Giuseppe Verdi didn’t think much of political oppressors no matter if they were civilized Habsburg princes with good table manners or arriviste autocrats with one hand on the guillotine and the other in the till.
Some of the least attractive characters in his operas ranged from pushy regicidal wives and vengeful Venetian psychopaths to homicidal high priests of Ptah and sanguinary Grand Inquisitors. Given Verdi’s lifelong libertarian beliefs, it is somewhat surprising that his take on the 5th century scourge of Europe and despotic annihilator of Aquileia is much less censorious. Admittedly there is all the rage, rape and pillaging usually associated with this legendary barbaric warlord, but also more than a smidgeon of personal self-doubt which makes Verdi’s Attila much more interesting. That such a hitherto invincible foreign invader could be dissuaded from continuing his assault on Rome by nothing more than the appearance of an ancient pontiff with only a few decrepit anziani, pre-pubertal virgins and gawkish children at his side is hardly plausible. It would seem that Verdi’s original librettist for “Attila” Temistocle Solera was much more influenced by Zacharias Werner’s semi-fictional play “Attila, König der Hunnen” than historical fact. The meeting between Pope and predator actually took place near Mantua, more than 300 kilometers away, and if the painter Raffaello is to be believed, both Saints Peter and Paul were also part of the pow-wow.
“Attila” has always been a bit of a lost relation in the Verdi canon but interestingly Riccardo Muti recorded it four times. Most revivals tend to be in concert form, although Jerome Savary’s production for La Scala in 1991 with Muti and Arturo Gama’s all-Russian staging for the Mariinsky in 2012 with Gergiev both had the predictable plethora of bad tempered barbarians, bear rugs and bare chests.
As part of the Opéra de Lyon’s mini-Verdi Festival in their 2017-18 season, the debonair Directeur Général Serge Dorny (soon to swap Côtes du Rhône and saucisson de Lyon for Münchner Bier und Weißwurst) wisely opted for a concert version of Verdi’s fascinating ninth lyric drama, which was held in the capacious 2,000 seat L’Auditorium.
Although categorized as “early Verdi”, “Attila” is oceans away from its Peruvian predecessor “Alzira.” As Muti advised: “In ‘Attila’ it is critical to bring out the ‘accento Verdiano’ – the Verdian accents and articulations of the words and the music. There is a shape to the musical lines that is like sculpture. The singing and articulation must come first, even more than urgency and emotion.” Under the Opéra de Lyon’s enormously talented Chief Conductor Daniele Rustioni, Muti’s admonitions were followed to the letter, or perhaps more accurately, to the note.
Rustioni clearly inspired both singers, chorus and orchestra and it is easy to understand why he is considered one of the most exciting young opera conductors today. The smiling Milanese maestro is tremendously physical on the podium with crouches, leaps, jumps, jabs and stomps all part of his palpable enthusiasm. From the first luxuriant string crescendo over staccato bassoon warbles during the Preludio, it was clear that Rustioni was going to mould Verdi’s lyrical sculpture with brilliance of a baton-waving Bernini. Trumpets and trombone fanfares opening the Prologo flipped the mood to noisy militarism in the “Urli, rapine, Gemiti, sangue, stupri, rovine” chorus. The Choeurs de l’Opéra de Lyon was consistently crisp with commendable articulation and attention to the dynamic markings – even with the Italianate “d” in “Wodan”. The storm music before Foresto’s entrance anticipates the first measures of “Otello” and was excitingly played with some excellent piccolo and flute passages over crashing cymbals and pounding timpani. Rustioni handled the big concertante sections particularly well with the climatic crescendi in the Act one “Dinanzi a turba devota e pia” finale being marvelously rhapsodic. The fortissimo Donizetti-esque “Morte, morte, vendetta!” conclusion to Act two was taken at a helter-skelter pace with both chorus and soloists enjoying the ride although it would have been fun if Odabella had interpolated a top E flat at the end. Rustioni’s most impressive strength, however, was in pacing the Verdian rubati and fermate with ease and eloquence.
With one minor exception, the singers were impressive. The role of Leo I was sung by an unnamed member of the chorus with minimal papal gravitas and even less vocal distinction. As Attila’s Breton slave Uldino, young local tenor Grégoire Mour was the right vocal balance to Foresto’s lyrico-spinto and requisite foil to his mercurial master. Although Uldino has lots of “Oh Re’s”, he doesn’t get much solo music but is part of most of the ensembles. Mour has a light dulcet timbre and easy tenore di grazie technique with a secure, forward focused top. One can imagine him as an ideal Nemorino, Cassio or Tamino in the future.
