Opera Australia 2022 review: Attila

Photo credit: Prudence Upton

Verdi’s ‘Attila’ from 1846 could be called ‘cabelettismo’, referring to the quantity it contains of those lively, strumming and decisive passages (‘cabaletti’) which crowned the vocal numbers of early Italian opera. of the 19th century. There could be an implication here that the 32-year-old Verdi leaned a bit too heavily on this device, and that this prevalence limited the effectiveness of his drama.

But is this really the case?

I thought about it on October 29 while watching Opera Australia’s latest production at the Sydney Opera House, co-pro with Teatro Alla Scala, of this first work by Verdi which took two years to arrive on Australian shores. (thanks to COVID), and marveled at how captivating this production was.

The ancient story of Hunnish King Attila’s incomplete conquest of Italy and his murder at the hands of the leading lady Odabella at the end of the opera inspired a patriotic reaction when it was first performed in 1846. Some commentators contemporaries described this work as “a political education for the people.” Davide Livermore’s production, prepared for Sydney by Kate Gaul, showed how galvanizing this work could have been at the time. And maybe still.

Fascist Italy

Updated the original setting from the middle of the 5e century to Fascist Italy was perhaps an obvious way to ensure relevance closer to our times, but in fact, the sets of Giò Forma (ruins in the prologue) eerily evoked images of bombed-out ruins in Ukraine. It was a production that clearly depicted a dark story and conveyed its continued gravity.

In the opening scene, Attila’s forces invaded the Adriatic city of Aquileia, and Attila’s depictions of the summary executions of civilians had an immediacy that said “opera can also be a vital theater today “. In the second scene of the Prologue, one could be moved by the reconstruction of the refugee church and the redesign of a crude cross. It was a beautiful image of a new beginning, made poignant by the tender praises of the choir basses to the Lord (“Lode il Signor!”).

Incidentally, the only jarring note in the update to my ears was the banquet scene in the second scene of act two. Verdi’s original accompaniment – ​​a prominent harp – doesn’t quite justify the level of rejoicing and corruption the production might have hoped to convey.

Video projections are a familiar feature of recent Opera Australia productions. Look back to Livermore’s ‘Aida’ presented at the Sydney Opera House in 2020 and Graeme Murphy’s ‘Madam Butterfly’ earlier this year. The screenings once again added an extra dimension to this production.

In the Refugee Scene (Prologue, Scene Two), following a storm, ubiquitous black-and-white images of angry clouds augmented Verdi’s rudimentary beginning at the start of the 19e century tone painting. Perhaps most effectively the graphic depiction of Attila’s execution of the child’s father Odabella helped endear a character Charles Osborne described in his book on Verdi’s operas as “the most obnoxious heroine of all.” the Verdian opera”.

Yes, there is probably a question of how ubiquitous these digital projections should be in opera theater. The answer could be “a lot” in this cinematic age. But are they a new narrative or contrapuntal thread? Maybe a garnish? Some might consider them a distraction. I had hoped the footage would have provided an even more touching backstory at the end when Odabella is about to exact revenge; that we had seen her and her murdered father in visual references to even earlier days that we fondly remember.

And the singers?

But what of the singers, considering how Verdi, in a letter to one of his librettists, Piave, praised the opera’s “three prodigious characters.” The Opera Australia production boasts a compelling cast.

Baritone Michael Honeyman replaced an indisposed Mario Cassi as Ezio, Attila’s “honorable adversary”. Each of his scenes with Attila was an intense two-handed game, especially when he suggested that he and Attila should divide the world between them.

As Odabella, Armenian-Australian soprano Natalie Aroyan dominated the stage from the incredible two-octave fanfare of her entrance on ‘Santo di patria’, and she managed to make Odabella likeable in ‘Oh! nel fuggento nuvolo’ (see the image of his late father in fleeting clouds).

There was an engaging complexity to Ukrainian-born baritone Taras Berezhansky’s portrayal of the title role of Attila, particularly in the growing anxiety of his act two scene one telling Uldino (Virgilio Marino) of his dream – the disturbing vision of an old man who blocks his way to Rome.

Although he is not one of the “prodigious” characters mentioned by Verdi in his letter to Piave, Foresto is the main tenor, one of the Aquilean refugees, in love with Odabella. From entering the second scene to the prologue, Mexican-Australian tenor Diego Torre impressed with the clarity and precision of his sound. He provided one of the most effective moments of tenderness in this “educational” opera in his third-act aria “Che non avrebbe il misero”, caressing the word “angeli” (“because you are the equal of angels “) in his memories of Odabella.

In a supporting role, bass Richard Anderson conveyed great authority as Pope Leo, the old man of Attila’s dream, who stands up to the would-be conqueror and blocks Attila’s ambitions when he presents himself in the flesh. and bones to stop Attila’s progress towards Rome.

Kudos to Paws on Film and their horse wrestler who kept Pope Leo’s white horse calm during the rousing and almost overwhelming climax of the first act.

Conductor Andrea Battistoni provided a quick and seductively effective reading of this score. His careful attention to exciting and sometimes slightly dizzying tempo changes generated a lot of excitement. These cabalettas mentioned above were thrilling in his hands and those of the singers.

Arguably, this early Verdi opera lacks the extractable numbers you might find in a ‘Nabucco’ or ‘Macbeth’, although early Italian audiences latched onto the implicit patriotic appeal of ‘È gettata la mie sort” from Ezio (My fate is cast; I am ready for war). But Livermore, Gaul and Battistoni proved that “Attila” deserved to be appreciated as an impressive play. Baritone Berezhansky’s unfurling of a Ukrainian flag during the curtain call inspired a justified increase in the volume of opening night applause.

Comments are closed.