Un giorno di regno (King for a day), Verdi’s second opera and his only other comedy other than his glorious swansong Falstaff often has a rather bad press. Composed when Verdi had lost his first wife and after a protracted illness of his own it had a disastrous premiere at La Scala in 1840 and was pulled after one performance, although there were occasional revivals around Italy.
Felice Romani’s libretto certainly isn’t the best nor is the plot that credible. Indeed, one senses that the libretto could almost have been penned with Donizetti in mind, since the musical legacy of that composer’s operatic comedies does seem to imprint itself on Verdi’s score, something this performance highlighted.
The music is energetic, characterful if not particularly subtle, and there are interesting pointers as to where the young Verdi was already experimenting within the confines of the commission and composing at speed in trying times. Tom Seligman and his players brought a verve and exuberance to much of the dance-like elements, but also refinement during the calmer scenes.
The score is very unusual for Verdi in the deployment of a fortepiano for recitativo secco, and a few duets for pattering buffo basses; the dramatic bass pairings of Luisa Miller and especially Don Carlos are miles away from here! One can hear the development of a way of writing for baritone that was to feature in so many later works and there’s an interesting vocal mix in one trio with two female voices and tenor; not a combination Verdi used much, save for Aida.
Chelsea Opera assembled a balanced and committed cast, all of whom sang with a great sense of style and keen communication. George von Bergen was Chevalier Belfiore, disguised as the King of Poland, and using his short-lived power to guarantee the marriage of Giulietta and Edoardo against the wishes of her father and his uncle. Bergen’s was a genial and warmly-sung performance, characterised in the style of Rossini’s Dandini, until the confident posing of the character is confounded by the presence of his former lover, the Marchesa, at which point von Bergen showed the man as comically nonplussed and cleverly introduced a touch of the sensitive and serious.
The two basses John Savournin and Nicholas Folwell both brought out the bravura and buffo elements of their roles, relishing the tongue-twisting words of their duets and the absurdity of their characters. Sarah-Jane Lewis impressed with her expansive sense of vocal line, sappy mellow tone, control of dynamics and deft technique. She has a relaxed poise which certainly draws the listener in, but she could have brought more bite to the moments where this lady shows her feistiness. That said, her restraint provided a pleasant contrast with the accomplished, extrovert and comically fiery Giulietta of the brighter-voiced Paula Sides. Luis Gomes impressed as an ardent and engaging Edoardo, who sang his Act Two aria with its exciting cabaletta and top-C with style and authentic bel canto ring.
The chorus, which generally provides brief commentary on the action rather than being than involved dramatically, sang with much gusto. Chelsea Opera, doing what it does best, showed that this work is as good as many of its predecessors and is to be treasured. Great to have a live taster for the announced Garsington staging for next year.