Sarasota Opera has made great strides through the years in how it presents the rarely performed early Verdi operas in its epic project of staging all the works of the Italian master. I can remember a production in 2001 of Oberto — Verdi's debut as an opera composer — that labored to overcome its many flaws. For completist purposes, I was glad to have seen it, but the opera was only fitfully enjoyable.
Now comes Verdi's second opera, Un Giorno di Regno (King for a Day), a two-act work broken into five scenes that opened Saturday. It was a surprisingly entertaining affair, as befits the composer's first and only comedy until his long career's crowning work, some 53 years later, the sublime Falstaff. The influence of the youthful Verdi's predecessors at the top of the Italian opera world Donizetti and especially Rossini runs through the score in such roles as the Cavaliere di Belfiore, a Figaro-like trickster, sung with suitably ironic charm by baritone Corey Crider.
Of course, the story, in a libretto by Felice Romani, is hopeless in the manner of operas of the period (it premiered, disastrously, in 1840), with the sly Cavalier impersonating the King of Poland, a case of mistaken identity that overturns the best-laid plans for a pair of weddings in the castle of Baron Kelbar.
In some ways, Un Giorno di Regno is not much better than Oberto, but Sarasota's execution of a (deservedly) obscure work this time around is dramatically more interesting, highlighted by Martha Collins' witty, quick-paced staging, which almost manages to overcome the loss of momentum that starts to drag things down in the third scene of Act 1. From there on a certain monotony in the score overtakes the second act, and I began to check my watch as the overly long opera stretched past two and a half hours.
Sarasota artistic director and consummate Verdian Victor DeRenzi had gotten things off to a good start in forcefully conducting the boisterous overture. The opening chorus was wonderfully vigorous. The company is using a new critical edition of Verdi's score, edited by Francesco Izzo, who gave a talk on the opera before Saturday's performance.
In a clear nod to Rossini, Un Giorno di Regno features a matched set of comic basses, the Baron (in a superbly Italianate performance by Stefano de Peppo), and La Rocca (the delightfully coy Kevin Short, who, let it be noted for the historical record, also shone as the title character in Oberto all those years ago).
Along with Crider's Cavalier, the star of the opera is the Marchesa del Poggio, the imposter's mistress, whose Act 1 cabaletta Se dee cader la vedova is given a sparkling interpretation by mezzo soprano Jennifer Feinstein. As the ingenue Giulietta, soprano Danielle Walker could get a touch shrill in the ensembles, such as an elaborate sextet in the second scene of Act 1, but she has a sweet duet with the lovesick Edoardo (tenor Hak Soo Kim).
Jeffrey Dean's scenic design supplies a handsome space for the madcap happenings, and Howard Tsvi Kaplan's costumes are sumptuous, such as the Marchesa's rich red gown with lace neckline and the outrageous getups for the buffo basses.
Puccini's crowd-pleaser: Turandot is a sure-fire hit, full of familiar, amazing music by Puccini (and less amazing music by Franco Alfano, who completed the finale after Puccini's death). Sarasota's production boasts a strong lineup of principals, such as Brenda Harris, a soprano of Wagnerian heft, who plays the riddling ice princess, and Jonathan Burton, who plays Calaf and sings Nessun Dorma to Puccini's exquisite orchestration. However, designer Michael Schweikardt's set and Ken Yunker's aqua-toned lighting make Turandot's palace garden look like a Florida seaside mansion, lacking only the crescent-shaped pool.
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.