If a production has to be defined perfect, this is the case: Nino Rota’s Il cappello di paglia di Firenze (The Florentine Straw Hat), which premiered in 1955, had never been produced in Naples before. This season, it finally made it to the main stage, and it proved a winning choice. Everybody knows Rota as the composer of film scores for some of the most important directors, from Fellini to Visconti to Francis Ford Coppola. But he wrote music for concert halls and opera houses too, and is considered as one of the most prominent Italian composers of the last century.

<i>Il cappello di paglia di Firenze</i> © Francesco Squeglia
Il cappello di paglia di Firenze
© Francesco Squeglia

Based on Labiche and Michel's 1851 stage play, Un Chapeau de paille d'Italie, Rota’s opera (to a libretto by Rota himself and his mother, Ernesta) is moderately well known in Italy, while is quite unfamiliar for international productions. The plot follows Fadinard on his wedding day, who chases around Paris in search of a straw hat to replace the one his horse has eaten. The lady who owned the hat was in the park with her lover, and insists that Fadinard finds an exact replica of it so that her husband will not suspect her of infidelity.

The play develops into a delirious folle journée as Fadinard searches the hat, and is chased in turn by his father-in-law, his fiancée, Elena, and their wedding guests. The situation becomes more and more surreal as new characters are involved in this bizarre journey through Paris, a classic case of a snowball process, where an initial event of small significance builds upon itself, becoming larger and larger, a cartoon cliché as it was in vaudeville theatre.

Musically, Rota matches the frivolous plot with a score filled with overt references to a wide range of genres, from Italian opera buffa (Cimarosa, Rossini) to Verdi’s Falstaff and verismo, up to the hectic scores of American musical and cartoon movies. Also – little wonder, as the story is set in Paris – there are hints of French operetta and an overall air of boulevardier comedy.

Bruno de Simone (Beaupertuis), Zuzana Marková	 (Elena) and Pietro Adaini (Fadinard) © Francesco Squeglia
Bruno de Simone (Beaupertuis), Zuzana Marková (Elena) and Pietro Adaini (Fadinard)
© Francesco Squeglia

With her fresh, gleaming production, director Elena Barbalich adds as much vaudeville as possible. Il cappello is a farce, as it is about misunderstandings and mistaken identities, and is a challenge for directors, as it has to be accurately timed, due to the frantic pace and fast-moving stage entrances and exits.

Tommaso Lagattolla's sets were continuously transformed following the speedy plot developments. The scene  was encircled by a frame of light bulbs, evoking the vaudevillian spirit of the show. Every single stage sequence was part of a perfectly assembled clockwork. The scene with the storm was particularly remarkable, with suspended umbrellas and skaters crossing the stage. The sequence with the chorus of wedding guests strolling around was very funny, led by Fadinard’s father-in-law, Nanoncourt, with his "call it off" catchphrase; not to tell of the hilarious milliners’ scene. The entire staging proved a fantastic divertissement. Lagattolla's smart costumes and the lighting of Marco Giusti were perfectly appropriate, evoking the vaudeville spirit of the show.

<i>Il cappello di paglia di Firenze</i> © Francesco Squeglia
Il cappello di paglia di Firenze
© Francesco Squeglia

Consistently, the director put together a very good cast. The role of Fadinard is a long and demanding one, and Pietro Adaini exhibited outstanding high notes along with the talent of a brilliant comedian. Bruno de Simone, as the agitated husband Beaupertuis, whose dreaded jealousy sets the plot in motion, delivered his Act 3 aria with his glorious bass-baritone. As Elena, soprano Zuzana Marková was outstanding in her Act 1 duet with Adaini and funny in every scene. Anna Malavasi as the Baroness of Champigny was brilliant, and Gianluca Buratto was excellent as Fadinard's prospective father-in-law. 

Conductor Valerio Galli gave a whimsical reading of Rota's multi-layered score, making the ensemble sound like opera buffa combined with the feverish scores of cartoon movies. Galli's gifted baton made every single hilarious detail emerged with clarity. The orchestra, with its comical remarks on the action, was in many ways one of the stars of the night, as was the chorus, as they never sang and acted so gorgeously.