This September, Newoutpost covers Washington Concert Opera’s presentation of Verdi’s early masterpiece, “Attila”. The subject deals with the real life Attila, leader of the Huns, who became a serious threat to the Roman Empire in the 5th century. In 451 A.D., he attacked Gaul, and the following year he boldly invaded Italy, destroying the northern provinces in his path and getting uncomfortably close to Rome. Emperor Valentian III, hoping to halt his advances, sent three envoys to negotiate with the Hun (Pope Leo I being amongst these, providing Roman history with his most famous contribution), who agreed to the terms and withdrew. A subsequent campaign to invade Constantinople in 453 A.D. was cut short when Attila unexpectedly died amidst the festivities celebrating his latest marriage. Two conflicting accounts of this event exist: The first describes that Attila choked on a heavy bout of nose-bleeding (!), the second asserts that he died at the hands of his new wife. As it concerned Zacharias Werner, and subsequently Giuseppe Verdi, it was Attila’s assassination that eventually won out as the more attractive denouement of a work for the dramatic stage.
In a letter to his librettist Francesco Maria Piave written in April of 1844, Verdi declared himself quite taken by Attila as a subject after reading Zacharias Werner’s Germanic play “Attila, Konig der Hunnen.” He suggested to Piave that he study Werner’s choruses, clearly implying that an operatic assignment was to come. At the time, the young Verdi was quickly rising up the ranks of the Italian musical establishment, and following the success of his “Ernani” at Venice’s La Fenice in March of 1843, he was practically guaranteed a new commission for the 1846-47 carnival season. Relationships with his publisher Ricordi however, were less stable. When Verdi’s “Giovanna d’Arco” premiered at La Scala in 1845, the publishing house reviewed the piece in a less than positive light, prompting Verdi to question Ricordi’s allegiance in a letter to the editor. The young composer then began to exhibit the more resentful traits that would take over his personality as his career progressed, and approached the rival publishing company Lucca, which in turn secured the new assignment for Verdi with La Fenice. On his part, Verdi reassigned the libretto of the opera to Temistocle Solera, who had already treated “Giovanna d’Arco” with a rather heavy hand. Verdi grew to regret this decision: Solera traveled to Madrid with his wife and presumably could not be bothered to send the final pages of his libretto to the frantic composer. Verdi resorted again to the subservient Piave to write the finale, and sent the results to Solera for examination. The poet was not amused: “The ending you’ve sent me seems nothing less than a parody…you are the only person that has been able to convince me that the career of librettist is not for me…” This marked the end of a terrific partnership that had yielded such gems as I Lombardi, Giovanna d’Arco, and the eternal Nabucco. An examination of the opera’s final act does, if anything, validate some of Solera’s concerns. In any case, Verdi does not seem to have been much phased by this break, as he was quickly developing a more personal dramaturgical style that would surpass Solera’s theatrical sensibilities.
Attila received a thunderous reception when it premiered at Venice’s La Fenice on March 17, 1846, with a cast that included the great bass Ignazio Marini as Attila, Natale Costantini as Ezio, the renowned dramatic soprano Sofia Loewe as Odabella, and tenor Carlo Guasco in the role of Foresto. The Italian public embraced the work, and it became one of Verdi’s most important successes during his lifetime. Ezio’s famous line “Avrai tu l’universo, resta l’Italia a me” (“You can have the universe, but leave Italy to me”) was endlessly applauded (the public allegedly shouted back “A noi, a noi!”) and furthered Verdi’s status as the darling of the Italian Risorgimento. On their part, the critics found much to complain in the bombastic score, the opera’s two-dimensional characters, and found significant traces of the dominating musical language of Rossini and Donizetti (though in fainter quantities than in the operas that preceded it) in its pages. Perhaps it is these demerits that may account for the fact that following its initial success, the opera laid dormant for the better part of the 20th century; only in the past 40 years has the work been subjected to serious revivals (it finally debuted at the Metropolitan Opera last year to mixed results). Nowadays, Attila is vastly enjoyed by many, even those who ultimately apologize for it by reminding that it is part of Verdi’s alleged “galley years”. Be that as it may, there are many gems in this transitional work, and I find it no great chore to overlook its limitations.
