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17.6.08

Early Verdi @ Wolf Trap

Ulysses
Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, Verdi: A Biography
Verdi's two attempts at opera buffa bookend his career, with Falstaff (1893) preceded only by the much less often performed Un Giorno di Regno (1840). The story of that early comedy concerns the King of Poland, Stanisław Leszczyński, who sends someone disguised as himself to France because of a crisis of succession to the throne. Kudos to Wolf Trap Opera for giving this ugly stepchild a chance, in the first production of the most exciting season the company has offered in recent memory. No one is likely to suggest that this youthful opera would ever enter the mainstream repertory, but this production more than acquitted itself, in fact demonstrating that, if performed well and mounted with a tasteful eye, Un Giorno di Regno can reign for more than just one day.

At the time that Verdi took up the (admittedly ludicrous) libretto, by Felice Romani, he had just lost his wife, Margherita, and young son (not long after their daughter had died) and he was convinced that he was not cut out for the opera composer's life. At this point in his career, Verdi was not able to influence the creation of the libretto as much as he wanted. He later recalled that he chose Il Finto Stanislao because it was the "least bad" of several libretti offered to him for his second opera, at La Scala. Verdi did what he could to improve the libretto, possibly with the help of Temistocle Solera, and rushed to finish the opera. Lackluster singing sealed the fate of the opera, which was withdrawn after a single performance. The audience's whistles and boos scarred Verdi badly, as he wrote in a later letter:
At 25 I already knew what "the public" meant. From then on, successes have never made the blood rush to my head, and fiascos have never discouraged me. If I went on with this unfortunate career, it was because at 25, it was too late for me to do anything else and because I was not physically strong enough to go back to my fields (Letter to Filippo Filippi, quoted by Phillips-Matz, p. 103).
Liam Bonner (Belfiore) and Tamara Wilson (Marchesa) in Un Giorno di Regno, Wolf Trap Opera, photo by Carol Pratt
Liam Bonner (Belfiore) and Tamara Wilson (Marchesa) in Un Giorno di Regno, Wolf Trap Opera, photo by Carol Pratt
Although the opera was revived during Verdi's lifetime, he did not revise it. Accordingly, Wolf Trap presented the opera with all of its numbers, although a significant number of cuts were made within numbers. Suffice it to say that the opera does not suffer. All the same, the spirited and precise conducting of Brian Garman kept this rather silly train rattling on its tracks. A crack orchestral ensemble, reduced in size to fit in the pit of the Barns but still sounding full and properly balanced, kept the score tight, clean, and bubbly.

The cast was exceptional, consisting of younger voices with great promise and an already impressive dramatic sense, honed by strong direction. Ryan McKinny and Joshua Jeremiah found their comic timing as the Barone di Kelbar and his conniving friend, Treasurer La Rocca, respectively, without going too far over the top. Liam Bonner's voice could perhaps have been scaled back just a notch at times, but his wicked grin and twinkling eye were a great fit for Belfiore, the French officer masquerading as the King of Poland. For the female leads, Tamara Wilson was full-voiced as the Marchesa, who is in love with Belfiore and nearly undoes his plan to help the King of Poland. Marjorie Owens was indisposed but bravely sang as Giulietta, the Baron's niece, to everyone's relief. Giulietta is supposed to be married to La Rocca but is actually in love with his nephew, Edoardo, sung by the elegantly voiced but dramatically stiff tenor Beau Gibson.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Youth Reigns Supreme in 'King' (Washington Post, June 16)
The production was delightfully simple, updating the action from a castle in Brittany in the 18th century to Paris in the 1950s. Director Kristine McIntyre did a fine job of arranging the cast in convincing movements, in front of the basic but beautiful set by Erhard Rom. The concept called for elegant but basically modern costumes (designed by Carol Bailey). The only time that the production faltered was when McIntyre could not resist having a moped speed onto the stage for the final exit of Belfiore and the Marchesa. Been there, done that. The picture of Verdi on the wall of the set may have rolled his eyes.

One performance of King for a Day remains, this evening (June 17, 8 pm). The rest of the season includes stagings of Handel's Alcina (July 13 and 15) and Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos (August 15, 17, and 19).

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