A Barrel of Verdian Laughs

United StatesUnited States Verdi, Un giorno di regno: Soloists, Keith Chambers (piano), Peter Kazaras (director), Seattle Opera Young Artists Program, Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 17.11.2012 (BJ)

A Verdi opera as a barrel of laughs? The idea may seem unlikely. Falstaff, of course, furnished an improbably light-hearted conclusion to the Master’s operatic career – but that supreme musical comedy seems improbable simply because almost everything that came before it in his oeuvre was very far from light-hearted.

Almost, but not quite, everything. In 1840, forced by contractual obligations to rise above the grief of losing his first wife and two children, Verdi created Un giorno di regno, roughly translatable as “King for a Day.” Subtitled “melodramma giocoso,” this setting of a libretto by Felice Romani is a true opera buffa, following in the comic tradition of Verdi’s great predecessor Donizetti. Indeed, Julian Budden, in his indispensable three-volume study of Verdi’s operas, describes one of its ensembles neatly and accurately as “all Donizetti with extra horse-power and less grace.”

It’s true that Il giorno falls mostly short of Donizetti’s finesse – it’s amazing to contemplate the growth of Verdi’s mastery that was manifested, less than two years later, in Nabucco – but it is still a piece full of good if relatively unsubtle tunes (including one that seems to hark back to “Largo al factotum,” in Rossini’s Barber of Seville, and another that points a decade forward to “La donna è mobile,” in Verdi’s own Rigoletto). And there are many touches of irresistible knock-about humor, which Peter Kazaras’s exuberant production, with Seattle Opera’s Young Artists Program, exploited with equally irresistible gusto.

Perhaps the most hilarious moment came when baritone Hunter Enoch, in the central role of the Cavaliere di Belfiore, needed to get an urgent message off to his boss (the King of Poland), begging, for sufficient personal cause, to be released at once from the obligation he has undertaken to impersonate him temporarily for reasons of security. He wrote his message in the most practical way – as an e-mail, composed on his cell phone, and dispatched with that not unfamiliar word, “Send”! After that, given that the handsome costumes (presumably to be credited to the leadership of design coordinator Victor Steeb) kept firmly to 19th-century styles, it was clear that this would be a production in which anything goes – and anything duly went, with a wonderfully good-tempered swing.

Keith Chambers played the score in piano arrangement splendidly, and there was some excellent singing by Enoch; by a pair of bassi buffi in the persons of Colin Ramsey as the Barone di Kelbar and Matthew Scollin as La Rocca; by two accomplished ladies, mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel as the Baron’s daughter Giulietta and soprano Dana Pundt as the Marchesa del Poggio; and by Theo Lebow, who brought a tenor voice of fine quality, probably best categorized as “lirico-spinto,” to the role of Giulietta’s young lover Edoardo de Sanval.

A good deal of the original score, quite apart from the orchestration, was omitted in this chorus-less production. But what remained was clearly enjoyed to the hilt by a packed house – sad irony, in view of the fact that the Young Artists Program is fated to be abandoned soon under the stress of the parent company’s financial problems. It is to be devoutly hoped that some way will be found to resuscitate it before too long.

Bernard Jacobson