Rumbustious Business: Attila at the Rome Opera

ItalyItaly Verdi, Attila: Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro dell’Opera Rome,  Riccardo Muti (conductor), 27.5.2012 (JB)


Attila, King of the Huns: Ildar Abrazakov
Ezio, a Roman General: Nicola Alaimo
Odabella, daughter of the Lord of Aquileia: Tatiana Serjan
Foresto, a Kníght of Aquileia: Giuseppe Gipali


Stage Director, Sets and Costumes: Pier Luigi Pizzi
Chorus Master: Roberto Gabbiani


As you would expect, Verdi’s Atilla is rumbustious business. The composer’s melodic inventiveness was to the fore and he was firm1y plugged in to the country’s prevaìling winds of patriotism, or more precisely, to the specific energies which ignited that political loyalty. The early audiences were overwhelmed by Verdi’s response to events which had taken place in the fifth century CE, making it a landmark achievement in the nineteenth century as well as a timely wake‑up‑call for our own times. Of course, Atilla calls for a rambunctious team. Riccardo Muti and his collaborators had, by and large understood these essentials. Three singers were recalled from recent previous productions and one of the country’s finest stage directors was in charge of sets and costumes as well. With the battleground set, up with the curtain!

Readers of my dispatches will be familiar with my unfailing admiration for the dignity, elegance and harmony of the stagings of Pier Luigi Pizzi. All three were present for Atilla. The trouble is that these styles have no real place in Verdi’s score, which as the composer makes clear in his music, is concerned with brutality, barbarianism and debauchery. There were, in fact, half a dozen young men with fine torsos. But these models were elegant. Verdi specifically calls for debauchery in the opening scene. 0 David McVicar, where were you in our hour of need?

Riccardo Mutis tightness of rhythm is always a plus and tonight it was the driving force of the opera. 1 have heard orchestral players say that Muti hypnotizes them into the sounds he wants. On this occasion, 1 was near enough to see him doing just this. He will fix his stare on a player or section and bring his baton down with a dictatorial whiplash, or raise his cupped left hand for a diminuendo. Those violins which 1 have complained so bitterly about in recent performances, quite simply have no option but to give of their best. The dynamism the conductor gives is somehow inserted through the players’ instruments and comes out exactly as the maestro wants. No wonder the players themselves wrote to ask him to be their Musical Director. The tremolos of the violins especially, were hauntingly beautiful. Verdi calls for four trumpets in his Affila score (he usually settles for two). But this is a composer who knows exactly what he is doing and 1 sorely missed the additional two trumpets in the finale of the second act.

It is an interesting facet of patriotism that while it calls for loyalty and unwavering obedience, it also, somewhere in its shadows, calls for conflict and strife. This is the very stuff of the present drama.

All four of the protagonists were excellent. Tatiana Serjan, following her recent Rome triumph as Lady Macbeth, was thrillingly involved in the music of Odabella. This is not a warrior‑maid you would want to meet on a dark night. Her top register is chillingly steely and her bottom notes have richness in their almost earthquake vibrato. For me, Serjan fell down in some of the subtleties of Lady Macbeth but Odabella is, in a sense, much easier to portray. The main requirements are a very big voice and no fear of using it. Tatiana Serjan passes both tests with flying colours.

Ildar Abdrazakov must quite simply be the world’s finest living bass. He is so totally and musically convincing. His portrayal as Moses in Moise et Pharaon had impressed in every way. So does his Atilla ‑evil, brutal, self‑confident and strangely chilling while using the warmest of bass voices. He is worthy to stand alongside Chaliapin ‑surely the greatest bass actor opera has ever known. Good too, that Mr Pizzi had decided that this was the night for magnificent torsos. Mr Abdrazakov has one to knock any model off his pedestal. His night gown in the second act was dramatically effectíve.

In the great duet of the Prologue between Atilla and Ezio, the Roman General, ‑one of the opera’s most stirring moments, Nicola Alaimo rang out perfectly as the Hun’s false friend and adversary. As the Pharaoh in Moise hís voice had sounded overwhelmed in duets with Abdrazakov, but here they worked well together with poised balance between the two very different voices.

Giuseppe Gipali proved an excellent heroic tenor and moved well too as Foresto, the anxious, passionate knight and (secret) lover of Odabella. His great aria in the second scene of the Prologue ‑Ella in poter del barbaro‑ was one of the most moving moments of the evening.

The audience of the original 1846 staging at Venice’s La Fenice was like putty in Verdi’s hands,; he knew exactly what to feed them for their responses toward patriotism and strife. The whole score is a succession of wonderfully crafted arias with cabalettas. And to judge from the spontaneous applause at the Rome Opera at the end of every aria, then at the end of every cabaletta too, those responses are still very much alive in modern Italian audiences.

Jack Buckley