Performances of Verdi's second opera, Un giorno di regno, are few and far between. Although the Royal Opera put it on in concert in London in 1999, it's left to smaller, more adventurous companies to take the plunge and stage this supposedly second-rate work. Opera della Luna have done just that at Iford Manor: their version, originally created for Stanley Hall Opera, makes up for what it lacks in bel canto elegance by being a riotously funny, enormously enjoyable evening's entertainment.
Un giorno di regno is, judged by Verdi's own standards, some way off a masterpiece. Its gestation was rushed and the composer, in a time of personal tragedy, had to choose the best libretto of a bad bunch to fulfil a contractual obligation. The premiere at La Scala in September 1840 featured a disinterested cast ill-suited to their task; it was an unmitigated flop. Verdi's next opera was Nabucco and as his career took off, his early comedy was left to languish. However, although the score is often a bit rough and ready, several passages provide an intriguing and thoroughly engaging mixture of Rossinian mischief and Verdian full-bloodedness. The opera is full of tantalising hints of masterpieces to come and Verdi's mastery of ensemble writing, in the Act One Finale in particular, is in full evidence.
For this production, director Jeff Clark has produced a new English version which preserves all of the comedy of Felice Romani's libretto but significantly ups the ante: we now have gags a-plenty and some great one-liners. Based roughly on a real-life story and originally set in eighteenth-century France, the opera tells of Cavaliere Belfiore, who has been roped in to impersonating the King of Poland and serving as his decoy. In this capacity, he finds himself invited to be guest of honour at a double wedding at the home of Baron Kelbar. Exercising his new-found power, he takes on the role of matchmaker. First he steers the Baron's daughter, Giulietta, away from the the Treasurer, her fiancé, to her true love Edoardo; then he conspires to lure the Marchesa del Poggio, his old flame, away from the elderly Count Ivrea, back into his own arms. Finally, once all the ends are neatly tied up, he reveals his true identity.
Clark resituates the drama in post-war Italy where the King being impersonated is Umberto II. Installed on the Italian throne in a desperate attempt to reignite public support for the monarchy, the 'May King' reigned for a mere thirty-three days in 1946 after which the Italian public voted in favour of a republic. This gives the production an extra political dimension: Belfiore's mission now also seems half designed to drum up support for the King while the final chorus of Act One becomes a statement in support of the monarchy itself, rather than simply extolling its moral authority. We are reminded of history's judgement, though, when the Italian flag is produced at the end and the crown adorning it topples off. Additionally, Umberto's 'penchant for soldiers', as Clark terms it in his programme note, is used to introduce a thinly veiled homoerotic element to Belfiore and Edoardo's duet in praise of macho camaraderie. There's the inevitable Mafioso element too – the titles 'Baron' and 'Treasurer' now in inverted commas, hinting at shady mob authority – but this is played more for laughs than anything else. The whole thing is gleefully topped off with more Italian clichés than you can shake a salami at.
Both decked out in mobster pin-stripe, Bruce Graham's excellent Baron and David Woloszko's corpulent, wheezing and toupéed Treasurer provide the evening's comic backbone. In their confrontations, first when the Treasurer renounces the Baron's daughter in face of Belfiore's empty promises and then in the wonderful comic duet in Act Two, Graham and Woloszko make an outstanding double act. Helped by the humour of the translation and brilliant choreography, their polished routines had the audience in stitches.
The other outstanding performance of the evening came from Lisa Anne Robinson as the recently widowed Marchesa. Stylish, wise and every bit as crafty as her former lover, she has her own part to play in the matchmaking and is convincing both in her comic numbers when she's toying with Belfiore and in the fine aria Verdi's given her to express her genuine love for him. As Belfiore himself says in an aside: 'she's like Tosca, she'll win an Oscar!'
As the central character, Belfiore, baritone Adam Miller is all knowing smiles and cock-sure, Machiavellian plotting. If vocally he was a little uncomfortable in the role's higher tessitura, he sang with suave elegance throughout. The young couple, Edoardo and Giulietta, are maybe more generic than the other characters and their final duet, not one of Verdi's most inspired, is a little superfluous. Here, though, they were fleshed out to be not much less engaging than the rest of the cast. However, mezzo Josephine Thorpe has a voice more powerful than pretty, and didn't seem ideally cast as Giulietta. Her game efforts to liven the character up as a not-so-innocent flirt also occasionally led to overacting. Her Edoardo, Todd Wilander, had a couple of problems in one of his tortuous cadenzas but sang strongly, if not always elegantly, throughout.
The chorus, reduced to just four members, threw themselves into their various roles with abandon: caricature Italian chefs at the start; over-emotional bridesmaids - played to perfection by Abigail Iveson and Seija Knight - for the chorus 'Sì festevola mattina', wittily recast as 'Why do we always cry at weddings?'; and apathetic altar boys at the start of the Second Act. Martin George doubled up ably, too, as Belfiore's attendant and the aged Count Ivrea, with Sebastian Valentine playing the bumbling priest.
The Pepys Ensemble of just thirteen instruments played with verve and style throughout and Oliver Gooch conducted with evident enjoyment a lively, well-paced account of the score. He also provided succint continuo accompaniment to the sharply delivered recitative. Elroy Ashmore's designs consisted of little more than a table, a couple of enamel jugs and a tub of onions in the First Act and an altar in the second but this lack of clutter seemed an advantage. I fear that if Un giorno di regno was to make it onto one of the country's larger stages, it could easily be over-burdened with big sets, big singers and a big concept and fail to overturn posterity's negative opinion. In the intimate surroundings of Iford, though, with Clark's production giving it a gentle helping hand, Opera della Luna manages just that. It comes across as a work of irresistible exuberance, irrepressible musical invention and, above all, bursting with humour.
By Hugo Shirley
Un giorno di regno, runs until 2 August. Visit the Iford Arts website here