The opera is divided into three acts, and is introduced by a prologue. Following the cinematic prelude (one can see the shadow of Attila’s sinister hand approaching Rome,) the action opens in the year 452 A.D.
Attila and his troops have devastated the town of Aquilea, and the Huns parade in the town square singing their leader’s praises. Verdi then introduces Attila, who addresses his men in a concerted recitative; seemingly ready to embark in a traditional “aria di sortita” which is never realized. Instead, he is interrupted by the introduction of a group of female prisoners, led by Odabella. She veritably steals the spotlight from Attila and pushes forth her own “aria di sortita”, a show-stopping compound aria beginning with the hair raising outburst “Santo di patria.” Here, the soprano must give the audience little doubt that Attila and his brood are no match for her powers, and she is required to execute a jaw dropping leap from G to a thunderous high C, and descends two octaves via a downward scale to a low B on the words “Indefinito amor”. She then sings her equally difficult aria “Allor che I forti corrono”. Impressed with her courage, Attila decides to grant her one wish, and when Odabella asks for his sword, and he hands it to her. She then tells us that she plans to make good use of the blade in the cabaletta “Da te questo or m’e concesso.” The role was written for one of Verdi’s preferred donne di forza sopranos, Sophia Loewe, who must have been a tank.
Odabella departs, leaving Attila to deal with Ezio, an envoy from Rome. At first, Attila welcomes Ezio as a noble warrior worthy of his audience, but as Ezio embarks in the duet “Tardo per gli anni, e tremulo”, he reveals shadier intentions. He proposes that they divide the spoils after the Roman Empire’s inevitable fall with the famous line “Avrai tu l’universo, resta l’Italia a me”. Attila cannot conceal his disappointment (honor and courage mean the world to him) and he dismisses the envoy, promising to destroy the empire in the cabaletta “Vanitosi! Che abbietti e dormenti”, which closes the first scene of the prologue.
A storm is raging when the second scene of the prologue opens. We are in the Rio Alto in the Adriadic Lagoons where the survivors of Aquilea have fled. While a group of hermits praise God as the storm passes, the survivors gather around their leader, the knight Foresto. In his aria “Ella in poter del barbaro” and cabaletta “Cara patria, gia madre e reina”, Foresto laments the fate of his fiancé Odabella and over the preservation of his beloved homeland. The survivors proclaim to raise an altar in the Rio Alto, laying the foundation of present day Venice.
The first act of the opera opens several weeks later in a dark forest near Rome, where Attila and his troops have established an outpost. It is night. Odabella has managed to penetrate Attila’s inner circle in order to murder him, and as the scene opens she wanders through the forest alone, bemoaning her situation. This scene is introduced by a remarkable sweeping figure in the violins yielding to her recitative: “Liberamente or piangi” (Openly now I cry!) Everything that has been pent up is now released, making for a dramatic and fascinating opening. A beautiful and sorrowful romanza follows: “Oh! Nel fuggente nuvolo non sei tu, padre, impresso?” (Oh, are you not impressed upon those brilliant clouds, father?”). She laments the death of her father and also Foresto, both of whom she believes were killed in battle by Attila’s troops.
She is soon corrected as Foresto enters disguised as a Hun. Having learned that she is Attila’s favorite, he first denounces Odabella until he learns that she is deceiving the Hun and intends to kill him. The lovers hash out their differences and ultimately reunite in the duet: “Si, quell’io son, ravvisami” and its concluding stretta: “Oh, t’inebria nell’amplesso.”
The next scene takes us inside Attila’s tent. He has awoken from a nightmare, which he recounts to his servant Uldino in his aria: “Mentre gonfiarsi l’anima”. In his dream, Attila stands before the gates of Rome ready for the attack but is halted by a smiling old man, who, grabbing Attila by the hair, thunderously exclaims that the Hun is not to proceed further into the dwelling of God. The vision terrified Attila, but upon retelling it he revels against his fear of the vision, and in the cabaletta “Oltre a quel limite” he orders that his troops be readied for the battle: The attack against Rome is to take place immediately.
