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Every performance at Wexford begins with “Amhrán na bhFiann” (“The Soldier’s Song”), and everyone stands to sing it. The tune of Ireland’s national anthem has a stirring lilt. You can’t mistake where you are: this is the former fishing port in southeast Ireland where, long ago, a local doctor founded a festival that went against the grain – and continues to do so, exhuming an operatic past that everyone else ignores.
In an age that binds metropolitan companies in an ever-closer hug of generic co-production, Wexford is the cradle of surprises. You don’t head for a corner of Ireland to hear what you already know. You take a punt and, with a bit of luck, come away believing you’ve witnessed a masterpiece that posterity unjustly rejected.
You might need a couple of interval drinks to be persuaded that The Italian Straw Hat is a masterpiece. Its composer, Nino Rota (1911-79), is best known for his scores for Fellini’s films, but you wouldn’t recognise this “musical farce” as the work of a film composer, save for the ease with which Rota switches styles, knitting them seamlessly together.
Nor can you accuse him of blatantly stealing from the past: even the most reputable Italian composers were not above a bit of judicious borrowing, often from their own work, and Rota was no different. He simply took the opéra bouffe of Rossini’s time and adapted it for the 20th century. The result is slight, frothy – and extremely well made.
Andrea Cigni’s production, designed by Lorenzo Cutùli, updated the Parisian locale of the French play on which Rota’s opera is based, presenting it in a picture-postcard 1950s setting intended to evoke the nostalgia of lost innocence. It didn’t quite work. The stage looked cluttered and the comedy constructed, as if the director was telling the audience when to laugh, instead of allowing the humour to speak for itself.
But the conductor, Sergio Alapont, kept the music on a tight rein, and the large cast, led by Filippo Adami’s Fadinard, Filippo Fontana’s Beaupertuis and Asude Karayavuz’s Baronessa, worked well as an ensemble, even if there were no outstanding voices.