Un Giorno di Regno, Verdi's famously unsuccessful melodramma giocoso from 1840, seems to be having something of a renaissance. PHILIP GOSSETT looks at the pluses and minuses of Verdi's first comedy.
A scene from Pier Luigi Pizzi's production of Un Giorno di Regno in Bilbao, 2012, with David Soar (La Rocca), Paolo Bordogna (Baron Kelbar) and Silvia Vásquez (Giulietta di Kelbar)
© E. Moreno Esquibel 2013
There are many semi-comic figures in Verdi operas (think of Wurm in Luisa Miller or Oscar in Un Ballo in Maschera), but the composer wrote only two outright comedies — Un Giorno di Regno, a very early work, in 1840, and Falstaff, his last opera, in 1893. Still, he was fascinated by the possibilities of comedy throughout his life, and although he was advised to reduce the role of Fra Melitone in La Forza del Destino, given its premiere in 1862 and revised in 1869, he would not do so. This comic friar was too important to his conception of the entire opera, which is most definitely not a melodrama, like Il Trovatore, but aims to achieve a kind of Shakespearean slice of life — and life included comedy.
Perhaps one of the major reasons Verdi avoided comedy is that his experience with Un Giorno di Regno was an unhappy one. As he wrote later to Tito Ricordi, in a famous letter of 1859 about his travails as a young man in Milan:
A little more than a year earlier [before the successes of Nabucco and I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata] that same [Milanese] public treated badly the opera of a poor, ill young man, who was under enormous time pressure and whose heart was tormented by horrible misfortune [the deaths of his two young children and of his wife, Margherita Barezzi, daughter of his principal benefactor in Busseto, Antonio Barezzi]. All this was well known, but there was no holding back their discourtesy. I have not seen Un Giorno di Regno since then [it had had only a single performance, on September 5, 1840], and it may well be a terrible opera, yet others no better have been tolerated or even applauded. Oh if then the public had, not applauded, but supported in silence that opera, I would not have sufficient words to thank it! But since it has looked favorably on operas that have been heard all over the world, we are even. I do not intend to condemn the public: I admit its severity, I accept the whistles, on the condition that I am not asked to be grateful for its applause.
This is a remarkable document, practically unique among Verdi's papers, for he rarely exposed himself so utterly to anyone. Yet think of what he was undergoing during that early period. He had traveled to Milan from Busseto in June 1832, financed by Barezzi, to study at the Conservatory, now named after him, but was turned down for being too old, and because his cembalo playing was deemed inadequate. So he went to study with Vincenzo Lavigna, who had long been the maestro al cembalo at the Teatro alla Scala, having worked there with Rossini in the 1810s and continued until 1832. (He died in 1836 at the age of sixty.) Verdi returned to Busseto in 1834 and, apart from a wedding trip to Milan with Barezzi's daughter, Margherita, in 1836, and two short visits in 1838, during one of which he learned that his first opera, Oberto, might be produced, the composer remained in Busseto, where he had been named the new music master. But he found this position and the city too restrictive to suit his musical ambitions, and from February 1839 he returned to Milan. In August of the previous year, a daughter, Virginia, born in Busseto on March 26, 1837, had died. When the composer took up quasi-permanent residence in Milan, he was accompanied by his wife and by a son, Icilio, born in Busseto on July 11, 1838. But 1839 and 1840 were terrible years for Verdi. Icilio died on October 22, 1839, and Margherita died on June 18, 1840. One well understands that later in his life he spread the impression that Virginia, Icilio and Margherita had all died around the time of Un Giorno di Regno.
Through all these personal tragedies, the composer went ahead with the project of composing his comic opera for Milan's Teatro alla Scala. Though we know relatively little about the history of its preparation, he clearly took this job very seriously. Verdi does provide a statement about comic opera late in his life, writing to his French friend, Camille Bellaigue, that Rossini's Barbiere di Siviglia was "the most beautiful opera buffa in existence," lauding "its abundance of true musical ideas, its comic verve and its truth of declamation." About his hopes for writing an opera buffa, however, he told Giulio Ricordi in 1879 that he had been searching for a comic libretto for twenty years and had just about found one (we don't know what it might have been) when an unfortunate article in Ricordi's Gazzetta Musicale di Milano was published, which he believed would turn the public against him.
But what should we make of Un Giorno di Regno? First of all, it was based not on a new libretto but on a revision of one by Felice Romani that had in 1818 been set to music as Il Finto Stanislao by Adalbert Gyrowetz. It was not originally a "sentimental" comedy of the kind in which Donizetti specialized (think of L'Elisir d'Amore or of Don Pasquale) but presents more of a continual buffo plot à la Rossini. It relates the adventures of the Cavaliere di Belfiore, who pretends for a day to be the King of Poland while the real King, Stanislao, is engaged surreptitiously in a diplomatic mission. But "il finto Stanislao" arrives at the home of one Baron Kelbar a day before there are supposed to be two inappropriate weddings there — one between the Baron's daughter, Giulietta, and La Rocca, an older man who is a treasurer and friend of the Baron's; the other between a widow, the Marchesa del Poggio, and the elderly Conte Ivrea. But neither wedding is destined to go through. Giulietta is in love with a young man, Edoardo, who soon proclaims himself ready to serve as the "scudiero," or squire, of the supposed King, while we learn in short order that the Marchesa actually is in love with Belfiore but thinks he has been unfaithful to her. Before the plot is over, both inappropriate marriages are thwarted, thanks in part to the machinations of the Marchesa and the supposed King: Edoardo, the young tenor hero, will marry his Giulietta, and the Marchesa will have her Belfiore, who is freed from his task of impersonating King Stanislao and is now proclaimed a Marshall of France.
