The Many Artists Who Have Made Verdi’s ‘Attila’ Great

By David Salazar

When considered in the context of his entire oeuvre, Verdi’s “Attila” is far from a masterpiece. When propped up against his best work, this early work simply doesn’t hold up. In fact, prominent Verdi scholars, such as Julian Budden, have criticized the opera and called it “the heaviest and noisiest of the Risorgimento operas, blunt in style, daubed in thick garish colors.”

And yet the opera has managed to garner the attention of great opera stars, particularly for the lead role. Many of those artists have committed their interpretations to record, preserving their visions for the opera for all eternity.  Here are some of the star singers that have given “Attila” its due.

Italo Tajo

The Italian bass is generally associated with comedic roles in Mozart and Rossini operas. But he did take on a few dramatic roles, most notably Attila. He was also the first to record the opera, establishing a precedent for other basses.

Boris Christoff

The Bulgarian bass was a major interpreter of numerous opera’s, particularly “Don Carlo” and “Simon Boccanegra.” But he also made his contributions to this role, recording it in 1962 with Bruno Bartoletti conducting the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino.

Ruggero Raimondi

The Italian bass was a major exponent of the role, recording it twice in 1970 and 1972. His first recording features Antonietta Stella and Riccardo Muti conducting the RAI Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. He is far more intellectual in his second recording, under Lamberto Gardelli. That cast includes Carlo Bergonzi, Cristina Deutekom, and Sherrill Milnes.

Nicolai Ghiaurov

Ghiaurov has a number of recordings available of the opera, including a studio set with Mara Zampieri, Piero Cappuccilli and Giuseppe Sinopoli. There is also a live performance from 1972 in Firenze under Muti that also features Leyla Gencer and Giuseppe Taddei.

Samuel Ramey

The American bass loved this opera so much that in his older age he even opted for taking on the role of Leo, the Pope. In the title role, he has a noted video recording from 1991 under the direction of Muti. A few years earlier he took on the role at the New York City Opera, earning raves for his performance. Of his work, Donal Henahan wrote that “Mr. Ramey plays the title role as Attila the Hun: bare chest, rippling stomach muscles, magnificent fur robes… and the singing on this occasion easily lived up to it. Throughout the night it was fluid and flexible, capable of ranging from brute fury to the pathetic tones of a betrayed lover.”

Ferruccio Furlanetto

The Italian bass is one of the recent interpreters to dominate this work. His performance at San Francisco in 2012 won raves for his work. “Seeing Furlanetto’s Attila is like attending a master class in the art of the operatic basso. A full-bodied, powerful, yet elegant cantante, he is also a fine actor, portraying a warrior in his last days, after fears and doubts have eroded the confidence that had made him the master of Central Europe,” wrote Opera War Horses. He also recorded the opera in 2001.

The opera has not been mastered by just basses, however. Here are artists that have also left their mark on the Verdi work.

Cheryl Studer

The soprano may not seem like the obvious choice for this opera as Odabella is a vicious tour-de-force of a role, but Studer recorded the opera twice, once in 1989 and a second time in 1991.

You can also catch her performance with Ramey from 1991 on video at La Scala.

Giangiacomo Guelfi

The baritone was a noted Verdi interpreter and he performed this opera quite a few times throughout his career. He recorded it three times with three different basses and conductors from 1951 through 1972.

Lamberto Gardelli

The notable Verdi conductor was quite familiar with this opera, recording it twice and performing it throughout his career. His first studio interpretation came in 1972 with Raimondi in the title role, Bergonzi, Deutekom, and Milnes as the supporting cast. This might be the most famous recording on the market. His second recording, from 1986, features a less prominent cast but showcases the Maestro at his best.

Riccardo Muti

When Muti finally accepted to come to the Metropolitan Opera to make his debut he was allowed to perform any opera he wished. His choice? Giving the Met Opera premiere of “Attila.” He has three recordings on the market, his first dating from 1970 when he had Raimondi as the lead character. His two subsequent recordings, both from La Scala, both have Ramey, Studer, and Zancanaro as his stars.


On This DaySpecial Features