62º Wexford Festival Opera:
George Fleeton © 2013
“… 1979 was The Year of the Missing Lemon Juice. The Theatre Royal in Wexford holds 440; it was completely full that night, so there are, allowing for a few who have already died … hardly more than four hundred people who now share, to the end of their lives, an experience from which the rest of the world, now and for ever, is excluded. When the last of us dies, the experience will die with us, for although it is already enshrined in legend, no one who was not an eye witness will ever really understand what we felt.”
Thus begins chapter 12, ‘Wexford – The Luck of the Irish,’ in Bernard Levin’s book Conducted Tour ¹ – dealing with the final performance of Spontini’s operaLa vestale, in Wexford, on the night when there was no lemon juice sprinkled on the Formica surface of the sloping stage; and Levin’s description of that more than bears out, delightfully, Dr Johnson’s opinion that Italian opera is an exotic and irrational entertainment.
I was reminded of Levin’s account of his experience in Wexford when I saw the raked stage in this year’s Festival production of Nino Rota’s opera Il Cappello di Paglia di Firenze (The Florentine Straw Hat, Palermo, 1955, sometimes referred to as ‘Horse eats Hat’) in which, fortunately for all, there were no melodramatic mishaps of that nature, no Formica surfaces and no sprinkling of lemon juice.
All of the 62nd Wexford Festival Opera productions, by the way, under review here (and later), were seen and heard over three days, October 30 – November 01, during my sixth consecutive visit to what has become Europe’s final opera festival of the year
Il Cappello di Paglia di Firenze
Cinéaste René Clair’s silent film Un Chapeau de Paille d’Italie (An Italian Straw Hat, 1927) is an elegant and exquisite farce: a young groom’s horse eats a young woman’s straw hat as he is driving to his wedding.
The lady with the hat was having an affair and she has to find a replacement hat to allay her husband’s suspicions.
So the groom is diverted from his own wedding to preserve the illusion of another, and he conducts the entire wedding party on a Paris-wide search for just the right Italian straw hat.
The chase framework of that film, and the race-against-time narrative, together permitted a steady stream of ironic observations on the bourgeoisie, propriety and marriage.
This is a classic which owes nothing to Chaplin or Keaton: their comedies were redolent with self-pity or solitude: this is French and it is different and it is better.
I saw it in Paris, projected on to a wall, in the old Renault factories at Boulogne-Billancourt, during the student-worker riots of May 1968.
I have never forgotten it, and I have never seen it since.
Nino Rota was Fellini’s most cherished collaborator.
On the one occasion I met him (the opening night of Fellini Satyricon in Milan in September 1969) he told me he had introduced Fellini to opera, Verdi in particular, and that he would have preferred, above all, to be a composer of operas – an ambition which we now know Rota never realised
When he died in 1979 Fellini said “Nino’s creativity was a joy.”
Rota had written the music for all of Fellini’s films, from his second Lo Sceicco Bianco (The White Sheik, 1952) up to and including Prova d’Orchestra(Orchestra Rehearsal, 1979), and his music, for the seventeen films which they made together, is vastly more interesting than that written for other directors such as Zeffirelli or Coppola.
His Cappello di Paglia was eventually staged in Italy’s biggest opera house, the Teatro Massimo in Palermo, in 1955, a few months after Fellini’s La Strada,their first big international film success together.
In Wexford this year the Rota opera, it would appear, was the anchor production, in that, of the three main stage offerings, it was chosen to open the Festival.
Of course this opera could have been more appropriately staged there two years ago, and thus it would have marked the centenary of Rota’s birth in 1911, as was the case when it surfaced in Florence that year.
But, ever thankful for small mercies at Wexford, this production fairly bounced around the auditorium, with a busy, exaggerated set (Paris in 1958 -la vie douce two years before la dolce vita), some awkwardly contrived discovery spaces, that afore-mentioned sloping stage, and not a little Marx Bros-style hilarity.
It was good too to see the cast augmented by Irish singers, Claudia Boyle and Owen Gilhooly, and a big alla fiorentina ‘hats off’ must go to tenor Filippo Adami who stood in, late into rehearsals, to sing the tenor role of Fadinard.
Listening to Rota’s opera music in Wexford, it seems he was quite a self-referential magpie – like that more famous re-cycler of old tunes, Rossini, who, with one bound, 140 years earlier, had taken this kind of harmless operatic farce to a new level, with his ‘sit-up-and-pay- attention’ overtures, piquant tunes, colourful orchestrations with buckets of high-wire coloratura potential, but above all discipline and structure.
While we do get discipline and structure in Rota’s music, I think however his debt to Rossini is not just that simple.
If we go back to his remark about preferring above all to be a composer of operas, we are reminded of Dvořák’s identical, and most cherished, ambition: to become a composer of operas of international repute.
Such aspirations were never realised by either Dvořák or Rota, who each wrote ten operas in the attempt, alongside oceans of serious-minded classical music.
Cappello di Paglia is Rota’s Rusalka, the only one that came near, in terms of international recognition.
Commentators on Rota’s operas are too quick to stress his prolific output as a composer of film music although, as we heard in the excellent pre-performance talk given by Roberto Recchia, the score of this opera could just as easily be appreciated as a film soundtrack.
But there isn’t a trace of his film music – to my ear – in the score of Cappello di Paglia, though there are fleeting snatches from other composers: e.g. weren’t there at least two echoed from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi (another farce set in Florence)?
And there’s an impressive and well animated Rigoletto-like storm sequence in the final Act, and lots of scherzi throughout.
But ‘Is that all there is?’ – to quote Peggy Lee.
Well, on the night the capacity audience kept dancing, broke out the booze and had a ball, and that is all that matters?
Well, at least se non è vero, è ben trovato!
Further reflections on Wexford 2013 will follow here shortly, on Down News.
Meanwhile some thoughts on Wexford 2012 may still be found at
¹ Conducted Tour
A journey through twelve music festivals of Europe and Australia
Bernard Levin (Sceptre Books, 1988)
(pp. 208 et seq.)