Remember “The Godfather” movies? I only saw them once but certain scenes are burned into my memory so hard they’ll never leave. If they made such an impression on me after a few hours I can only imagine the impression they left on the creators of the films. Al Pacino and Robert De Niro probably had to take long Caribbean vacations to get back to normal after filming. Director Francis Ford Coppola probably needed to move to a cabin in the woods. I’d guess that even the composer of the film music needed a freakin’ weekend after so much heaviness. Why am I talking about “The Godfather” and the film’s composer Nino Rota? Because Nino Rota did take time off from his very serious compositional career and write things completely different. “The Italian Straw Hat” was a passion project that he wrote with help from his mom (which sounds like an amazing comedy unto itself...someone please write that movie!).
Based on a vaudeville play from 1851, this opera is the exact opposite of “The Godfather”. Bad guys are plentiful but they’re all buffoons. Neither term of ‘organized’ or ‘crime’ suits anyone on stage. Instead, we have a lot of mistaken identities, increasing absurdity, and things getting out of hand in every way imaginable. Like any good episode of Seinfeld (The Puffy Shirt) or Broad City (Coat Check) or Curb Your Enthusiasm (The Bracelet), not very much happens in this story. It’s a tale about regular people doing regular things (getting married is pretty big deal, to be fair) and then absurd circumstances (hopefully) lead to absurd laughter. There are no kings nor queens, angels nor demons, morals, or lessons learned. I wish the Ordway served popcorn and M&Ms because this felt more like a live action rom-com than a usual operatic production.
In a level of mastery that patrons have come to expect from MN Opera, this production was stellar. The orchestra was flawless, the staging was grandiose yet simple, the singing was masterful, and the props brought the jokes home. The music of this show was fun, it consistently set the scene and the mood. Every company member demonstrated great singing but Nino Rota’s composition isn’t a ‘star vehicle’. Every bit of music serves the story but no melodies were being whistled by patrons as we left.
This show demands a huge amount of comedy - originally a vaudeville play, this story is all about timing and the correct amount of absurdity. Aided by more than enough absurd props, costumes, and situations the humor landed. I laughed out loud multiple times...not as many times as I lol’d at John Mulaney’s standup specials but a good number nonetheless. I find myself very impressed with the singers for their comedic abilities. I think it’s a fair assumption that all of the performers on this operatic stage had their primary training in vocal performance and not slapstick humor. I wouldn’t expect Zach Galifianakis or Carrot Top to be able to sing opera so expecting opera singers to deliver consistent physical humor is a tall order that was delivered. The humor of some actors landed more than others but the clear fan favorite was pink-tuxedo wearing Viscount Achille di Rosalba played by Christian Sanders.
On opening night the house was full and the audience was quick to laugh. Consistently through both acts the crowd was on-board with every joke. At intermission I heard more than one couple trying to iron out confusing points of the story. The plot is of this piece is pretty thin and the characters’ motivations aren’t completely believable. But with a little suspension of disbelief I heard audience members continue to laugh and be generally enamored with the staging, costuming, and props. Overall, everyone at the Ordway seemed happy that they braved the cold rather than staying home.
Here’s the deal: if you go into this show with the right expectation, it’s tremendous! If you go in expecting something that it’s not, you’ll leave disappointed. This show offers pretty music, great singing, humor, and an opportunity to laugh with a whole bunch of other people. It does not offer a glimpse into the human condition. It is not the greatest work of a genius who left the world too soon. This probably isn’t anyone’s favorite opera but I think almost anyone would agree it’s a fun way to spend an evening.
In closing, let me tell you about something completely different: I recently met a friend of a friend named Jake. Jake makes his living guiding week-long camping trips for retirees. In conversing, I asked him “Oh, so is most of your job about preparation and safety?” To which he replied “No, most of my job is reminding these adults how to have fun. They’ve spent the last 30 years raising kids and running companies and they’ve forgotten how to live in the moment. That’s why they come.”
Jake didn’t review this opera but somehow he hit the nail on the head.