Tuesday, July 12, 2011


Reviewed by James Karas

Attila was Giuseppe Verdi’s ninth opera and it has been around for longer than the united Italian nation. Unlike Italy which was unified in 1861, Attila has been royally ignored during most of the time since its opening in 1846 in Venice. La Scala has proven that Attila does not deserve the cold shoulder that it has been getting with a rousing production directed by Gabriele Lavia.

Attila was the leader of an Asiatic tribe that invaded Europe in the fifth century A.D. in what may be described as a less than genteel manner. As a result neither he nor his followers, the Huns, have been getting much good press ever since.

Verdi’s opera opens with the chorus singing words “Screams, pillage, moans, blood, rape … are sport for Attila.” You cannot expect good press with that kind of attitude.

Attila requires several powerful singers, a large chorus and orchestral dynamism. There are quiet moments in the opera but for the most part Verdi wants his singers to belt out his arias and ensemble pieces with the fortitude of steel-plated lungs. They need to rise above chorus and orchestra and dominate everything with thrilling vocal power.

This is not always achieved by the singers in the production under review. The chorus of La Scala performs magnificently and rousingly and they make all the difference in the production.

Bulgarian bass Orlin Anastassov could and did unleash some powerful singing as Attila but he did not sustain it throughout. He came close but not as close as tenor Fabio Sartori in the role of Forreste, the knight who is in love with our heroine Odabella.

Odabella was sung by soprano Elena Pankratova whose voice matched her physical size and she delivered a fine performance but again failed to dominate vocally all the time.

Italian baritone Marco Vratogna as Ezio, the treacherous Roman general, looked like Mussolini and his stamina and vocal prowess were severely tested by the role.

The production can claim superior directing by Lavia and stupendous sets by Alessandro Camera. The opera opens on a scene of devastation. The sky is dark and on the right we see ruins of a city. On the left we see corpses impaled on the spears of the Huns standing in a row. It is an arresting scene.

There are variations on the set as the scene changes but all are effective until we get to the last tableau. This is the Roman camp where Attila will meet his doom. We see Ezio, the Roman general watching an old movie showing a charging cavalry! What the hell is that supposed to be? I have no idea and can only add that it is annoying, distracting and plain stupid.

The costumes were becoming if not precisely recognizable. The Huns looked barbaric and the Romans looked better. The latter could afford full length leather coats.

Nicola Luisotti conducted the La Scala Orchestra with exceptional vigour.

One feature of the opera that stands out is its fervent patriotism. Verdi praises Italian valour and raises the flag repeatedly. This was quite proper in the 1840’s when the opera was composed and just as fitting on the 150th anniversary of Italian unification.

Despite all complaints, this is a rousing and indeed thrilling production. I have no idea why the opera has been ignored for so long. The Metropolitan Opera of New York produced it for the first time last year. In Milan too it has been largely ignored even though the performance I saw on July 2, 2011 was the 175th at La Scala. Of those only 20 were in the 20th century and the last time it was staged there was in 1991.

Attila by Giuseppe Verdi opened on June 20 and was performed nine times until July 15, 2011 at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan.

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