Nino Rota (1911-1979) is, of course, remembered for his scores for such films
as The Godfather; La Dolce Vita; Il Gattopardo (The Leopard); Waterloo;
War and Peace and La Strada.
Rota based his comic opera on Eugène Labiche's celebrated farce set
in Paris in 1850. He composed The Florentine Straw Hat between 1944
and '45 to a libretto, written by Rota himself (aided by his mother). It
was then put aside, perhaps, because of more urgent business. It might have
been forgotten except that the conductor Cuccia, who had heard the material
that Rota had completed in 1944, scheduled a performance of the complete
work in Palermo in 1955. It proved to be a great success.
Labiche's play had already been made into a memorable film in 1927 by René
Clair under the title An Italian Straw Hat (a vital fact not acknowledged
in the booklet notes). This film was received rapturously by the critics
who were unanimous in voting it one of the funniest films ever made - an
opinion which persists to this day.
The plot like all good farces revolves around a series of misunderstandings.
There are mistaken identities, mistaken hats, mistaken shoes, mistaken
apartments, mistaken bridegrooms
The opera begins with bridegroom Fadinard
racing in his horse and carriage to his apartment at daybreak on his wedding
day to ensure that all is in order to receive his bride after the ceremonies
later in the day. He does not spare his horse but his whip becomes snared
in a tree. He stops to retrieve it only to discover that his horse has eaten
a lady's straw hat. When its owner, Anaide, a young married woman, discovers
the wreckage she, together with Emilio her illicit lover pursues Fadinard
to his apartment. She bewails that she dare not go home to her brutal jealous
husband without the exclusive straw hat from Florence. Emilio demands that
the hat is replaced or he will challenge Fadinard to a duel. He does not
care a jot that Fadinard has to leave for his wedding. The quick tempered
Nonancourt, father of the bride (Elena), then turns up to place orange blossom
in the bridal chamber where Anaide and Emilio are hiding. The plot becomes
ever more convoluted as poor Fadinard endeavours to get him to leave then
chases all over Paris trying to find a replacement straw hat. He is closely
followed by Nonancourt, Elena and the wedding guests who become more and
more bewildered and sozzled as they all lurch from one hysterical predicament
Rossini's influence is apparent. The composer's impressions from visits to
both France and America are also evident; so, too, is something of the circus
and farcical styles Rota brought to his scores for the films of Felini. Added
to this brew one might also detect some Puccinian and Verdian seasonings.
Needless to say, the music is high-spirited, playful, irreverent and satirical.
Rota cleverly, spontaneously, closely contrasts or mixes buffoonery with
the warmer genuine feelings of his characters. Tenor Ugo Benelli, in the
demanding lead role of Fadinard, exchanges, with easy aplomb, his buffo style
required for his many farcical situations, for an appealing 'straight' lyric
tenor voice, whenever he declares his fidelity to his bewildered new wife.
Alfredo Mariotti's bass Nonancourt is perpetually on short fuse as he fumes
after his son-in-law with the orchestra rudely scoring points off him. They
are slightly more sympathetic with Beaupertuis, Anaide's cuckolded husband,
sung by rich-voiced baritone Mario Basioli, who rants and rages but also
feels rather sorry for himself in Act III. Of the ladies, Viorica Cortez
is outstanding as the Baroness who mistakenly believes Fadinard (who thinks
she has an Italian straw hat) is the Italian violinist she has hired to entertain
her guests. The Baroness is an incurable romantic infatuated with the idea
that the Italian violinist wants to play for her with a single rose as his
sole reward. She sings as though she was in a world of make-believe and Rota
wickedly gives her a saccharine sweet violin solo to lead the accompaniment.
Lyric soprano, Daniella Mazzuccato as Elena, Fadinard's young bride is the
only straight character. Her romantic duets with Fadinard are a highlight
of the work. Rota delights in blowing orchestral raspberries at his characters
and his score often has some delighful touches such as the vivid portrait
of the horses drawing the carriages of the wedding guests - and their horse
laughs! - and the storm music of Act III as well as being remarkably vivid
also pokes fun of the weary, lost, drunken wedding guests.
A delightful and amusing entertainment.