Odyssey's "Un giorno di regno": Not a Soap Opera

James Maddalena, Michael Chioldi & David Kravitz
 in "Un giorno di regno"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

Verdi‘s “Un giorno di regno”, or as usually translated, “King for a Day”, sounds like a quiz show but in plot more resembles a soap opera; its music, however, makes this work much more than that. It’s clear, from the first moments of the overture, so reminiscent of Rossini (especially his own overture to “William Tell”) and Donizetti, that this is definitely not your nonna’s Verdi. In their publicity for the production, Odyssey Opera refers somewhat tongue-in-cheekly to its being “Verdi‘s first comedic opera”; it would be over fifty years before his only other comic opera, “Falstaff”. What makes this even more pertinent is what the composer’s life was like at this point, after his having lost, in three successive years, his infant daughter, his infant son, and his wife. The management at La Scala wanted an opera buffa, however, so Verdi chose this libretto by Felice Romani and proceeded to compose his first attempt at melodramma giocoso (“jocular drama”). Infrequently seen since, “Un giorno di regno” (also known as “Il finto Stanislao”) it was a failure at La Scala and immediately pulled from the schedule. Criticized at the time for being derivative of Rossini and Donizetti, (although today recognized as a link between early and mid-nineteenth-century operas), it subsequently rarely saw the light of day. Its U.S. premiere didn’t take place until 1960, later given a very impressive recording on Philips (1974) conducted by Lamberto Gardelli and featuring the dream cast of Cossotto, Norman, Carreras and Wixell (its “first time in stereo and first time complete”).

Odyssey Opera, founded by Conductor Gil Rose, Artistic and General Director (formerly Opera Boston’s Artistic Director) has chosen to produce this as the first in its Opera Festival of three fully staged operas. Rose has stated that the name “Odyssey” was chosen for the opera company to portray a musical journey to a place most opera goers haven’t ever been before. This opera, however, was performed in our area about thirty-five years ago by Boston Lyric Opera, in its own infancy, at Brookline High School’s Roberts Auditorium with Robert Honeysucker, Susan Larson, Valerie Walters and J. Scott Brumit. Now, at the Boston University Theatre, Odyssey Opera’s goal is met in a surprisingly (for Verdi) jovial production.

The opera’s central story is a relatively simple one of intentional disguises and mistaken identities, just the sort of work that Gilbert and Sullivan operettas would later satirize. Here, during the latter part of the overture, the cast ingeniously mimes their roles, already clarifying who and what they are. The setting is the castle of Baron Kelbar (James Maddalena) near Brest, France, where a double wedding is anticipated. Kelbar’s daughter Giulietta (Jessica Medoff) is betrothed to State Treasurer La Rocca (David Kravitz); Kelbar’s niece, the Marchesa del Poggio (Amy Shoremount-Obra) is to wed Count Ivrea (Christian Figueroa). One problem is, each lady is in love with someone other than her respective fiance; Giulietta loves La Rocca’s nephew Eduardo (Yeghishe Manucharyan), while the Marchesa is enamored of Belfiore (Michael Chioldi), a Chevalier disguised as the deposed King Stanislaw of Poland (who commanded Belfiore to impersonate him while the true king himself returned to Warsaw). Things get a bit more complicated before they finally are resolved, by a letter delivered by the servant Delmonte (Daniel Kamalic): Belfiore is allowed to “abdicate” from his regal disguise, and a double wedding (with two different couples!) is again scheduled to occur. Rose’s conducting (of a forty-four piece orchestra) is marvelously crisp, and the result from all is fine playing and singing, including the impressive chorus of sixteen, (not to mention four baritone soloists among the principal singers). They’re all completely involved throughout the performance, reflecting Director Joshua Major’s experience with stage movement.

Philip Gossett, general editor of “The Works of Giuseppe Verdi”, wrote that the opera “employs too many repetitions”, “simply goes on too long” with “pieces…too similar in construction”; these observations are remedied by “selected cuts” as it is in this current production directed by Major, who chairs the opera studies department at New England Conservatory. With this cornucopia of whimsical directorial touches (without ever overdoing the schtick), he has made this literally delightful, that is, full of delights, even to the clever curtain calls. The cast is fully up to producing the many comic moments as well as the challenging music. Chioldi and Shoremount-Obra, both in their Boston debuts, are wonderful together. Maddalena, more familiar to audiences locally, calls on a lifetime of experience to great effect. Medoff, also in her Boston debut, is lovely to hear, as are Manucharyan and Kravitz, the latter an especially fine actor with superb timing. The simple Scenic Design by Stephen Dobay, the Costume Design by Amanda Mujica, and the Lighting Design by Christopher Ostrom, are all effective parts of the overall witty approach. On every level, this is an unforgettably winning production.

Gossett wrote that this is “a work of great charm and importance and deserves to find a treasured part in today’s opera repertoire”, and this is certainly true of this current version. After the triumph of “Rienzi” last September, and this production of an often overlooked opera, one can truly look forward to Odyssey Opera’s remaining double bill of Mascagni’s “Zanetto” and Wolf-Ferrari‘s “Il segreto di Susanna”. All three operas are performed in the original Italian, with English super titles (the better to be clued in to the comedy in this first one). It’s a totally unexpected lighter-than-air Verdian romp. (And when did you ever expect to hear that line?). As the libretto puts it at the end: “a sparmiare sospiri e pianto forse il gioco riusci”, or, “so perhaps the joke has spared us many sighs and tears”. All hail this king, for more than just a day.

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