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Arts: Opera - And the sparks flew...

VERDI'S FIRST brush with comedy was no laughing matter. Un giorno di regno ("King for a Day") - his second opera (1840) - was born in miserable circumstances. Verdi was ill, his wife dying, and, to cap it all, the Milanese audience was hungry for failure. And they did not take kindly to the inadequately prepared premiere.

Verdi, badly in need of encouragement, did not take kindly to them, either. He never forgave them. He'd probably have fared better in the provinces. Un giorno is a crowd-pleaser. The Rossini and Donizetti formula (yes, complete with fortepiano-backed recitatives), but coarser. Street- wise. The word "Buffo" winks at you through every diverting chortle of the Overture. Foreshortened Rossini crescendos abound, and the tunes come on strong in jaunty unisons, bright banda trumpets stiffening their resolve, obligatory piccolo catching the light, bass drum and cymbals lending encouragement. It's music with a grin from ear to ear. It's churlish to resist. Except in Milan.

In London, as part of the Royal Opera's Verdi Festival, we were invited (with the benefit of hindsight) to pit our judgement against that of the Milanese with a belated concert performance - and a jolly good one at that. They put a real Italian - Maurizio Benini - at the helm. He even looked the part - very giocoso, wiry, bespectacled, conductor's hair. And you knew he was Italian from the body language, the way he would kick- start Verdi's upbeat accompaniments, the two-bars of intro before soloist or chorus or even crowd join in; the bounce of the rhythms; the rudeness of the trumpet doublings; the pacing where presto really does mean presto. In short, there was plenty of fizz in the brew. And he kept shaking the bottle.

Better yet, he coaxed his singers, bustling them through the incidental nonsenses of the plot to their variously delightful set-pieces. The evening's comedy was almost entirely commandeered by the dynamic double-act of John Del Carlo (Baron Kelbar) and Donald Maxwell (Il Tesoriere, La Rocca). With overripe Italian vowels making characatures of their faces, this winning pair twice stopped the show with their buffo duetting. Vladimir Chernov's Belfiore, not in the best of voice, was diminished in their company, though underneath his imaginary disguise (yes, he's the "king for a day") he proved a good listener.

The young love interest was provided by a strapping puppy of a tenor, zCarlo Scibelli, whose vocal ardours were accompanied by quaintly endearing hand gestures, the like of which I've not seen this side of the silent screen. The ladies were smashing. Susanne Mentzer's Giulietta duly delivered on the enticements and over-egged melancholy and we had a real star in Iano Tamar's Marchesa, a not-so-merry-widow with almost as much personality as she had notes to sing. Her coloratura was worn like a fashion statement, her misery like a come-on. Delicious.

So, did we glimpse Verdi's future where the Milanese did not? Halfway through act one there's a sextet in which the young lovers' voices crest the ensemble like a fleeting premonition of the next time that Verdi would attempt to make us laugh: Falstaff fifty years later.