It is difficult to understand why, at a time when there is a dearth of high-quality operatic comedy (a much harder genre to pull off than heavy drama), a sparkling and witty score such as Il cappello di paglia di Firenze has not been taken up by opera companies outside Italy. Such neglect does not derive from the intrinsic qualities of the music, rather, could it have something to do with a snobbish attitude to Nino Rota because of his enormous successes as a film soundtrack composer (from Il gattopardo to The Godfather and Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, not to mention most of Fellini’s movies)? Nino Rota himself was well aware that his fame as a movie music writer was bound to obscure his activity as an opera composer and came to resent it. In a 1960 interview he flat out declared: “it is natural that my predilection goes to the opera. In movies, I have to listen to the director, in opera only myself”. Even more radical in such feelings was the composer’s mother, Ernesta Rinaldi, a well-known pianist and co-author of the libretto of Il cappello di paglia di Firenze, who repeatedly let it be known that she considered her son’s soundtrack composing economically necessary, but not an honorific occupation.
A pupil of Ildebrando Pizzetti and Alfredo Casella, Nino Rota (1911-1979) had the most respectable credentials, having been director of the Bari Conservatoire for over a quarter of century and having composed nine stage works, two radio operas, two ballets and any number of choral and instrumental music of all types.
Il cappello di paglia di Firenze, his most popular non-cinematographic work, was completed in 1945, but the composer extensively and continuously revised it in the ten years before its world premiere, which took place on 21 April, 1955 at the Teatro Massimo of Palermo. Its general manager, Simone Cuccia, who had heard most of the opera privately played at the piano by the composer himself, added the opera to the 1954/55 season without informing the composer, who after ten years had given up all hopes to ever see it staged. As mentioned before, Rota never stopped polishing his work during that decade. One of the most evident proofs is the introduction - in the opera’s finale – of the main theme of Lo sceicco bianco, his first collaboration with Federico Fellini.
In Il cappello, Rota writes music of freshness, vitality and immediate appeal; the style adopted here might be described as that of a latter-day Rossini, with that master’s rhythmic exuberance, vocal flair, sheer delight in comic patter-song, and (not least) skill, but with sly harmonic sideslip or dissonances (as when the protagonist, Fadinard, sublimely unaware of the events about to engulf him, gazes longingly at his love-nest) and wryly pointed instrumentation. After all, more than one century had not passed in vain.
Rossini is in full evidence right in the Overture, which, consisting of only sixty-six measures, “provokingly” in C major and Allegro, contains the main themes of the opera. The first one is the whirling scale of quavers and semiquavers inspired by Rosina’s cavatina in Il barbiere di Siviglia; then comes a number of rhythmically pressing chords, and finally the theme of the bridal procession.
In act I, the musical atmosphere evokes the French nineteenth century filtered through the eighteenth century Italian opera buffa. Fadinard’s aria about the joys of marriage is a masterful blend between Rossini’s comic style and Puccini’s dreamy and lyrical flights. Puccini peeps out also in the tenor’s “mad scene” in act III “ Lo voglio, lo voglio, lo voglio”, which has more than a passing resemblance to Des Grieux “No! Pazzo son”, and as a matter of fact Fadinard at one point exclaims “Sì, sono pazzo!”
Verdi could not be neglected, and it’s especially his Otello that is referenced. When Fadinard enters the house of the insanely jealous cuckold husband Beaupertuis, it’s the music immediately following Iago’s “Credo”, that swift pattering interlude with its fleet bass lines accompanied by rapid change of harmony, to be parodied.
Another homage to one of most typical “topoi” of Italian opera may well be the act IV storm, placed in the same strategic position as in Barbiere or La Cenerentola, albeit more Verdian in sound, and even here echoes of the opening tempest of Otello are in full evidence.
The plot of this opera will be familiar to all cinema buffs from René Clair’s unforgettable comic masterpiece, An Italian Straw Hat (Un chapeu de paille d’Italie); and Ibert’s well-known Divertissement is drawn from the incidental music he composed for a stage performance of the farce by the same title written in 1851 by Eugéne-Marin Labiche. Briefly, it concerns the frenzied efforts of a wealthy young man, Fadinard, on the day of his marriage to the pretty daughter of a provincial but even wealthier boor (who, along with the wedding party, dogs his every step) to procure an exact replica of a rare Florentine straw hat, which, compromisingly left on some bushes by a lady with a jealous husband who had gone with her officer lover into the woods, his horse had eaten.
Although Il cappello di paglia di Firenze is undoubtedly a typical ensemble opera, where the sum of the parts is more important than each individual performance, it is also undeniable that the role of Fadinard towers above all the others. The young groom is on stage for the entire duration of the romp and must possess a remarkable physical stamina. Filippo Adami was a brilliant, imaginative protagonist, notable for his strong lyric tenor (several sizes bigger than it is customary to hear in this role) and for his neck-breaking, acrobatic athleticism. Lavinia Bini, as Elena, the bride, showed technical proficiency and self-assurance in the nostalgic florid singing and picchettatos Rota writes for her, as well as a very tight vibrato that may not be to everyone’s taste. Mezzo-soprano Romina Tomasoni emphasized the comic side of the juicy role of the Baronessa di Champigny, somewhat to the detriment of a clean vocal line. Nonancourt, the bride’s father, is a bass role reminiscent of so many Rossini buffo parts; Salvatore Salvaggio proved to be a master of the patter style, with only some descents into the low register sounding unfocused. Beaupertuis, the betrayed husband, who dominates Act III, has a strange vocal writing that combines elements of intense dramatic venting with others typical of the most impudent comedy. Baritone Mauro Bonfanti did justice to both, creating a character both threatening and ridiculous at the same time.
The rest of the cast did not have so much to sing, but delivered high-quality acting performances. Because of their unadulterated commitment, it would be unfair not to mention them: Anna Maria Sarra (Anaide, the adulteress), Francesco Verna (Emilio, her lover), Roberto Jachini Virgili (Vézinet), Saverio Bambi (Felice), Leonardo Melani (una guardia), Massimo Egidio Naccarato (un caporale), Irene Favro (la modista) and the two non singing members of the cast, Andrea Severi (the pianist) and Ladislao Horvath (Minardi, the violinist). Most of the cast and crew are, or have been, students of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Academy.
Spanish conductor Sergio Alanpont gave the performance a truly theatrical rhythm, grasping with clearness and suppleness each single parodistic element. He is a very young maestro with barely five or six years of activity under his belt, but already fully assured and in total control of a complex and polyhedric score such as Rota’s.
The other true hero of the evening was stage director Andrea Cigni, who created, with the complicity of set and costume designer Lorenzo Cutùli, a sparkling, youthful, colourful, exhilarating and hilarious production, walking the fine line between high comedy and farce, very occasionally giving the audience only a furtive taste of the latter, just as Rota’s score clearly suggests.
Il cappello di paglia di Firenze had never been performed in Florence before. For the occasion, the foyer hosted the biggest Florentine straw hat ever made, two metres of diameter and two kilometres of hand made straw brim, and ladies were given as a gift a small fan in the shape of, you guessed it, a straw hat. Too bad I was not given one: I could have used it, as I have seldom wept with laughter attending an opera.