Garsington Opera’s impressively alert Un giorno di regno should keep you amused and absorbed

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Garsington Opera 2024 [4] – Verdi, Un giorno di regno: Soloists, Garsington Opera Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra / Chris Hopkins (conductor). Garsington Opera at Wormsley, 1.7.2024. (CR)

Christine Rice as La Marchesa del Poggio © Julian Guidera

Cavaliere di Belfiore – Joshua Hopkins
La Marchesa del Poggio – Christine Rice
Barone di Kelbar – Henry Waddington
Edoardo di Sanval – Oliver Sewell
Giulietta di Kelbar – Madison Leonard
La Rocca – Grant Doyle
Servant – Daniel Vening
Delmonte – James Micklethwaite
Il Conte Ivrea – Robert Murray

Director – Christopher Alden
Designer – Charles Edwards
Lighting designer – Ben Pickersgill
Video designer – Matt and Rob Vale (Illuminos)
Choreographer – Tim Claydon

For this season, Garsington has kept the best to last, with this effervescent interpretation of Verdi’s rarely seen Un giorno di regno (1840) – his second opera, but the only comedy he would write apart from Falstaff at the other end of his career. Even so, it is a late example of an opera buffa, in the mould in which it had been perpetuated by Rossini and Donizetti as the nineteenth century advanced, at a time when tragic – or at least semiseria – opera became increasingly favoured.

Christopher Alden’s production maintains the fizzing high spirits of that genre consistently from start to finish, with clever wit and slapstick; even when, superficially, it appears to resort to gimmick, its dramatic or visual ideas can be tied down to something in the libretto or as running ironically parallel with the underlying scenario. He rightly identifies the thrust of the opera – as it is of the entire opera buffa tradition – as being the satirising of patriarchal authority (in this case as exercised by the status-mad, money-driven Baron Kelbar, who wants to marry his daughter, Giulietta, to the prestigious and prosperous treasurer, La Rocca). But Alden appears to miss, or doesn’t really draw out, the unusual fact for this genre that it is not so much the women who cleverly plot to subvert the men’s plans, but Belfiore, working undercover in disguise as the disappeared King Stanislaus. Because Kelbar and La Rocca are so subservient to authority themselves, the disguised Belfiore is able to invoke ostensible royal fiat and turn things around so that Giuletta may marry her beloved Edoardo. Also, after some misunderstandings because he isn’t able to step out of his disguise sooner, Belfiore can marry the young, widowed Marchesa del Poggio, with whom he has long been in love.

Garsington Opera’s Un giorno di regno © Richard Hubert Smith

Kelbar’s dubious exercise of patriarchal power is reinterpreted here by his being the head of a weapons company, ‘Kelbar Defence Limited’, which seems to be no merely random conceit but takes its inspiration from the altercations and threatened violence between him and La Rocca in the libretto where the metaphor of gunpowder is used. Act I is set in the company’s board room and adjoining drawing room, an embattled enclave that is heavily patrolled by gangster-ish, besuited guards wielding guns – a confinement as overbearing as Doctor Bartolo’s watch over Rosina in The Barber of Seville. Belfiore is conceived as something of a cheerful undercover agent, prompting Giuletta and Eduardo to respond with their own radical attempts to free themselves and bring destruction by ordering a pack of dynamite by mail delivery, the surprise being that the expected explosion at the end does not occur. The make-believe of a king in disguise is rendered laughable – to us, the audience, at least – as the first act ends with Belfiore’s reappearance as a camp celebrity, almost a drag queen in his glitzy robe, called in to police the first brouhaha between Kelbar and La Rocca.

Belfiore’s provisional authority is mocked by a video display of portraits of past leaders such as William the Conqueror, Robert Mugabe, Vlad the Impaler, Donald Trump, Richard Nixon, Genghis Khan, Joseph Stalin, Mrs Thatcher, in unsavoury, grimacing poses – the sort of people you wouldn’t trust an inch with your children. It’s only a wonder that Liz Truss was missed out, or for that matter Rishi Sunak or Sir Keir Starmer; but perhaps the sequence will be tweaked after the general election.

Although there are elements of Rossini and Donizetti in the score, it is terser than the latter composer, and the melodic profiles and orchestration are recognisably Verdian, even if the numbers aren’t quite memorable in the way that those of his acknowledged masterpieces are. David Kimbell’s verdict on the opera (in New Penguin Opera Guide) is that ‘instead of sparkle, the orchestral colouring has a monochrome stridency, and rhythms that might have danced are merely galumphing’. Certainly it feels more heavy-handed than the comedies by his two operatic predecessors. But what was perhaps the young Verdi’s deliberate attempt to outdo and satirise the conventions of their works to make a name for himself at its La Scala premiere – especially the bluster of Act II’s opening – is turned to good advantage here by Alden in that he emboldens any such galumphing or long-windedness with comical absurdity. As the wedding preparations are underway, Kelbar and La Rocca come to blows on account of the insult given by the latter in rejecting the Baron’s daughter after all, by staging a food fight, which must surely pique the interest of the audience having just returned from their long dinner interval. After that squabble comes another operatic set piece with Edoardo’s expression of love and yearning to marry Giuletta. Alden satirises that convention by turning it into the rehearsal of a crooning love-song at the wedding karaoke to come, with the microphone passed among other singers too, and hammed up words projected on to a screen to mimic such repertoire.

Oliver Sewell, as that young lover, is one of the standout singers in a fine cast, with a firm, resonant voice, even forceful, rather than exactly a lyrically elegant, romantic lead, but that suits the larger-than-life nature of this production. Joshua Hopkins is a charismatic, quirky pretend king, both in his gestures and singing, although the part isn’t extensive. Henry Waddington and Grant Doyle are well matched, the former brashly assertive as the Baron, the latter eager and obsequious as his would-be son-in-law but holding his own cogently against him, once Belfiore has cajoled him to stand aside so that Edoardo may marry Giuletta in his stead. Madison Leonard turns in a blazing, defiant performance as the frustrated young woman, even as she looks resentful and browbeaten on stage. Christine Rice – indisposed recently for A Midsummer Night’s Dream – is back on vivid, volatile form as the Marchesa, giving a strenuous performance here.

Chris Hopkins, replacing Tobias Ringborg owing to injury, makes a name for himself with his spirited conducting of the music with the Philharmonia Orchestra. There is a distinct difference in character between the light-touch and wit of the first act, and his making a virtue out of the ‘galumphing’ nature of the second, by playing that up to wring every last ounce of comedy from the work, which particularly helps to engage a possibly somnolent audience after a ninety-minute dining interval. Together with the clearly enthused Garsington Opera Chorus, the music runs hand-in-glove with the irrepressibly animated action on stage.

If any aspect of Verdi’s opera buffa seems hackneyed or outdated, then it is compensated for – or even redeemed by – this impressively alert production which brings it endearingly to life. It kept me more amused and absorbed than even the Verdi Festival’s production at the composer’s hometown, Busseto, in 2018, and it convinces that this a work which, in the right hands, is worth an outing more frequently than it receives in practice.

Curtis Rogers

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