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le faux stanislas

22 august 2020

Famous operas are sometimes based on famous sources, like Otello or Billy Budd. Famous operas can be based on obscure sources, like Norma or L'Elisir d'Amore. Obscure operas have certainly been based on famous sources: Wagner's Liebesverbot, based on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, comes to mind. Though nobody's heard of obscure operas unless they happen to be written by famous composers.

And obscure operas can be based on obscure sources. Probably most of them are, but again, most of the time, who's to know. Un Giorno di Regno is such an opera. It was Giuseppe Verdi's worst failure, the one nearly ended his career after it flopped in 1840. Verdi can't have been down for long; Nabucco followed in 1842. But a brief exile from the stage may have seemed like forever to the young composer.

Un Giorno di Regno is based on Alexandre Duval's 1809 play Le faux Stanislas. Duval was one of those figures in cultural history – star actor, prolific playwright, member of the Académie Française – who embodies the evanescence of glory. Today, Duval's memory consists of a terse French Wikipedia page and a footnote to an opera that nobody performs.

That's a shame, because Le faux Stanislas is a bright and clever comedy. The fake Stanislas is really the Chevalier de Morange, pretending to be King Stanislas of Poland, because … well, the play never really explains the because. "Quel motif d'ailleurs? … Quel but?" (30) – "For what reason, anyway? What's the point?" asks his ex-girlfriend the Marquise de Rosey, when she begins to suspect that the King is really her delinquent squeeze. In historical fact, there was a King Stanislas of Poland who, back in the day, the day being 1733 or so, lived in exile at Chambord in central France. To slip back to Warsaw unannounced, Stanislas arranged for a phony Stanislas to take his place in France. From that factoid came Duval's comedy.

The fake Stanislas makes a tour of Brittany for some reason, trying to convince people that he is His Polish Majesty while at the same time trying to go unperceived by the many French aristocrats who know exactly who he is. His king-for-a-day status gives him the idea of helping a pair of star-crossed lovers. Edouard and Juliette are very much in love, but Edouard is poor, and Juliette's father, the Baron, intends to marry her off to Edouard's uncle, the Treasurer of Brittany.

Stanislas/Morange likes the young man and hires him on as royal squire. Shaking off the uncle's claims is harder, but the false King persuades the Treasurer to give up his engagement and even to settle a sizable estate on Edouard (ensuring the Baron's consent). How? Promise the conceited Treasurer that only he can fill the vacant position of Finance Minister of Poland, and in the bargain marry the Princess Ineska. A woman he's apparently invented on the spot.

The King's own romantic difficulties are harder to resolve. He'd broken up with the Marquise before taking on the royal-disguise gig. Charming and resourceful as the Chevalier is, one qualification for the job of fake king is his talent for outrageous lies. And he needs the job because he's frittered away his estates (the same estates he persuades the Treasurer to settle on Edouard). Hence the Marquise's dubiousness. But she does love him so. She is not fooled by his disguise for long (and it's not much of a disguise, physically), but she can only get him to drop the pretense by inflaming his jealousy. The Marquise agrees to marry a certain Governor who is brought in purely for last-minute plot purposes. The Chevalier is at his wits' end. She will drop her new engagement if the Chevalier shows up to claim her within the day. But if he does that, the fate of Poland lies in the balance. Time for a convenient letter from Warsaw to resolve the plot, I'd say.

So why is the opera Un Giorno di Regno so weak? I can't call it bad, exactly; there are much worse ways to spend two hours. But it's performed only by companies intent on Verdi completism, like the Teatro Regio di Parma. The DVD of their 2012 production of Un Giorno is one of the few ways of seeing the opera. The Parma Giorno di Regno is so capably done that I hate to criticize it in any way. Aside from a couple of awkward costume and hairstyle choices, it scarcely has any flaws.

But you can see why the opera is no repertoire favorite. Many of the scenes just seem very hard to sing. They may be musically difficult, though from my untrained perspective they seem like your basic undistinguished bel canto writing. What struck me more is the tongue-twisting nature of much of the verse, which we will blame on librettist Felice Romani. One duet between the Treasurer and Giulietta's father was so exasperating to enunciate that you could feel the Parma audience giving the singers an ovation just for getting through it.

And Verdi couldn't manage to get the music and the farce to work together. On the face of it, Duval's play should have made for a witty, wacky opera like Mozart's Così Fan Tutte or Rossini's Cenerentola. And there are some nice moments here and there. But too many of Verdi's scenes feature mere character exposition, or bland reiteration of well-established plot conflicts.

One missed chance in the first act is notable. In Duval's play, the King draws the Baron and the Treasurer aside to get their "advice" on some fictitious fortifications. The whole point is to leave Edoardo and Giulietta together to bill and coo. In the play, the scene offers a droll situation where the Treasurer's attention keeps wandering, and the King has to lure him back to the table with some hogwash or other.

But in the opera, the scene becomes a noisy quintet, the three older men yammering on about something or other while the tenor and mezzo sing a song that is actually very pretty and deserves to be heard on its own. There is no farcical tension, just a sense of lost opportunity. Too many scenes in Un Giorno di Regno pass by leaving the impression that they could have amounted to considerably more.

But the DVD is still well worth seeing. Ivan Magrì as Edoardo is lyrical and appealing (though he has that bad haircut I mentioned, and must keep brushing it out of his eyes). Guido Loconsolo as the fake Stanislas is agreeably insouciant. Most of the best music belongs to soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci as the Marchesa and to mezzo Alessandra Marianelli as Giulietta, and they bring it off well despite sometimes being stuffed into stiflingly fuzzy costumes. In her opening number, Antonacci takes most of her clothes off, for no pressing dramatic reason; but I bet under those stage lights, it was quite a relief.

Duval, Alexandre. Le faux Stanislas. 1809. Paris: Vente, 1810.