Verdi’s 9th opera, Attila, was first performed at the Teatro la Fenice, Venice 0n March 17, 1846. The libretto is a condensation of a highly charged German romantic play, Attila, König der Hunnen by Zacharias Werner (1808). And it’s still too long. Antonio Solera wrote most of the text. Francesco Piave completed the last act which Solera had left in outline form after he followed his prima-donna wife to Madrid. Attila contains a prologue and three acts each of which following Verdi’s practice at the time is shorter than the preceding one.
Anything by Verdi has something of interest in it, but this opera is pretty sparse. Basses like to sing the title part mainly because they can dress up like Johnny Depp playing Tonto in the new Lone Ranger movie. I saw Attila in Chicago three decades ago. They did it for Sam Ramey. The Met staged the opera for the first time in 2010 with Ildar Abdrazakov in the title role. Sam Ramey was Pope Leo in that production. It’s worth one look.
Most of Attila’s music is not very interesting. The best parts belong to Odabella who has a typical shred your lungs part typical of Verdi’s early soprano and the baritone Ezio (the late Roman era general Aëtius) who gets to deliver the immortal line: “Avrai tu l’universo, resti l’Italia, resti l’Italia a me.” (You may have the universe if I may have Italy.) This drove contemporary Italian audiences mad to the point where they were likely to jump out of boxes and balconies. Ezio also has a fine aria in the first scene of the second act. Another problem with the opera is the ‘The Scourge of God” is the most sympathetic character in the opera. So while there are a few really good numbers in the work on balance it’s a failure.
The Parma company chose to stage their performances of Attila in Busseto’s tiny (300 seats) Teatro Verdi. This was also the site of the company’s mounting of Oberto. The lilliputian dimensions of the theater mandated a small staging which the company managed with great effect making use of motion picture projections. Despite a stage about the size of an average living room the action never seemed cramped and moved smoothly.
The orchestra pit was also minute; there couldn’t have been 30 musicians in it. But they were led with great vigor and lyricism by Wunderkind conductor Andrea Battistoni who was 23 when this recording was made. He subsequently led a performance of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro the following year at La Scala making him the youngest conductor to ever appear with the company. You’ll want to keep your eye on this kid. The prelude to this opera is one of Verdi’s best. It’s the equal of either of the Traviata preludes. Attila Prologue
The principals were all quite good. Giovanni Battista Parodi has a lyric bass which while fully up to the requirements of the title role didn’t dominate the opera as is necessary for the work to be fully realized. He sounds very well in the first act finale which portrays Attila’s terrified submission to Pope Leo. This ensemble is one of the finest moments in the opera. It’s another example of Verdi’s mastery of the concertato. Attila act 1 finale
Soprano Susanna Branchini handled the difficult role of Odabella with aplomb and managed to sing like a trumpet and then like a cello. Tenor Roberto De Biasio did not sound as steely as he did in I Due Foscari which was recorded the previous year.
Baritone Sebastian Catana has sung 107 performances at the Met – all (with one exception) in small parts. His last appearance with the New York company was in 2009. Since then he has been singing leading roles. His performance as Ezio shows that he’s up to the demands of the Verdi baritone. Dagli immortali vertici is another example of Verdi’s unequaled ability to make a baritone sound like an angel provided we have the right baritone. In this performance Catana had the right stuff.
Note that Cristiano Cremonini sang the role of Uldino, not Aldino as is listed on the program below. The program notes accompanying the DVD has it right. I got the program reproduced here from the Naxos website being too lazy to scan the printed program.
In summary an excellent performance of one of Verdi’s minor opera. It takes less than two hours to perform Attila, but it seems longer – especially the prologue and first act.