Verdi's Attila: a triumph at Covent Garden

Verdi's Attila: a triumph at Covent Garden

Verdi Atilla (concert performance). Soloists; Chorus & Orchestra of the Royal Opera House,Covent Garden / Spreanza Scappucci. Royal Opera House, London, 19.07.2022

Atilla – Ildar Abdrazakov
Uldino – Egor Zhuravskii
Odabella – Maria José Siri
Ezio – Simon Keenlyside
Foresto – Stefan Pop
Leone – Alexander Köpeczi
Lighting Direction – Matt Mulberry

Verdi’s “lyric drama in a prologue and three acts” Atilla (1846) is a brilliant piece of writing. It might be seen as a risk to programme it at the same time as a run of Otello (reviewed here); and yet Atilla stood perfectly well on its own two feet. As a product of Verdi’s so-called ‘galley years,’ it is too often dismissed, along with a raft of other fine operas, so all credit to the Royal Opera for this concert performance (it has of course been staged here, initially by Moshinsky in 1990 and revived the next year and in 2002).

Attila deserves another staging, for sure. The music is strong and unfailingly vibrant, particularly in Speranza Scappucci’s hands. Scappucci made her Royal Opera debut with this performance, and it was a fine one, attentive, technically scrupulous. She has already conducted the piece at the Mariinsky and the Liceu, so it very much part of her musical persona. Just occasionally some of her gestures seemed superfluous or slightly awkward, but there is no doubting this is a major Verdi conductor in the making. works beautifully with her singers. Next season, she takes on Rigoletto and Macbeth (neither in the UK, unfortunately
for us). The sheer raw emotion of some of Verdi’s orchestral writing was visceral here: “Qual notte” from the Prologue was gripping – Verdi spared nothing in his writing. She captures Verdi’s core lyricism beautifully, too, as for example the sheer beauty of the string writing that opens the third and final act. We heard the whole panoply of colour here in this brilliant score; and I wonder if Scappucci deliberately pointed us towards the Traviata pre-echo at the end of Atilla’s act one “Spiriti, fermate”?

Verdi’s opera certainly caught he early audiences’ attention with its patriotism (allegedly there were cheers for the more patriotic lines, including Ezio’s ‘You have the universe / leave Italy for me’). The opera is based on Friedrich Zacharias Werner’s play Atilla König der Hunnen; the libretto was written by Temistocle Solera, who specialised in poetry on theatrical warfare. Atilla, King of the Huns, as invaded Italy – en route to Rome, he has destroyed the city of Aquileia. There follows surely one of the most extended Prologues pre-Wagner: scene one of the Prologue shows celebrations of victory. Udino, one of his soldiers, has saved a
group of women who were involved in the fighting; their leader is Odabella, who is the soprano lead. Atilla falls in love with Odabella; he gives her his sword, which, after he leaves, she vows to exact revenge. A private audience between Atilla and the Roman generalEzio leads to a suggestion of their uniting, based on the one condition given above (‘You have the universe / leave Italy for me’); Attila refuses. The second scene introduces Foresto, mourning the loss of Odabella (his betrothed); hie suggests the people build a city which will ‘rise like a phoenix from the lagoon (later Venice!). Act One finsd Odabella and Foresto
together (with the latter disguised as a Hun); he accuses Odabella of betraying him and cites the Biblical story of Judith. Taken aback at her scheme for revenge, he relents and they renew their love. In scene two, Attila dreams he is barred from Rome – the words of his dream are repeated by the General Leone as he marches on Rome.

The second act begins with a truce between the Romand and Huns. Foresto, disguised as a slave, and Ezio plan to attack the Hun. At a banquet, the torches are blown out by a gust of wind, seen as an ill omen by the Huns. Odabella saves Attila’s life by preventing him from drinking from a poisoned chalice; Foresto admits his part, but his life is saved thanks to Odabella’s intervention. Attila decalres Odabella will be his bride. The final act finds Foresto comtemplating Odabella’s behaviour. Odabella enters, attacking an imagined ghost of her
father with Attila’s sword.She reveals to Ezio it is he she loves; when Attila arrives to claim his bride, Odabella kills him. Finis.

Verdi’s music is gripping from first to last. Scappucci’s conducting ensured that trajectory did not dip even once. This might not be the most structurally sound opera in the World –Attila's death seems rather sudden, for instance – bnut I do wonder whether it shares with Don Carlo(s) that elusive status of ‘flawed masterpiece’? The melodic writing in Attila sometimes verges on the genius – try the opening of “Liberamente or piangi”, Odabella’s stunningly beautiful
act 1 aria – and notice how Verdi thins the texture daringly at one point after the voice has joined, in with soprano and cor anglais together (and nobody else) in duet, with little flute arpeggios separating the phrases. Genius, nothing else.

In the absence of a recorded excerpt of that, let‘s hear Siri in “Samto di Patria”: this time in a staged production from Bologna in 2016, with Ildebrando d’Arcangelo:

The superb performance of the duet between Foresto and Odabella (Stefan Pop and Maria José Siri) , ‘Sī, quell’io son,’ showed how well this cast worked together.

This is all the more surprising, given the cancellations that seems to sadly be the covid-norm these days (both were stand-ins, Pop replacing Joseph Calleja and Siri replacing Sondra Radvanovsky). A glance at Siri’s past roles shoes she is no stranger to the world of Verdi, and she sings with beautiful tone, sterling tuning and absolutely lives each instant. Stefan Pop was a good Foresto, involved and, if not absolutely heroic in tone, capable of a fine assumption.

The title role was taken by the superb Ildar Abdrazakov – no surprise to learn his upcomingroles include Boris (Mussorgsky), Filippo II (Don Carlo) and Méphistophélès (Damnation de Faust). Robust and strong, this was commanding singing.  While some of his gestures might have appeared rather hammy, vocally this was superb Verdi., Here he is, in “Mentre  gonfiarsi l’anima,” courtesy of DG’s Yellow Lounge:

Simon Keenlyside is most at home at Covent Garden of course – and his strong, firm and beautiful voice is a continual joy in the role of Ezio. For his Commendatore-like declamation, Alexander Köpeczi, as the Roman General Leone, made a fine impression, as did Egor Zhuravskii’s Uldino (another excellent singer who acts as testament to the ongoing success of Royal Opera’s Jette Parker scheme).

The chorus plays a vital role in this opera, and all credit to the forces of the Royal Opera Chorus, a multi-faceted jewel. Verdi asks his chorus to conjure a vast array of moods and emotions, and this set of singers was like a chameleon.

An absolute triumph for the Royal Opera and all concerned, valiantly achieved in the face of cast cancellations and history-making heat in the United Kingdom. Siri must count as one of the most significant stand-ins of recent years. Just one thing – could the Royal Opera possibly use the success of this as a springboard to another staging of Attila ,please?

Links below are to the Muti performance (a great cast, including Saamuel Ramey, Cheryl Studier, Neil Shicoff and Giorgio Zancanaro) with a Spotify link also to a performance conducted by that great Verdian, Giuseppe Sinopoli.

And as a final bonus, here’s a YouTube of the complete opera. This is in the old Lamberto Gardelli performance with the Anbrosian singers and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra: cast includes Rufggiero Raimondi in the title role, and Cristina Deutekom as Odabella; luxury, too, to have Sherill Milnes as Ezio and Carlo Bergonzi as Foresto. The video plays for one hour 46 minutes. Sadly, the compact disc of this seems to be currently unavailable:

Photos of Attila © Tom Parker

Verdi Attila (Muti)Verdi Attila (Muti, DVD)Verdi Attila (Sinopoli)