanced soprano voice touching hearts while the rest of the opera tickles your funny bone.

If You Go

What: Minnesota Opera’s “The Italian Straw Hat”

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: Ordway Music Theater, 345 Washington St., St. Paul

Tickets: $200-$25, available at 612-333-6669 or mnopera.org

Capsule: Fast-paced, farcical, fun and funny, it’s a comedy to chase the chill.