The 2010 Parma incarnation of the Pizzi production
© Roberto Ricci/Teatro Regio di Parma 2013
Verdi was both wrong and right about his opera. He was right that the opera is no worse than many operas that were more successful with the Milanese public, but he was wrong to think that the opera was not problematic. It was, and for reasons we can well understand. Verdi's music for it is almost always attractive, but it employs too many repetitions. There is what should be a brilliant sextet in Act I, in which Edoardo and Giulietta are meant to sing above the chattering of Belfiore and the two buffo characters, the Baron and La Rocca, but if we are looking for the kind of differentiation of parts present, famously, in the quartet from Rigoletto, we are not going to find it here. Yes, there is a lovely cantabile melody sung together by Edoardo and Giulietta that soars over the three other parts, in an introductory quintet. (The sixth character, the Marchesa, does not enter until later.) But although they sing very different parts, Verdi does nothing to help us hear differences among his three basses. And when the Marchesa does enter for the tempo di mezzo and the stretta, she participates in the latter together with Giulietta and Edoardo, singing different words but the same music as the lovers. Verdi would do similar things in later works — in the trio in Act I of Il Trovatore, Leonora and Manrico sing the same music with different words — but the melody here is not nearly so distinguished.
Verdi introduces full arias, with a primo tempo and a cabaletta, for all his principal characters, but there is a sameness about these pieces that is hard to accept. Though individually they are lovely, we come to expect a standard cadenza in each primo tempo. Verdi expressed disdain for such conventions when he presented I Masnadieri with Jenny Lind in London in 1847. We also come to expect a full repetition of the main theme, a transition over an orchestral passage, often in crescendo, between statements of the theme, and a concluding passage for the orchestra that draws on the transitional theme, ending with straightforward cadences for the orchestra that seem always to be the same. Think of the arias for the Cavaliere di Belfiore in the Introduzione ("Compagnoni di Parigi") and the following cavatinas for the Marchesa ("Grave a core innamorato") and then for Giulietta (this time with chorus), "Non san quant'io nel petto."
Many other pieces have the same form, including the terzetto for Edoardo, Giulietta and the Marchese just before the Act I finale ("Bella speranza invero"), with its memorable cabaletta, "Noi siamo amanti e giovani," essentially sung in unison by the three voices. Any of these pieces individually would be effective proof of their composer's genius, but the opera simply goes on too long, and the pieces are too similar in construction. Nowadays it is possible to remedy this problem through judicious cutting, and the performances this summer at Glimmerglass, in an English-language edition under the title King for a Day, will make some cuts in the score, principally of repeated material such as second verses of arias. But Verdi expected that it would all be performed, and by having two pairs of lovers, each of which must be properly handled, he was creating a situation that did not make it easier for the performers. Think about the relationship between Don Pasquale and the 1810 libretto on which it is based, Ser Marcantonio, by Angelo Anelli, originally set to musicby Stefano Pavesi: in that case, Donizetti's librettist, Giovanni Ruffini, omitted one pair of lovers, so that the final libretto has a clarity of design that was lacking in the original. Verdi had no such interaction with Felice Romani — at least, we are not aware of any — but he does seem to have modified elements of the original libretto, as Roger Parker has excellently demonstrated. In an article in Studi Verdiani 2 (1983), he showed that the composer not only cut sections from Romani's original libretto for Gyrowetz but introduced entire passages, such as the cavatina for the Marchesa, for which there is no equivalent in Romani's original text.
It would be wrong, though, to assume that Verdi provided music that consisted of the first ideas that popped into his head. The autograph manuscript is perfectly clear and beautifully prepared; there are also many changes in the words, for at least some of which it was the composer himself who entered the revised text; in other cases, the words fell afoul of the Austrian censors, particularly when reigning princes were criticized, and the changes seem to be written by another hand. There is a certain use of abbreviations, and there are passages whose orchestration and even vocal lines are derived "as above" (come sopra), but this is standard in all Italian operas of the period, comic and serious alike. In at least two cases, in fact, pieces exist in more than one version, and the critical edition of Un Giorno di Regno, to be edited by Francesco Izzo, will include the rejected numbers in a series of appendices. Among them will certainly be an earlier version of the cabaletta of the terzetto ("Noi siamo amanti e giovani," whose text originally read "Amanti siamo e giovani") and a different cabaletta for Edoardo's aria that opens Act II, "Deh! Lasciate a un'alma amante." The original text here was "Lasciate ch'io speri, amici pensieri," with music that was entirely different. Verdi himself subsequently produced a reduction for piano solo of the opera's overture, and that will also figure in an appendix.
If we make selected cuts in Un Giorni di Regno, the opera can capture today's public in a way that it failed to capture the original Milanese audience. It is a work of great charm and importance and deserves to find a treasured part in today's opera repertoire.
PHILIP GOSSETT is the Robert W. Reneker Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. He is general editor of The Works of Giuseppe Verdi (published by Ricordi of Milan and the University of Chicago Press) and Works of Gioachino Rossini (published by Bärenreiter Verlag of Kassel).
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