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The horse who mistook a hat for his hay

When a pixilated horse mistakes an elegant straw hat for his lunchtime feed bag, all kinds of funny things can happen - especially if the horse does so in a famous French farce in which the hat is a jealous husband's gift to his young wife. (She fails to notice the equine feast because her attention is absorbed by her escort, a handsome French lieutenant.) But when a gifted composer takes this farce - Eug`ene-Marin Labiche's ``The Italian Straw Hat'' of 1851 - and turns it into a zany opera, the result is a minor musical masterpiece - especially if the composer is the late Nino Rota, a man who wrote filmscores (think of ``The Godfather''), ballets (``La Strada'' is the most popular), sacred oratorios (such as ``La vita di Maria''), and operas (``Straw Hat'' is but one of nine).

A hilarious production of Rota's ``Straw Hat'' has kicked off the new season at the Teatro Municipale Valli, which just reopened its baroque theater after extensive renovations. The show is a merry-go-round of adventures and misunderstandings from start to finish. When the hat's owner learns that the millinery-munching horse belongs to a bridegroom, she and her lieutenant force the bridal couple to postpone their wedding - even though a stagecoach full of guests is already en route to the ceremony, and the bride is already veiled and gowned. The groom, they say, is responsible for the loss of the hat and must immediately search for a substitute. His chase leads him from a millinery shop to the home of a baroness (who is thought to have bought a hat similar to the missing one) to the house of the jealous husband (who acquired the original hat from the baroness), and, finally, late at night (with the stagecoach of wedding guests still in pursuit of the postponed ceremony), to the piazza in front of his own home.

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Throughout this labyrinthine plot, Rota's music is tuneful and appropriate. No film music here! Instead we get a score that is unmistakably contemporary without ever being strident or discordant, a score balanced between musical humor and melodic beauty.

While the principals were not outstanding vocally, all were good. The loudest ovation at curtain time was for Pier Luigi Pizzi, and rightly so, for his clever direction was of the highest order.

The season in Reggio Emilia is a short one this year - only four weeks. Verdi's popular ``Rigoletto'' opens in February; Jean Philippe Rameau's seldom-perfomred ``Hippolyte et Arcie'' plays in late March, a coproduction with l'Op'era of Paris, Aix-en-Provence, and Op'era Lyon; and the season will end in May with Modest Mussorgsky's ``Boris Gudunov'' in a new production by the Theater Malegot of Leningrad which will be on tour.

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