At the battle camp, Attila has assembled his forces. Present as well are Odabella and the disguised Foresto. A procession approaches, flanked by virgins and youths dressed in white. It is the man of Attila’s nightmare: Pope Leo, who repeats the words the Hun dreads so much. Seeing visions of St. Peter and St. Paul looming upon him, Attila abandons the attack in the massive concertato “No!… non è sogno .“ To their horror, the Huns watch as their leader retreats, and Odabella and Foresto join the Christians in praise for this turn of events. The totality of the miracle is such that Verdi does not choose to add a stretta, and the act simply ends at this point.
Act Two finds us in the Roman camp. Since the Huns have retreated, Ezio has received instruction from the Emperor to return to Rome. Enraged by the request, he fancies Rome a shadow of its former self and muses on the sad state of the empire in his aria: “Dagli immortali vertici”. The scene’s materia di mezzo is composed of a delegation of Huns, including the disguised Foresto, who invite Ezio to a banquet being held by Attila in celebration of the truce. As the delegation departs, Foresto lags behind and draws Ezio into a plot to attack Attila. Ezio erupts with joy at the idea of finally performing a deed worthy of Roman history in his cabaletta “E gettata la mia sorte.” The scene is a favorite of Verdian baritones, the aria being an exemplar Verdi cantinela, and a rousing cabaletta designed to stir up the audience’s patriotic sentiments.
The second scene takes us to Attila’s camp, where a great banquet has been assembled. Odabella is seated next to Attila, who welcomes Ezio as his honored guest. The two congratulate each other for their magnanimity and warlike bravery, but tensions soon arise as Ezio once again reminds Attila of his offer to divide the spoils, an offer that once again Attila flatly turns down. Foresto secretly informs Odabella that Attila’s wine is poisoned. She is quite displeased as she intends to carry out the deed herself. While a delegation of Druids warns Attila that blood stained clouds have formed in the sky, a bad omen in any culture (I’d be out of there?), a violent gust of wind further aggravates the scene: The fires that light the event go dark. Attila attempts to liven up this awkward party by having the torches relit, and as he raises his cup to toast his guests, Odabella stops him by suddenly crying out that his cup is poisoned. The outraged Hun promises a terrible revenge, and when Foresto takes responsibility for the plot, Odabella requests that she alone should punish the traitor as a reward. Attila grants her request and further takes her hand as his bride. The truce is over, and as the Romans struggle to understand Odabella’s apparent treachery, Ezio is dismissed in order to advise the Roman Emperor to prepare for a new attack.
The third and final act of Attila is quite brief. It opens in a patch of forest located between Attila and Ezio’s camps. Foresto is hiding, hoping to ambush Attila and Odabella’s wedding procession. Ezio joins him, but not before the tenor gets one last aria, “Che non avrebbe il misero”:
Odabella enters in hysterics, and encounters the men. Foresto does not welcome her reappearance, and as Ezio urges them to get ready for the ambush, she begs for Foresto’s forgiveness in the gorgeous trio: “Te sol, te sol quest’anima.”
Attila rushes in looking for his bride, only to find her alongside the two Romans, ready to pounce. It finally dawns on him that he is the victim of a conspiracy. As he indignantly reproaches the three, offstage cries indicate that the Roman troops have gone ahead with their attack without the prompt of their commander (alas, the Empire’s indeed falling apart: No discipline). Odabella raises the sword that Attila gave her in the prologue, and plunges it into his heart, bringing the opera to its rushed, and understandably confusing conclusion.
The Washington Concert Opera will present Verdi’s Attila on Friday, September 9. It is a one night only affair, and the cast includes bass John Relyea as Attila, Brenda Harris as Odabella, Arthur Espiritu as Foresto, and James Stearns as Ezio. For tickets, please call the box office at 202-364-5826. For more information on the Washington Concert Opera company, please visit their wesite at: http://www.concertopera.org/.