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Reviews

14 Oct 2019

Chelsea Opera Group perform Verdi's first comic opera: Un giorno di regno

Until Verdi turned his attention to Shakespeare’s Fat Knight in 1893, Il giorno di regno (A King for a Day), first performed at La Scala in 1840, was the composer’s only comic opera.

Chelsea Opera Group: Verdi’s Un giorno di regno at Cadogan Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: George von Bergen (baritone)

 

The premiere of his second opera, following Oberto, was a flop; after the first-night fiasco La Scala cancelled all further performances and forgot about Il giorno di regno until 2001. There were a few other performances in Italy but after the 1859 production in the Teatro Nuovo in Naples over one hundred years passed before it was seen in an Italian opera house: at Parma’s Teatro Regio, where it was revived to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Verdi's birth.

Felice Romani’s libretto (based on Alexandre Vincent Pineu-Duval’s play Le faux Stanislas) tells of a French military officer, Il Cavaliere di Belfiore, who has agreed to help out his friend Stanislaus, the future King of Poland, by impersonating him while Stanislaus travels to Warsaw to take the throne. The ‘King for a Day’ sets about using his ‘power’ to do good deeds: that is, by disentangling some unhappy betrothals. Giulietta’s father, the Barone di Kelbar, is threatening to wed her to his elderly, rich friend, Signor la Rocca, but she’s got her eyes on the latter’s nephew, Edoardo di Sanval. Belfiore himself is adored by the Baron’s niece, a young widow, the Marchesa del Poggio, but, fed up with his philandering ways, she has engaged herself to another. A double-wedding is planned, and the Baron’s pride is tickled by the promised presence of Stanislaus. The meeting of the surprised Marchesa and the disguised Belfiore on the wedding morning results in confusion and further masquerades, as the plot twists and turns in contortions that are not always clear to the audience.

Allowing for the shortcomings of Felice Romani’s libretto, I’m not sure that Chelsea Opera Group, supporting a fine team of soloists and conducted by Tom Seligman, captured every humorous ‘nuance’ of this Rossinian tale - the laughter in the Cadogan Hall was of the occasional chuckle rather than belly laugh kind, and the Chorus, though confident and firm of voice, looked decidedly serious throughout. But, then, Verdi labelled his opera a melodramma giocoso - a drama with some humour rather than a comic caper - and, in any case, it’s hard to capture the full spirit of an opera in a concert performance. But, Chelsea Opera Group emphasised the geniality and vitality of the work with their affectionate and accomplished reading.

The cast of soloists were excellent. We don’t seem to have enough opportunities to see and hear baritone George von Bergen in London, though he has appeared at Opera Holland Park in recent seasons (in this summer’s Un ballo in maschera and Isabeau in 2018) and will sing Sharpless when Madame Butterfly returns to the Coliseum next spring. His dark, fluid, juicy tone, ability to make the most of the text, and dramatic presence made his Belfiore as dashing as he was dastardly. I described tenor Luis Gomez (a former JPYA) as a suave-toned Fenton when he appeared in the ROH’s Falstaff revival in July 2015, and ‘suave’ was an apt word on this occasion: his dulcet tenor rang freely and with refinement, emphasising Edoardo’s passion, sincerity but not neglecting his comic gaucheness.

Edoardo’s Act 2 duet with Giulietta was one of the highlights, and this was in no small part owing to the sparkling brightness of Paula Sides’ soprano. Sarah-Jane Lewis evinced a grace and maturity which befitted the older of the two women, especially in her aria of disillusionment and despair, but her Marchese lit some combative sparks with Belfiore: however, Lewis’s soprano - though warm and rich, doesn’t quite have the weight to dominate some of the exchanges or soar above the orchestral accompaniment, though did Seligman provide sympathetic support.

John Savourin (Barone di Kelbar) and Nicholas Fowell (Signore la Rocca) were a rather bitter pair of buffos, though both projected the text well and their basses were ear-pleasing. Perhaps to make the comedy felt, a greater physical and kinetic dimension is required - not easy when pinioned behind a music stand in a stationary line. And, at times the cast were rather bound to their scores, thought this is forgivable given that after this single performance they are unlikely to be asked to reprise their roles any time soon. The minor roles of Il Conte Ivrea and Un Servo were competently sung by Aaron Godfrey-Meyers (tenor) and Kevin Holland (bass) respectively.

There was a time when I found the Chelsea Opera Group Orchestra less than polished with regard to style, intonation and ensemble, but things have improved steadily and markedly of late, and this was a very persuasive orchestral performance characterised by assured tuning - particularly in the woodwind and brass, who played with confident attack - well-defined colour, and technical competence. Seligman had evident faith in his players, and his economical and precise gestures ensured rhythmic clarity - important during the strings’ frequently busy accompaniments to the arias. The occasional, ever so slight, relaxation of tempo - as during some string scurrying in the overture - ensured the collective fingers found the notes tidily. If I were to quibble, I’d observe that in Act 1 the loud volume was unalleviated, but Act 2 brought far more dynamic, and thus dramatic, variation. Seligman kept things moving swiftly along, even when the action was tying itself up in contortions, and the secco recitatives were unfussily presented by harpsichordist (and assistant conductor) Davide Levi - one can imagine them being much more disruptive than they were.

I think, overall, that the soloists might have taken a few more risks. There are plentiful opportunities for hamming up, of the kind that that Savournin, especially, usually relishes and delivers with discerning style. There was some attempt to conjure some ‘action’: Giulietta gave Edoardo a feisty sideswipe, and when Belfiore’s squire Delmonte (John Vallance) delivered the King’s letter to his master, he was aided by the orchestra playing parcel-the-parcel.

This was a performance that became increasingly ebullient and lively. At the end, the cast shrugged their shoulders and declared that, in the light of all the confusion and cock-ups the best thing would be to just forget what’s just happened: sounds to me like a maxim that could usefully serve in other arenas at present.

Claire Seymour

Verdi: Il giorno di regno

Il Barone di Kelbar - John Savournin, Signor la Rocca - Nicholas Folwell, Delmonte - John Vallance, Il Cavaliere di Belfiore - George von Bergen, Edoardo di Sanval - Luis Gomes, La Marchesa del Poggio -Sarah-Jane Lewis, Giulietta di Kelbar - Paula Sides, Un servo - Kevin Hollands, Il Conte Ivrea - Aaron Godfrey-Mayes; Conductor - Tom Seligman, Chorus Director - Lindsay Bramley, Assistant Conductor & Continuo - Davide Levi, Orchestra of Chelsea Opera Group.

Cadogan Hall, London; Saturday 12th October 2019.

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