Un giorno di regno — ‘King for a day’ — is Verdi’s second opera, and the first of his only two comic operas, the other being his last opera, Falstaff, written over half a century later. The ear will at once discern that Un giorno di regno is much influenced by Rossini, with reminiscences of the styles of Bellini and Donizetti, none of these to its detriment.
Verdi was not keen about the recycled libretto by Felice Romani, probably retrofitted by Temistocle Solera, La Scala’s resident lyricist. Romani had an illustrious career, and wrote the libretti for Bellini’s Norma and Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, amongst many others that were notable. The story is no sillier than many others foisted on talented composers; but, work is work and a contract is a contract, and Verdi makes a good opera of it. It is Verdi’s only opera in which he employs recitativo secco; perhaps a hidden comment is the real obbligato.
Verdi’s work flopped at the La Scala première, but five years later, in 1845, it was revived successfully in Venice, followed by success a year later in Rome, and in Naples in 1869. Substantial portions of the music are of good quality, and the opera has been mounted, if infrequently, over the last decade. It was, for instance, staged in Bilbao in 2010 and in Seattle in 2012.
It is another of those creations that is at odds with the personal circumstances of the artist. Verdi was 27, as was his wife Margherita. Charles Osborne, in his critical guide to the operas, relates that during the composition of this opera Verdi fell ill, his wife nursed him, and then she fell ill and died of encephalitis. Verdi continued to work on the opera in the house where his wife had died, and steadily composed while steadily approaching nervous collapse.
Twenty years later, writing to Tito Ricordi, he wrote that Un giorno di regno “may well be a poor opera, though many others no better have won applause…. I do not mean to blame the public, but I accept their criticism and scorn only so long as I do not have to be grateful for their applause.”
What is interesting about this opera, as Osborne observes, is that Un giorno di regno, only the second opera that Verdi wrote, “already rivals all but the best of Donizetti: it requires no special pleading to demonstrate that Verdi’s dressing-up of Romani’s unexceptionable libretto is, if not riotously funny, at least an opera of great charm and melodic facility.”