Monday, 14 October 2019

Bringing a rarity alive: Verdi's Un giorno di regno from Chelsea Opera Group

Verdi: Un giorno di regno - Paula Sides, Luis Gomes, Sarah-Jane Lewis, Tom Seligman, Lindsay Bramley, George von Bergen, Nicholas Folwell, John Savournin, Aaron Godfrey-Mayes - Chelsea Opera Group
Verdi: Un giorno di regno - Paula Sides, Luis Gomes, Sarah-Jane Lewis, Tom Seligman, Lindsay Bramley (chorus director), George von Bergen, Nicholas Folwell, John Savournin, Aaron Godfrey-Mayes - Chelsea Opera Group
Verdi Un giorno di regno; George von Bergen, John Savournin, Sarah-Jane Lewis, Paula Sides, Luis Gomes, Nicholas Folwell, Chelsea Opera Group, Tom Seligman; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 12 October 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A strong cast brings Verdi's rare early comedy alive at Chelsea Opera Group

Verdi's second opera, Un giorno di regno remains a relative rarity in the UK, Covent Garden did it in concert in 1999 and the Buxton Festival staged it in 2001. Now the opera seems set for another flurry of performances, perhaps spurred on by a critical edition of the work from Francesco Izzo.  Garsington will be staging it in 2020, directed by Christopher Alden and conducted by Tobias Ringborg. As something of a taster to this, Chelsea Opera Group gave a concert performance of Verdi's Un giorno di regno at the Cadogan Hall on Saturday 12 October 2019 conducted by Tom Seligman with George von Bergen as Belfiore, John Savournin as Kelbar, Sarah-Jane Lewis as La Marchesa del Poggio, Paula Sides as Giulietta, Luis Gomes as Edoardo, and Nicholas Folwell as La Rocca.

Verdi's early comedy is often compared, unfairly, to his only other essay in the comic genre, Falstaff, a masterpiece which he created some 50 years after Un giorno di regno, a period in which opera had changed radically (partly thanks to Verdi's own efforts). When the young Verdi produced his comedy for Milan in 1840, the dominant voice in opera buffa was still Rossini with elaborate solo arias and long sequences of secco recitative. Donizetti's Don Pasquale, which debuted in Paris three years after Un giorno di regno would go some way to breaking the mould and use orchestral accompaniment throughout, but then we don't get another major Italian comic opera until Falstaff!

So Un giorno di regno represents a road not travelled, in it Verdi is looking back to Rossini and the work responds to the lightness which you might bring to a Rossini opera. But also mixed in are fascinating pre-echoes of the Verdi to come. An important point is that we must listen to it with early Verdi ears, and not try to make it into Il trovatore and Rigoletto.

Whilst the piece is not a riot, it is definitely fun. There is a plot, of sorts, but the double wedding at Baron Kelbar's castle co-inciding with a visit from the future King of Poland, on his way to claim his throne, results in an awkward series of encounters and pairings, both romantic and comic. That Verdi and Temistocle Solera (with whom Verdi wrote Oberto and Nabucco) reshaped the libretto by cutting, only served to emphasise this, and the piece can sometimes seem like a semi-random series of arias and ensembles. The essential point of the piece is unclear, is it just fun or is the emphasis on money  significant? Kelbar's daughter Giulietta is to marry La Rocca who is elderly and rich, she doesn't want to and throughout the opera Kelbar and La Rocca argue furiously about money, honour and more, never worrying about what Giulietta actually wants.

Chelsea Opera Group had drawn together a strong cast, and from the opening notes of the overture it was clear that conductor Tom Seligman has a deep understand and love of the piece.
The result was a crisp, disciplined performance with an impressive security to the underlying rhythms, and a nice bounce. It was at times, perhaps, a trifle too loud for the Cadogan Hall and it would have been nice to hear a lighter, chamber orchestra approach rather than the vividly full blooded account from the orchestra.

George von Bergen had great fun as Belfiore, the French officer standing in for King Stanislaus of Poland (so that the real King can get to Poland undiscovered), who delights in meddling in the affairs of others but finds his own complex when his (former?) lover the Marchesa (Sarah-Jane Lewis) recognises him and doesn't understand why he fails to acknowledge her. Von Bergen brought a nice swagger to Belfiore's music, with a vein of melancholy in the duet with the Marchesa.

There was a lovely plangency to Sarah-Jane Lewis' tone as the Marchesa, especially in the act two duet with von Bergen's Belfiore. But I would have liked a touch more temperament, particularly in the trio with the two young lovers (Paula Sides and Luis Gomes) where the Marchesa is more worried about her own situation than that of the lovers, and Lewis' ornamentation in her entrance aria was rather lightly sketched in (the role is often sung by a mezzo-soprano, which makes it more dramatic). I also rather missed the Marchesa's bravura cabaletta Act Two, which was omitted in this performance.

Giulietta is notionally the second female role, but thanks to Paula Sides vivid performance this Giulietta really stood out. Sides brought a nice sense of drama to the fioriture and her dramatic responses certainly enlivened the situation. It helped that she and Luis Gomes developed a lively relationship which made both young lovers come alive. Edoardo has little to do but be the love sick young man, but Gomes did it well, at times almost stealing the show, and certainly showed an affinity with early Verdi.
 
None of the solo roles is huge, each has its moment but none dominate. This means that it is up to the individual singer to create a strong impression. John Savournin and Nicholas Folwell as Kelbar and La Rocca, made a fine double act, but it was the young lovers of Paula Sides and Luis Gomes who almost made the strongest impression.

The main buffo business falls on Kelbar and La Rocca, and Savournin and Folwell savoured every minute of their idiotic feud, the one obsessed about money, the other about honour. Savournin and Folwell clearly understand how opera buffa works in this period of Italian opera, and this showed in the confident, and delightfully vivid, handling of the music.

There were three small roles. Ivrea is a tiny but important role, he is the man the Marchesa is going to marry to spite Belfiore!  Aaron Godfrey-Mayes made a fine contribution but when we saw the piece staged at Heidenheim [see my review] the singer there was allowed to improvise a serenade for the Marchesa which made a little more of Ivrea's presence. The other two roles were strongly taken by members of the chorus, John Vallance and Kevin Hollands.

The chorus, under chorus director Lindsay Bramley, was on good form and contributed vivid performances, following Seligman and the orchestra's lead in giving us some crisply rhythmic singing.

This was an enjoyable romp, and everyone concerned seemed to be having fun. It is an unfamiliar piece, but the enjoyment and delight coming from the stage was catching and whilst we might not have gone home humming the melodies, there was plenty to remember.

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