2013: Un giorno di regno
Program notes by George W. Martin
For almost a hundred years Verdi’s second opera, Un giorno di regno, was not heard in performance. And even when talked of, which was rare, the remarks usually were ill-informed, unfavorable, and more about the opera’s circumstances than the opera itself. There was the premiere’s fiasco at La Scala, Milan, on 5 September 1840: Hisses, boos, and all subsequent performances cancelled. But seldom a mention of the reported reasons: a poor performance, a theatre too big for the piece, a genre going out of style; with also left unmentioned, the opera’s success in smaller theatres in Venice, Rome, and Naples, the last in 1859. Then, too, there was the gossipy fact that Verdi’s wife had died in the midst of work on the opera, a death which, succeeding those of their two children, left Verdi the sole survivor of a family of four; and after 1893, the constant, disparaging comparison to Falstaff, his only other attempt at comic opera and acclaimed a masterpiece.
Actually, neither was an attempt at a laugh-riot, a farsa, an opera buffa, or even a commedia, such as Rossini’s Il barbiere. In his titles Verdi qualified both: Falstaff was a commedia lirica and Un giorno was a melodrama giocosa, a story with some comic touches. Its model was Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, essentially a light, romantic story with a happy ending. But unfortunately for Un giorno the genre in the 1840s was already dated and soon was knocked on the head, largely by Verdi himself with immediately succeeding works in a different vein, Nabucco, I Lombardi, and Ernani.
Years later, Un giorno had its turn for the better when in 1951, the fiftieth anniversary of Verdi’s death, Italian Radio broadcast a studio performance as part of a Verdi Cycle. Yet more important was a recording of that performance issued by the Italian firm Cetra and sold world-wide. Suddenly, among Verdi enthusiasts everywhere the opera had a hearing, and performances, though still rare, began to blossom. In the Western Hemisphere, for example, the opera’s debut was a concert performance by the Amato company in New York on 18 June 1960. And with increased exposure Un giorno began to reveal, in the words of the scholar Julian Budden, “moments of unforced lyrical sweetness and even of infectious gaiety.”
The lyrical moments of sweetness appear throughout the opera, often quite suddenly and sometimes, as abruptly, cease, often cut short by a new idea in faster tempo. Verdi in creating the scenes — the opera is a succession of short scenes rather than one or two per act — relies generally on an opening of recitative, followed by a slow section, then fast, and faster, and the formula, if not well controlled by the conductor, can become tiresome. But the moments of sweetness are there, not only in the arias and duets but also in the larger ensembles.
One such moment occurs early in the opera in the scene introducing the ingénue, Giulietta. Supported at times by a chorus, she sings of her love for Edoardo, telling her friends that if he does not come soon, “morirò” (I will die). In the second act he has a similar aria with chorus, and in both scenes the best moments are in the slow, opening sections, hers at Andantino, his at Largo. For an example from an ensemble: In a first act quintet that soon turns into a sextet, the two soar sweetly over chattering basses and baritone; and later still, in the act’s finale, with all six leading characters and the chorus, more such moments bloom.
The comic musical touches, for the most part, are limited to the two buffo basses, the Baron and the Treasurer. In the first act the Baron explodes when the Treasurer breaks his engagement to the Baron’s daughter, and in the second, they discuss their choice of weapons for a duel. Opinion divides on which duet is the better, leaving the decision open to each listener. Then there is a comic scene between Giulietta and Edoardo in which he says for honor’s sake he must leave her before marriage. And she will have none of it. But here the comedy, as often in this opera, is less in the musical phrasing or orchestration than in the singers’ words and tone.
The opera, unlike Rossini’s Barbiere, does not play easily on the stage. Much depends on the skills of the conductor and singers; but when well done, in the last sixty years it has often returned an enjoyable evening.
And note: Sarasota’s production is a world premiere of the new critical edition of the opera (based on Verdi’s manuscript), and is the 29th installment in the company’s Verdi Cycle.
George W. Martin has written several books on Verdi, including his often reissued biography, Verdi, His Music, Life and Times.