Verdi’s Attila Provides Entertainment Value

ItalyItaly Verdi, Attila:  Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro Massimo, Palermo.  Chorus Master Piero Monti.  Conductor Daniel Oren. Stage Director Daniele Abbado.  Sets and Lighting Gianni Carluccio.  Costumes Gianni Carluccio and Daniela Cernigliaro.  Teatro Massimo Palermo 19.02.2016. (JB)


Attila, King of the Huns: Erwin Schrott
Ezio, a turncoat Roman General: Simone Piazzola
Foresto, a knight of Aquileia: Fabio Sartori
Odabella, a Warrior Maiden of Aquileia: Svetla Vassileva

Palermo’s operagoers are doubters, if not downright unbelievers, wherever the religion of Wagner is practised.  So all the more credit to Graham Vick’s hugely appreciated Götterdämmerung just seen (review). Just as the last dust of the Nibelungen was swept from the stage, with Verdi and Daniele Abbado (stage director) announced for the next offering, the opera buffs may be surpronted (just made that one up: when surprise is fused with disappointment) to learn that Verdi had been secretly flirting with the Nibelungen.  Still, what comes out is unmistakably Verdiano (so keep calm, Palermitani) even though some will hear the ghost of Wagner.  Beside, with audiences still fresh from the Vick-Wagner shower-gel, Palermo may be more than curious to savour new waters.

And new they were, not least for Verdi.  Julian Budden says he is surprised that Verdi was mightily impressed  by an Italian translation of Zacharias Werner’s play, Attila, König der Hunnen.  (The Operas of Verdi  volume 1).  Yes, all the trappings of the Nibelungen are there, including a fallen god, Wodan, a warrior maiden complete with chorus, who marries Attila, only in order to be able to easily murder him; she even circumvents his drinking a poisoned cup, in order that the death blow may be hers alone.  A thoroughly tempting Verdi scenario, as I see it.  Of course, Verdi had no intention of becoming Wagnerian in yielding to this drama.  Nor did he.

Verdi did initially write opera engaging musical idioms of Rossini and Donizetti, but with every new opera (Attila was his eleventh) he didn’t move toward Wagnerian language; he became ever increasingly his own man.  The inspiration he met with in Teutonic myth and legend was an inspiration he found within himself –an inspiration which he tapped for the first time on any scale in Attila, but which would inform all of his later compositions.  Attila is both hero and villain of Verdi’s creation.  This kind of psychological complexity was at the root of the maestro’s creative genius.  Both the slaughterer and the humble servant of some greater power comes through in the vocal line of the opera’s protagonist.  Attila’s recognition of the Warrior Maiden’s courage and dignity surprises even him, as well as us.

For her part, Odabella goes from heroine to murderess.  Such convincing character shifts are worthy of Patricia Highsmith. (Graham Green called her  the mistress of apprehension.) Verdi was the master.  The vocal demands are understandably taxing.  Fortunately Palermo had a quartet of singers who met these demands admirably.

The opera is in a prologue and three acts.  I will never understand why Daniele Abbado’s staging (in co-production with Bologna and Venice) has an interval after the prologue.  The purpose of the prologue couldn’t be clearer: we are introduced to the four principals in turn: Attila, Odabella, Ezio and Foresto.  For this to make sense we then ought to go straight into the action.  The one and only interval ought to be at the end of Act One.  Acts Two and Three should run together with a total running time of forty-five minutes.

There were further unnecessary pauses during each Act, presumably to accommodate set changes.  But Gianni Carlucci’s sets were minimalist, and all the better for that.  On the huge stage of Teatro Massimo they had space to breath, giving a feel of terror and dignity to their expression.  On the much smaller stages of Teatro Comunale of Bologna and La Fenice, such effects would be much diminished.  Moreover, Palermo’s stagehands are the best in Europe and all sets can be pre-set to be changed in seconds.  It began to feel like more pauses than music.  The thrust of Verdi’s drama is important, but these breaks impeded  it.  The production team failed to take advantage of the great jewel they had been handed.

Each of the four principals had the right voice for their role.  Erwin Schrott’s Attila was authoritative as well as menacing.  The sequence of his dream was memorably expressive: when he begins to doubt himself he frightens himself.  And us.  When the other side of the King’s character shows –the deeper-than-we-thought part, it is profoundly moving.  I am always sorry I never heard Boris Christoff in the role.  But Erwin Schrott picked up on every nuance.

Svetla Vassileva also thoroughly understood the double take needed of Odabella.  Her voice is big with finely projected top notes.  But the lower register is equally impressive.  The pianissimi top notes of the soliloquy aria in Act One –Oh! Nel fuggente nuvolo  were worthy to stand alongside Caballé’s great recording.

Fabio Sartori (Foresto) possesses a golden ringing voice of the Pavarotti type.  He mostly uses his great gift well.  It is occasionally let down by faulty breathing.  But when it isn’t – as in his opening aria and cavatina Ella in poter del barbaro – the burnished gold of his voice is a sheer delight.  Some of the shine goes off it when he takes the wrong kind of breath in the wrong place.  I can’t wait to hear this Italian Siegfried again.

There is an immediately welcoming freshness in Simone Piazzola’s singing of Ezio.  His voice is youthful and generous of delivery, most notably in his aria  plotting  the poisoned banqueting scene –Dagli immortali vertici.

Surtitles were in Italian and English.  Just as well.  This was not merely W S Gilbert’s not a single word is ever heard when singers sing in chorus: Maestro Piero Monti has more work to do to make the diction of the men’s chorus heard; the chorus of Odabella’s henchwomen were much clearer.

Daniel Oren seemed to have a fine rapport with the orchestra, with impressive woodwind solos.  The cor-anglais player (not named in my programme) who doubles at an octave lower Odabella’s Act One aria was perfectly poised.  The trumpets were finely tuned and rhythmically sound, both on stage and in the pit: much militarism in this opera!

All his life Giuseppe Verdi was a world leader of entertainment.  In his day, entertainment meant Opera.  When François Truffaut interviewed Alfred Hitchcock in August 1962, then produced a thrilling booklength account of their exchanges, the English director said, I understand there are folks out there making movies that are slices of real life. (kitchen-sink dramas were coming into vogue.) He then added,  Mine are slices of cake.  That was exactly Verdi’s view of his operas.  No fashion-follower he, be it Wagner or other.  He had his audience and knew that he could give them what they wanted as well as their not knowing what they wanted.  And as with Attila  he always gave them something different,  while still remaining Giuseppe Verdi.

Jack Buckley

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