Verdi’s delightful “Un giorno” fit for a king at Sarasota Opera

March 20, 2013

The final scene of Verdi’s “Un giorno di Regno” at Sarasota Opera. Photo: Rod Millington.

Sarasota has been ground zero for Giuseppe Verdi aficionados in the U.S., with the local company’s ambitious series of the composer’s complete operas, including all variant versions, now nearing its end.

One could hardly have wished for a better present to mark Verdi’s 200th birthday season than the delightful revival of Un giorno di regno, presented Saturday night at Sarasota Opera.

Under the leadership of artistic director Victor DeRenzi, Sarasota Opera has exhumed numerous neglected works of the Italian master over its Verdi series. And while there have been several highs (and a few lows) along the journey, no Verdi obscurity in this long-running series has proven more deserving of resuscitation than Un giorno di regno (King for a Day).

After a shaky debut with Oberto, Verdi turned to comedy in his second attempt at a stage success. Yet the 1840 Milan premiere of Un giorno di regno proved such a fiasco that all subsequent performances were cancelled. The historical reasons are many and sundry, but appear largely due to a wholly inappropriate cast—largely singers from Oberto—and a buffa musical style that by that time was considered dated and old hat.

Contemporary stylistic debates are irrelevant 173 years on, and we can now accept Un giorno on its own terms. And from the first bars of the rollicking overture Saturday night, Verdi’s comedy proved a delightful, rousing and surprisingly funny evening in the theater.

The slender yet Byzantine plot is based on a genuine historic incident wherein a cavalier masqueraded as Stanislaw, the king of Poland, when the royal was under threat, allowing the embattled king to arrive safely in Warsaw. The scenario is sheer piffle, with the Cavalier Belfiore posing as king for a day in the castle of the Baron Kelbar. The faux royal’s disguised role causes consternation in his lover, the Marchesa, and assorted havoc as he tries to assist the Marchesa’s young cousin, Giuletta, out of an arranged marriage with the old oafish Signor La Rocca, in order for her to marry her beloved, the earnest young officer (i.e., tenor) Edoardo.

If the plot is wafer-thin, the libretto by Felice Romani at times recalls Lorenzo da Ponte with its pair of mixed-up romances and subversive treatment of the upper classes, wryly cocking snooks at the pretensions of the foppish nobles.

Most importantly, the music is wholly irresistible. There are fleeting pre-echoes of the Verdi to come, in the contour of the arias and choruses and the whipcrack scoring already shows great confidence from the 27-year-old composer. Yet most non-scholars would be hard put to recognize even early or middle-period Verdi in this work, let alone the mature master.

Indeed, hearing this score “blind,” one could easily believe it to be an unfamiliar work by Donizetti. The score is chockablock with solo arias, duets and ensembles for six principals and chorus, cast in a witty vein with infectious rhythms and toe-tapping melodies.

In fact, hearing conductor DeRenzi and such an engaging cast put across this Cinderella work so effectively makes one a bit sad that Verdi didn’t write more comedies, since the music shows such a sure hand in a lighter, more scintillating idiom. (These Sarasota Opera performances mark the world premiere of the new critical edition by Francesco Izzo.)

As Belfiore, Corey Crider was first among equals in the role of the masquerading cavalier. Crider sang with a robust yet firmly focused baritone, and showed peerless comic timing with his faintly patronizing air to the nobles and ironic side glances at the audience, as if to say, “Can you believe they’re actually buying this?”

Jennifer Feinstein proved a fine match vocally and comedically as the Marchese, showing a dusky yet flexible mezzo-soprano voice and great stage charisma.

Making up the second couple, Hak Soo Kim displayed a striking tenor as Edoardo. The Korean’s tone was vibrant and agile throughout a wide range, with ringing high notes and impressive ease of production. Soprano Danielle Walker was a gratefully sung Giulietta and amusing as she turned from sweet innocent to incipient domineering shrew.

In the quarreling roles of the Baron of Kelbar and the treasurer La Rocca, Stefano de Peppo and Kevin Short occasionally flirted with excess muggery yet proved amusing in their angry buffo duet, ratcheting up ever more ludicrous threats of violence against each other.

The court set by Jeffrey W. Dean and costumes by Howard Tsvi Kaplan were simple and effective. Martha Collins’ energetic stage direction superbly aided the singers in putting across the opera’s humor and musical richness.

DeRenzi has done yeoman advocacy in this series, but his conducting of Un giurno is a high water mark in the company’s Verdi cycle, the conductor drawing zesty tempos and rhythmic buoyancy, while consistently drawing out the wit of Verdi’s music.

Un giorno di regno is one Verdi rarity that truly deserves restoration to the standard repertoire. With a simple set, grateful roles for young singers and much attractive music, it could be staged economically by young artist programs looking for operas beyond the standard student works.

The final performance of Un giorno di regno is 1:30 p.m. Sunday.

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