The Royal Opera’s Attila concert is an absolute triumph for Siri, Scappucci and all concerned

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi, Attila (concert performance): Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Speranza Scappucci (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 19.7.2022. (CC)

Maria José Siri (Odabella) (c) Tom Parker

Attila – 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’ Attila (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 (review click here); and yet Attila 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 the late Elijah Moshinsky in 1990 and revived the next year and in 2002).

It deserves another staging, for sure. The music is strong and unfailingly vibrant, particularly in Speranza Scappucci’s hands. Scappucci makes 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 (St Petersburg) and the Liceu (Barcelona), 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 and it is clear she 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 exquisitely, 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 Attila’s Act I ‘Spiriti, fermate’?

Verdi’s opera certainly caught its 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 Ludwig Zacharias Werner’s play Attila König der Hunnen; the libretto was written by Temistocle Solera, who specialised in poetry on theatrical warfare. Attila, King of the Huns, has 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. Attila falls in love with Odabella; he gives her his sword, yet after he leaves, she vows to exact revenge.

A private audience between Attila and the Roman general Ezio 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); he suggests the people build a city which will ‘rise like a phoenix from the lagoon’ (later Venice!). The first act finds 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 Romans and Huns. Foresto, disguised as a slave, and Ezio plan to attack the Huns. 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 in this, but his life is saved thanks to Odabella’s intervention. Attila declares Odabella will be his bride. The final act finds Foresto contemplating Odabella’s behaviour. Odabella enters, attacking an imagined ghost of her father with Attila’s sword. She reveals to Ezio that she loves him; when Attila arrives to claim his bride, Odabella kills him. Finis.

The Royal Opera’s concert performance of Attila (c) Tom Parker

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 – but I do wonder whether it shares with Don Carlo(s) that elusive status of ‘flawed masterpiece’? The melodic writing sometimes verges on the genius – try the opening of ‘Liberamente or piangi’, Odabella’s stunningly beautiful Act I 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, this is nothing less than – aforementioned – genius.

The superb performance of the duet between Foresto and Odabella (Stefan Pop and Maria José Siri), ‘Si, quell’io son’, showed how well this cast worked together. All the more surprising since – 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 shows 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 upcoming roles include Boris (Mussorgsky), Philip II (Don Carlo) and Méphistophélès (La damnation de Faust). Robust and strong, this was commanding singing.

Sir Simon Keenlyside is most at home at Covent Garden of course – and his strong, firm and beautiful voice is a continual joy. While some of his gestures might have appeared rather hammy, vocally this was superb Verdi. 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 the Jette Parker Young Artists scheme).

The chorus plays a vital role in this opera, and all credit to the forces of William Spaulding’s 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 replacements 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?

Colin Clarke

1 thought on “The Royal Opera’s <i>Attila</i> concert is an absolute triumph for Siri, Scappucci and all concerned”

  1. Fantastic evening, all terrific, wonderful to have orchestra on stage. Please more…..


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