By Nicholas D. Lewis
Giuseppe Verdi is one of the most enigmatic composers of the nineteenth century. Scholars do not seem to know a great deal about his life, yet he remains one of the most popular composers of Western music. His melodies and harmonies seem original and natural, and his dramatic treatment of characters on stage seems to represent overarching questions of humanity. Although Verdi has many famous operas, the lesser known Un giorno di regno was composed during a very important and critical time in his life. The time during which it was composed, and the unfortunate circumstances that filled his life during the opera’s composition led to its ultimate failure. Giuseppe Verdi was born near Dutchy of Parma on October 10th, 1813, to a middle class family (Slonimsky 1698). Although many people believe that Verdi came from a family of low class peasants, the evidence does not support the idea. Records indicate that Verdi’s father worked an “inn-keeper”, which most likely meant as a bartender (Baldini 3). It should be noted that these official town records are probably credible because the Napoleonic Code forbade privileges based on birth, and was heavily enforced during that time (Holtman 4). The idea that he was born to a middle class family plays an important role in his operas because economy tends to be a motif throughout his early operas through to Ernani, and his upbringing almost certainly played a part in shaping his thoughts as he reached maturity (Parker 109). The economy is particularly seen as a motif in Giorno as it deals with the problems associated with upper class nobility and royalty. However, to understand the background and failure of Un giorno di regno, it is important to understand the cultural environment and personal conditions under which Verdi composed. Verdi’s personal life during the composition of the opera was anything but ideal. Verdi lost both of his children from illness one month apart from each other, and then he lost his wife. (Izzo 165). After the relative success of his first opera, Oberto, Verdi wanted to withdraw his contracts to write more opera, but he was forced into the obligation during his time of great sorrow. David Kimbell asserts that “Giorno would surely have turned out a more tender and more sparkling piece had Verdi been able to spend the spring and summer months of 1840 working on it in a tranquil state of mind.” (46). However, the struggles of his personality life are not the only reason for its ultimate failure. Verdi composed Un giorno di regno during the ‘primo ottocento’ – the first half of the nineteenth century – during which everything was of only secondary importance to the voice. According to Julian Budden, the eminent Verdi scholar and author of The Operas of Verdi, there were two main functions of the orchestra during this time period: “To support the singers in such a way as to bring out the variety of the vocal line and to stimulate applause by making as much noise as possible” (28). In this sense, orchestration was not considered one of the most important elements of style in an opera and should not be held too strongly against Verdi in the criticism of his early opera. Un giorno di regno premiered at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan on September 5th, 1840 when the composer was just twenty seven years old (Budden 70). Already suffering from poor orchestration and dramatic technique,Baldiniattributes the opera’s failure to “hasty writing conditions with not enough time to finish.” (48). Julian Budden agrees that “the work was finished in a hurry; and that is possibly why there is not one piece of really imaginative scoring from beginning to end” (87). But these views do not tell the whole story, and they do not take into account the full implications of the ‘primo ottocento’. Francesco Izzo, an authority on Verdi who recently edited the critical edition of the opera, argues that Verdi did in fact have adequate time to finish the work. According to records that Izzo studied, Verdi had more than two months to write the opera – a very long time according to the standards of the ‘primo ottocento’. Not only this, but the libretto was also heavily modified and reworked, suggesting that Verdi spent a great deal of time on the opera (167). These conflicting views create doubt as to whether his opera was hastily composed, but nearly every source indicates that the first performance of the opera was very poor. Baldini attributes part of the failure to the singers, who were “…indifferent to the proceedings, and seemed oppressed.” (48). In fact, this suggests that the idea that the opera is particularly bad may be less sound than some scholars assert. The bad reviews that the premiere largely focused on the quality of the performance. When the opera was revived five years later in at the Teatro San Benedetto, the music and dramatic content was met with praise (Budden 72). Although Un giorno di regno was a fiasco during its time, and although it is rarely performed today, it marks a significant time during Verdi’s life – one of loss, tragedy, and sorrow. Composers with less perseverance and musical energy may have likely stopped composing all together out of discouragement, but Verdi went on to write many more operas that still captivate audiences today.
Baldini, Gabriele. The Story of Giuseppe Verdi: Oberto to Un Ballo in Maschera. Trans. Roger Parker. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980. Print. Budden, Julian. The Operas of Verdi. Vol. 1. New York: Oxford UP, 1992. Print. Holtman, Robert B. The Napoleonic Revolution. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1967. Print. Izzo, Francesco. “Verdi’s Un Giorno Di Regno.” Acta Musicologica 73.2 (2001): 165-88. Print. Kimbell, David R. B. Verdi in the Age of Italian Romanticism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981. Print. Parker, Roger. Studies in Early Verdi: 1832-1844. New York: Garland, 1989. Print. Slonimsky, Nicolas. Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians. New York: Schirmer, 1992. Print.