In 1840 Verdi’s second opera, and his first attempt at comedy, “Un Giorno di Regno,” was premiered at La Scala in Milan to widespread criticism, criticism that the composer took to heart to the point that it took more than 50 years before he would write another comedy. Of course, we know how that second comedic experiment turned out as “Falstaff” is widely seen as one of the greatest operas ever written. And while “Un Giorno di Regno” never truly recovered from its first performance, that early Verdi opera did have occasional successful outings in subsequent years, but without ever being able to establish itself.
The reasons for its failure are no doubt complex, but two major causes can be identified with relative ease. The first is the music itself; it is quite clearly that of a young composer still attempting to master his craft. Listening to it is like hearing an opera composed jointly by Rossini and Donizetti, although admittedly containing occasional signs of Verdi’s emerging talent. The second is the text; Romani, the librettist, using stock characters, supplied Verdi with a second-hand, second-rate opera buffa text, a genre, which at this point in time was in its death throes.
Therefore, today the reputation of “Un Giorno di Regno,” laboring under the shadow of its past, is not high, largely seen as a piece of Verdi juvenalia, and not up to the standards of Verdi’s mature operas. Moreover, it is overshadowed by the works of the masters of the genre, Rossini and Donizetti. Certainly, to a knowledgeable audience, able to place the opera in its historical context, the work can come over as derivative and second-rate.
However, the Festival’s current Artistic Director, Alberto Triola is not so negative, and quoting a previous incumbent in the post, Rodolfo Celletti, says “the best way to extract value from the opera is by giving prominence to the trait which reconnects it to Rossini’s bel canto tradition and to interpret the pages thus characterized with flourishings, elegance, dramatic eloquence and stylistic cares typical of belcantisimo.” With this in mind, the Festival has decided to entrust the young students of the Accademia del Belcanto, aided by the up and coming young conductor Sesto Quatrini and its director (and Accademia teacher) Stefania Bonfadelli in mounting this production.
The first conclusion to draw after watching this presentation of “Un Giorno di Regno” is that it is not funny! It was clear that Bonfadelli put in a lot of work in trying to bring out the comedic elements of the piece. The actors hammed it up at every opportunity. Amusing costumes, such as the paper crown and silly cape worn by Belfiore, were donned. There was plenty of slapstick activity. Props were used by the dozen: plastic arms and legs to represent the deceased losers of past duels, which were eventually used by La Rocca, the treasurer, to scratch his back; bombs were his weapon of choice for the duel with the Baron Kelbar; a ball and chain was used to keep La Roche from escaping his pledge to marry Giulietta, along with many others. But all was to no avail, the only titter from the audience, during the evening, was in response to a verbal witticism.
Moreover, Bonfadelli decided to update the work to the present day, and set it in a theatre which had been taken over by members of the local community for 24 hours: Belfiore thus became king (director) of the theatre for the day. The play he decided to direct intertwines with the real situation of the characters, which was quite difficult to follow. Added to this, however, was a further subplot concerning the taking over of the theatre, which included theatre staff demonstrating about their conditions of work. It all proved too intricate; much easier to sit back and just accept it. However, the constant stage activity, although generally incomprehensible, did have a lively and energetic pace to it and was able to hold the audience’s attention. Overall, it was a bold effort by Bonfadelli to rescue a flawed libretto, but it will probably always remain an impossible task. A large portrait of Verdi in his maturity stood on the stage overlooking the performance, with what appeared to be a bemused look in his eye.
On the Other Hand…
On the musical side, however, things were completely different. Clearly, the work was heavily influenced by Rossini and, to a lesser extent, Donizetti, but setting this to one side “Un Giorno di Regno” has a great deal of fabulous music to offer. Quatrini, on the podium, cut an imperious and dominating figure and produced an outstanding performance from the Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia. Being easily visible in the open courtyard of Palazzo Ducale, it was an easy task to watch him in full flow, as he monitored the smallest details, which he animatedly checked, whilst generating a pulsating, lively rhythm, bringing real vibrancy and energy to the work. Clearly, responsive to the needs of the singers Quatrini gave them the necessary space to perform, which generated some really beautiful and memorable performances, which he underpinned by maintaining a secure balance between the stage and the pit throughout the evening.
