Fletcher Opera Institute presents French farce, The Italian Straw Hat

An opera based on a play that became one of the funniest silent films ever made, The Italian Straw Hat will be presented by the A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 5 and Tuesday, Feb. 9 and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 7 at the Stevens Center, 405 West Fourth St. Tickets are $25 regular and $20 students and are available at uncsa.edu/performances, or by calling the box office at 336-721-1945. 

Italian composer Nino Rota, who won an Academy Award for best film score in 1974 for "The Godfather, Part II," wrote the music for Eugene Labiche’s sparkling farce filled with surprises, zany characters and romance. The 1927 silent film, "An Italian Straw Hat" by René Clair, was enthusiastically received and remains on common lists of funniest films.   

Stage Director Steven LaCosse said the French farce is a classic comedy. “Farce is to France what Shakespeare is to England,” he said.

Set in Paris in 1913, the opera plot revolves around a bridegroom, Fadinard (performed by Simon Petersson, tenor), and his frantic wedding preparations. Racing around in his horse-drawn carriage, he snags a tree limb with his whip. While Fadinard retrieves the whip, his horse snacks on a lady’s straw hat, left hanging on a bush while its owner, Anaide (performed by Jenny Schuler, soprano), engages in a tryst with her lover. Philandering Anaide dare not tell her brutally jealous husband, who bought the hat made in Florence, Italy. Anaide and her lover, Emilio (performed by Cody Montá, baritone), confront Fadinard and demand that the hat be replaced.

What follows is an early version of the modern-day road trip, with Fadinard chasing through Paris in search of an exclusive straw hat, closely followed by his bride, Elena (performed by Megan Cleaveland, soprano); her suspicious and quick-tempered father, Nonancourt (performed by undergraduate voice student Patrick Scully, bass); and a host of bewildered and increasingly besotted wedding guests.

“It’s an amusing story, and a ridiculous situation to begin with,” LaCosse said. “They get into one crazy predicament after another. It’s akin to Keystone Cops, or a Carol Burnett comedy piece.”

The Italian Straw Hat is the UNCSA debut for this year’s Fletcher Opera Fellows: Petersson; Schuler; Montá; Cleaveland; Matthew Arnold, baritone, who plays Elena’s uncle; and Lindsay Mecher, mezzo-soprano, who plays a baronessa rumored to possess a duplicate of the damaged hat.

“Fletcher Opera Institute is proud to continue its tradition of attracting some of the world’s most talented graduate students in opera,” said Nicholas Muni, artistic director of the institute. “Local audiences are in for a treat with The Italian Straw Hat featuring this year’s exceptional Fellows.”

The opera will be sung in Italian with English supertitles. Christopher James Lees is conductor, with musical preparation by Angela Vanstory Ward.

LaCosse, who first saw the opera performed in English when he was in college, said it’s a perfect introduction for those who have never been to an opera. “Don’t be intimidated because it is sung in Italian. You have the words provided, and the tunes are lovely. You already know Rota’s music from his score for 'The Godfather.' It’s theatre, basically, with music and dance.”

More than 350 students are involved with the production, which includes a cast of more than 40 singers; a small orchestra; and all of the student designers, technicians and stage crew. “That’s a huge chunk of our student body,” LaCosse said. “You are getting to see a lot of top quality student talent.”

by Lauren Whitaker

Jan. 27, 2016