Nino Rota’s Cappello di Paglia in Sassari

If you have heard some of Nino Rota’s music it has probably been at the cinema; he wrote over 150 film scores, notably for Fellini and Visconti. But he also composed orchestral and chamber music and no less than ten operas. One of the latter to survive on the periphery of the repertory is Il Cappello di Paglia di Firenze. Based on The Italian Straw Hat, the French farce by Labiche and the silent film by René Clair, it is a light, zestful and tuneful piece with reminiscences of Rossini, Puccini and even Offenbach.  Conceived by its composer purely as an entertainment, it would be wrong to present it any other way. But, to succeed, it does require style in performance.

Given that musically it is mainly pastiche I would have expected the staging to follow in the same mould with slick, stylised movement and with exaggerated zany characterisation leaning into caricature. But the production by Lorenzo Maria Mucci in Sassari was dull and conventional and disappointingly there was not much to laugh at. To give it some originality, and perhaps in an effort to pay homage to Rota’s fame and fortune, there were occasional transpositions of the setting to film-making in a studio but these sequences did not lead anywhere and were a waste of time.

Happily, the musical dimension made a stronger impression. The conductor Federico Santi offered a lively interpretation of the score, accentuating the pitter-patter rhythms of the operetta-like passages and drawing out the sentimentality of the romantic arias and duets. And there were some good voices present. As the bride who has to endure a very long wait for the nuptials soprano Elisabetta Scano spun out some lovely soft phrases. The resonant basses, Francesco Leone and Marco Bussi, excelled as, respectively, the father of the bride and the cuckolded husband, and mezzo Aloisa Aisemberg made much of her brief appearance as the Baroness who had only temporary possession of the straw hat.

The pivotal role of Fadinard, who has to find the eponymous hat in order to restore order and enable his wedding to proceed, was taken by Mauro Secci. His bright tenor coped well with the demands Rota made of it, but – as though to epitomise the shortcomings of the evening – his stand-and-sing stage presence significantly undersold his part in the proceedings. What was needed was a Buster Keaton-like impersonation: a character overwhelmed by externally-imposed adversity but able, sometimes through guile, sometimes through good fortune, to emerge unscathed and successful.

It was certainly a pleasure encountering this comic opera for the first time, but the Sassari performance needed more punch and a sharper theatrical vision for the work’s potential to be fully realised.