The Opera Quarterly 19.1 (2003) 3-15
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Verdi Onstage in the United States
Un giorno di regno
VERDI'S second opera, Un giorno di regno (King for a Day), though a comedy with a happy ending, gave him his worst night in the theater. At the premiere at La Scala, Milan, on 5 September 1840, as custom then required of the composer of a new opera, he sat throughout the performance in the orchestra, between the first double-bass and cello. Because La Scala then had no orchestra pit, he was at floor level in the auditorium, and there, on view, for two and a half hours he heard the audience hiss and boo most of the opera's musical numbers. 1
Most critics saw in the fiasco a chance for sarcasm; the reviewer for the Figaro saw deeper and with some kindness:
The near impossibility of finding nowadays a verse comedy which is not utterly insipid, the size of the theater [cap. c. 2400] which ruins the effect of half-tones and light melodies and the lack of aptitude shown by present-day singers for the comic genre; all this makes it twice as difficult for a new score of this kind to succeed. Add to all this the special circumstances that Verdi was forced to clothe his latest work with gay music just at the time when a cruel and unexpected catastrophe [his wife's death] had struck him in the innermost part of his being, and it will be easy to understand how in this his second venture he fell short of the expectations aroused by his first. 2
La Scala at once canceled all further performances and did not revive Un giorno di regno until 2001, the centennial of Verdi's death. Meanwhile, in 1845 in Venice, a smaller house produced the opera with success, and a smaller theater in Rome, employing much the same cast, staged it the following year. Lastly, the Teatro Nuovo, in Naples, a house devoted to comedy, presented Un giorno in 1859. 3 After that, the opera was all but forgot as everywhere companies of all sizes and competence hurried to mount Verdi's later works, such as Ernani, [End Page 3] Rigoletto, Trovatore, and Traviata. Even in Italy, it seems, for more than a hundred years no house staged Un giorno—until 1963, when Parma's Teatro Regio revived it to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Verdi's birth. 4
Before that production, however, another of even greater importance for the opera had taken place. In 1951, the fiftieth anniversary of Verdi's death, Italian radio had broadcast a cycle of Verdi's operas (all except Alzira, Corsaro, Jérusalem,and Stiffelio), and the Italian firm of Cetra began to issue many of the performances as commercial recordings. Of the operas least known at the time, the company offered I Lombardi, La battaglia di Legnano,and Un giorno di regno, and to the surprise of almost everyone Un giorno proved to be one of the "hits" of the series. 5 These Cetra recordings of Verdi's early operas, kept in stock for many years and sold internationally, hold a place in the Verdi renaissance of the second half of the century that can hardly be exaggerated.
Verdi subtitled his opera "melodramma giocoso," meaning a story set with humor but not so continually comic as a farsa or opera buffa,or even a commedia,such as Rossini's Barbiere (1816). The next year Rossini subtitled his version of the Cinderella story (La Cenerentola) "dramma giocoso," and though that opera has many comic scenes, it is first a love story with a happy ending. So, too, is Verdi's Un giorno. His immediate model was Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore (1832), another love story with comic scenes, yet Un giorno in its self-mockery (chiefly in asides to the audience) and in its buffo duets for male voices harks back equally to early Rossini. Hence the Figaro critic's suggestion that the La Scala...