My first opera: a lot of fuss over a straw hat
It’s opening night at Wexford Festival Opera, and there is much for a novice to learn: don’t touch the intermission drinks, tiny binoculars are not the done thing, and don’t mess with an Italian’s headwear
Rota’s opera is based on a 19th-century French play, The Italian Straw Hat, by Eugene Labiche, a highly regarded author of popular “romps”. (Romp, incidentally, is the first of several terms I encounter tonight that I had hitherto associated solely with tabloid kiss-and-tell stories. In act one, there will be lots of heated debate over the location of a couple’s “love nest”.)
The play was a runaway success when it was first produced in 1851. It was later adapted into a libretto, an avant-garde silent movie and a Russian musical before coming to the attention of Nino Rota, a 20th-century Italian composer best known for writing the scores for Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and the first two Godfather movies.
Quite what gives this story such enduring appeal is not immediately apparent, on paper at any rate. Assuming in advance that I won’t understand a word of the Italian being sung, I study a long synopsis of the opera’s plot before coming here, in order that I can properly follow the action.
It turns out, however, that this effort was unnecessary. Digital screens flash live translations of what is being performed onstage to the audience, and a plot that seems laboured on paper sparkles with slapstick humour when brought to life.
The story centres on Fadinard, the hero, and what my aunt would call “a grand, apologetic sort of a fellow”. On the day of Fadinard’s wedding to his beloved Elena, he goes for an early-morning carriage ride through the park, where his horse eats a young lady’s straw hat, setting in motion the ludicrous plots and subplots to follow.
The young lady, Anaide, is greatly distressed, because she is convinced that if she returns home without said hat, her ogre of a husband will realise she has taken a lover, Emilio. (How the cuckolded husband is supposed to make this deduction on the basis of a hat being missing is one of several plot holes.)
Emilio, a hot-tempered soldier, demands Fadinard replace the hat. Flustered, Fadinard attempts to comply with Emilio’s wishes. But when inquiries are made, it transpires a similar hat is not available for purchase anywhere in the city.
At which point, the lovers Anaide and Emilio come to their senses and say “Arrah, listen Fadinard, these things happen. Sure, you have enough to be worrying about with your wedding on. We’re only getting in your way.”
Actually, no. The pair don’t say anything like that. Instead, Anaide informs our hero that she would rather kill herself than appear in public without her hat, while Emilio vows that, unless Fadinard produces a replacement, he will have no choice but to challenge him to (you guessed it) a duel.