Essentially, “Un Giorno di Regno” is an ensemble opera with a cast of six main characters plus some minor roles and chorus. There are two buffo roles, which carry the main weight of the comedic elements: Baron Kelber played by Pavol Kuban, and La Rocca, the treasurer, played by Accademia student, Luca Vianello. Belfiore, the King for the day, was played by Vito Priante, while his put-upon lover, the Marchesa, was played by the Lithuanian soprano Viktorija Miskunaite. The young lovers, Edoardo and Giulietta were played by Ivan Aron Rivas and, another Accademia student, Dioklea Hoxha respectively. They all performed well, both in their individual roles and as part of the ensemble, in which there was a high degree of cohesion, allowing for the quick-fire parlante exchanges and ensemble pieces to be delivered with a high level of quality. Minor roles were also undertaken by students of the Accademia.
Miskunaite was a first class Marchesa, not only acting the part well but putting in a sumptuous singing performance. Her voice, strong and powerful across the range with a beautiful tone, warm in the lower register, bright and brilliant in the upper, was used to great effect. The scena “Perchè dunque non vien?,” in which she laments Belfiore’s reluctance to reveal himself, followed by the aria “Si, scordar saprò l’infido,” in which she tries to convince herself to forget about Belfiore, was beautifully delivered, coloring her voice delightfully and climbing and descending the scale with ease. What stood out, however, was the underlying simple musicality that underpinned her voice.
A True Ruler for a Day
As her lover and the director of the theatre for the day, Priante acted out his role brilliantly; every gesture, every glance, every expression perfectly placed. This was matched by his singing which was also high energy and of a high quality. His rapid exchanges with other members of the cast, of which there were many, were extremely well-phrased and well-paced and carried the full emotional meaning of the words. His voice exhibited a pleasing and flexible tone, which he used to good effect.
Blossoming Young Love
Riva as the young lover, Edoardo, started the evening well, but as the evening progressed, his confidence growing and clearly enjoying the audience’s reaction, his singing simply bloomed. He possesses a very powerful strong tenor with a pleasant tone which he used to full effect. He dispatched the cabaletta “Deh, lasciate a un’alma amante,” with a great amount of feeling, coloring his voice to express the joys of love. After having, at last, won Giulietta, he displayed his impressive dynamic range and finished off the passage with an expressive flourish. As Giulietta, his eventual bride-to-be, Dioklea Hoxha, the Accademia student, certainly looked and sounded the part. She has a light, young mezzo with a pleasing timbre, and if her singing was somewhat restrained, it was certainly beautifully executed, although sometimes occasionally underpowered. Her performance certainly suggests a successful future.
The two basses, Kuban and Vienello, did their best to bring some comedy into their performances. In particular, Vienello appears to have a natural talent in this area, and would no doubt shine in a role with more scope to display his ability. Their second act duet “Tutte l’armi si può prendere,” in which they threaten and provoke each other, was brilliantly sung, their verbal jousting wonderfully portrayed, using the flexibility of their voices to highlight their ridiculous posturing. Maybe it was not enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles, but it certainly proved to be a lighthearted and amusing confrontation.
Overall, “Un Giorno in Regno” is an opera with a poor libretto, and that it appears to be beyond redemption is almost beyond debate. However, the Festival della Valle d’Itria’s decision to include it in this year’s program has certainly been vindicated. By focusing on the bel canto tradition that lies at the heart of the work, it presented the audience with an evening of sparking music and delightful singing.
If one is able to approach “Un Giorno di Regno” from a position in which the past is ignored, and view the opera on its own terms, outside its historical context, then it is possible to enjoy a pacy opera that is able to bounce along, containing some lively, racy tunes, providing, of course, not too much attention is given to the drama.