After a two-year hiatus, the renowned Canadian baritone Russell Braun returned to UofT Opera to conduct a production of Nino Rota’s comedy, The Florentine Straw Hat, from Nov 23–26, 2023 at the Faculty of Music, MacMillan Theatre. Since his conducting debut at the UofT Opera in 2016, his appearance at the helm of the orchestra has always garnered great praise and applause. 

And this time around is no different. 

The Florentine Straw Hat tells the story of Fadinard, a bridegroom, racing around Paris on his wedding day to replace a straw hat that his horse had accidentally eaten. The hat’s owner, a married woman, is engaged in an illicit affair, and the straw hat was given to her by her husband! Threatened by the lady’s lover, Fadinard must find an identical hat to avoid her husband finding out about her affair. A comical series of events follow, with Fadinard trying to hide this fiasco from his domineering father-in-law, all while avoiding the married woman’s forbidden lover.

The UofT Opera program was founded in 1946. It has trained young singers in all aspects of opera for nearly eighty years, providing them opportunities to advance their careers. A typical season from the program consists of three full-scale productions. 

Russell Braun’s mastery of Rota’s comedic opera easily showed through his interpretation of the music. From the onset of the overture to the final scene in Act IV, Braun seemed to keep all the musicians at his fingertips. No moment in any scene was safe from his all-encompassing vision. Of particular note was Braun’s treatment of Act IV, in which he took some tempos at a quicker pace than any other recording of this opera I’ve listened to — and to great effect! Each scene built off the energy of the previous scene, so that when the music reaches a comedic conclusion, his well-planned organization gave the audience a satisfying reward. 

The orchestra featured in these performances was also top-notch. Selected from members of the University of Toronto Symphony Orchestra — the flagship orchestra at the Faculty of Music — these young musicians obviously represent the cream of the crop in their craft. They were quick to respond to Braun’s conducting, reproducing his motions into sound, delivering a polished performance. The woodwinds and brass in this performance were excellent. I am happy to note that the brass did not overpower the singers, even in big moments, and the woodwinds blended effortlessly into every section, both of which were great improvements from the year before. 

Michelle Tracey’s set design also offered what the audience expects from UofT Opera sets: meticulously detailed, historically informed, yet abstract in its function. The two-levelled dynamic stage delivered the best of both worlds, not being too abstract to take away from the historical setting, and yet having enough space for the singers to play around in. The second level of the stage, enclosed with walls on three sides, acted as a barrier between the singers, allowing for moments of dramatic irony and witty interactions. 

The costumes — going for the historically informed slant — were grand and absolutely gorgeous, with the banquet chorus especially well designed, their dress colours matching with the stage lights. The historically informed set and costumes represent what I’ve noticed as the UofT Opera program’s approach: to provide adequate professional training to young singers while still not shying away from experimentation.

Lyndon Ladeur as Fadinard in the Friday and Sunday cast was impeccable. His voice yielded a gorgeous mixture from the bottom of his range to the top, and he showed no signs of fatigue at the end of the show, even after singing in nearly every scene in a 120-minute opera. His several high B flats rang out right to the back of the MacMillan Theatre. Jordana Goddard as Elena in the same cast had some of the most lyric singing I’ve heard, projected with great power, even at the softest sections. Of note was her performance of Elena’s aria in Act IV — a truly virtuosic performance. 

Dante Mullin-Santone’s performance as Beaupertuis never failed to garner laughter from the audience. As the Baronessa in the Thursday and Saturday cast, Lissy Meyerowitz balanced her humorous acting with her lyrical, effortless singing. Her scene in Act II played out especially smoothly. Finally, Ben Wallace’s scene in the final act, as the corporal of the guards, was a welcoming surprise — a powerful and yet beckoning tone. UofT Opera continues its season with a work entirely composed by students, Lysistrata, which will premiere on January 21.