The role of the Roman general Ezio was sung by one of the three Russian musketeers in the cast, Alexei Markov. It’s not really much of a part until Act two but nevertheless Ezio gets to sing the perennial Italian crowd pleaser “Avrai tu l’universo, resti l’Italia a me.” In the dramatic parley with Attila, Markov was far less haughty military commander than the text and music (marked “grandioso”) requires. “Tardo per gli anni, e tremolo” was more supplicating than stringent with a hesitant upper tessitura particularly noticeable on the top F natural on “l’universo.” Markov seemed more secure in Act two and there was good declamatory singing in the “Tregua è cogl’Unni” recitative. The following “Dagli immortali vertici” aria had improved legato and word coloring and the “È gettata la mia sorte” cabaletta finally showed some Roman palle.
Massimo Giordano is a fine tenor who had some vocal problems in the past two years but is clearly back in top form. Singing the role of Odabella’s mistakenly jilted admirer Foresto, his opening “Quai voci! Oh, tutto” displayed a round timbre with excellent breath control. “Ella in poter del barbaro!” had plenty of punch with stylish rubati and fermate on “Io ti vedrei fra gli angeli.” The concluding F sharp was held longer than the stipulated dotted minim but no one was complaining. The following “Cara patria, già madre e reina” cabaletta with chorus was foot-tappy and memorable for several sustained top A naturals. His initial misjudgement of Odabella’s actions in the passionate “Barbara il sai” was notable for more solid top A naturals, dramatic declamation and broad legato. The peppy “Oh, t’inebria nell’amplesso” duet was full of exciting well-balanced leggero unison singing and subtle fermate. By the time “Che non avrebbe il misero” came around in Act three, Giordano was in full voice with some wonderful long lyrical phrases and delicate 16th notes.
“Musical Misogyny” Tamed
Despite his illicit involvement with Giuseppina Strepponi (or perhaps because of it) Verdi’s music for powerful female characters such as Abigaille and Lady Macbeth is almost a case of musical misogyny. Odabella is first cousin to both of these alpha harridans. From her first Norma-like entry with the few remaining virgins of Aquileia, Tatiana Serjan proved that the demands of Verdi’s merciless music were as tame-able as the unwanted attentions of the Mongol-Turkic tyrant who killed her father. Serjan has an enormous voice but also the technical skills to handle the rapid fioratura and roulades of the role with deceptive ease and innate musicality. Odabella’s opening declaration “Santo di patria” is marked “con energia” and Serjan provided enough electricity to light up all of Aquileia. A killer top C fermata on “indefinito” leading to a rapid downward scale to a hefty low B flat showed just what this lyrico-spinto from St. Petersburg is capable of doing. The fortissimo “Ma noi, donne italiche” displayed Serjan’s capacity for extended phrasing which despite the volume, retained its legato. The contempt with which she spat out “barbaro” at Attila made Abigaille seem like Suor Angelica. The extended cadenza roulade before “Sempre vedrai pugnar” had the metronomic regularity and metallic pungency of a Bren gun and the top B flat fermata on “Oh acciar” when Attila foolishly returns her sword could have been Birgit Nilsson in her prime. The following “Da te questo or m’è concesso” cabaletta which in range, leaps, runs and rhythm anticipates Lady Macbeth’s “Or tutti, sorgete”, was copybook coloratura singing at its finest. Contrastingly, the accompanied “Liberamente or piangi” recitative was sung with outstanding evenness of tone showing that Serjan is far from just a “can belto” soprano.
Totally in Command
From his first emphatic “Eroi, levatevi!” rising to a clarion B flat fermata before descending to a low A flat on “Chi vinto muor,” it was clear that Russian bass Dmitri Oulianov’s Attila was totally in command – not just of his rabble of scowling barbarians, but Verdi’s formidable vocal line as well. The rousing “Oltre a quel limite” cabaletta, which is in some ways a precursor to “di quella pira” had lots more refulgent high F’s including a powerful final sustained fortissimo on “Il mondo avrà”. When confronted with the physical reality of his il vecchio nightmare in “No! non è sogno ch’or l’alma invade!” Oulianov’s sense of dread was not so credible but there was more convincing vocalization when Attila finds out that his ungrateful Roman dinner guests are planning to poison him. “Oh, mia rabbia! Oh, mio scorno!” was certainly scary. Before receiving his new wife’s original wedding present of a sword in the stomach (echoes of Lucia?) Oulianov was darkly ominous in “Tu, rea donna, già schiava.” Like many Russian-trained singers, Oulianov’s voice is huge with powerful projection but also capable of nuances of phrasing and subtle word coloring. In a smart white tie and tails concert setting he was also spared the distraction of appearing bare-chested or sporting a moth-eaten tiger skin.
Most historians agree that Attila actually died from a rather nasty nosebleed brought about by some serious boozing on the night of yet another wedding to some nubile wench, but even a master dramatist like Verdi would have found it difficult to set death by epistaxis to music. “Le Nez” had to wait another eighty years for Shostakovich.