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Giuseppe VERDI (1813 – 1901)
Attila - Lyric drama in a prologue and three acts
Attila, King of the Huns ... Samuel Ramey (bass)
Ezio, a Roman general ... Giorgio Zancanaro (baritone)
Odabella, daughter of the ruler of Aquileia ... Cheryl Studer (soprano)
Foresto, a knight of Aquileia ... Kaludi Kaludov (tenor)
Uldino, Breton slave of Attila ... Ernesto Gavazzi (tenor)
Leone, an old Roman ... Mario Luperi (bass)
Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro alla Scala / Muti
Recorded live in 1991 at Teatro alla Scala, Milan
OPUS ARTE DVD 09478 03010 [118:00]

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This energetic, noisy opera was a product of Verdi’s ‘anni di galera’ when he had difficulty in keeping up with the pressure upon him to compose operas. It has been described as one of his ‘crasser’ products. I can think of several composers who would give their eye teeth to be able to write such an opera. The problem for Verdi is the standard of what had gone before and what we now know was to come.

Verdi’s first choice librettist was Piave – to whom, as ever, he gave much advice. Then, he changed his mind and asked Solera to undertake it – which indeed Solera did but departed for Spain leaving it unfinished. Piave played the ever-compliant rescuing knight and completed it. However the change is very evident in many ways. One example will suffice: the huge choruses of the Prologue and Acts I and II disappear entirely in Act III, a point emphasised in this performance by the sheer size of the La Scala chorus.

So, by Verdian standards, not the best of operas; but by any standards this must be one of the best performances of it. Recorded in 1991, all had overcome their curiosity of the camera so there are none of the early distracting sly glances. All is played on stage and how well it is played, with all characters engaging completely with the text.

The performance starts with what I always find curious – the staggered rise to their feet of the La Scala orchestra as Muti enters: and that ignores the contrast between his tails and their suits. But what the hell: this is Muti producing an orchestral sound which is little short of inspirational: superb legato, perfect phrasing and musical scene-setting second to none. On-stage scene changes are accomplished so smoothly, musically and visually, that it is a delight to watch and listen.

As it is to the cast. Here is a believable Attila: from raw powerhouse defiance in Vanitosi! ... che abbietti e dormenti to the emotive single line E tu pure, Odabella? Ramey is superb. His Act I cabaletta Oltre quell limite stops the performance for fully 40 seconds which applause he himself halts by continuing.

Zancanaro as Ezio is the consummate actor – so far as he can with a somewhat wooden, if duplicitous, character. For most of the time he sings forte as demanded – particularly in duets with Ramey, bass and baritone often overlapping in vocal range and always producing a glorious depth of sound.

Similar demands of power are made of Odabella, sung here by Cheryl Studer. She accomplishes her entrance high C leap easily and then has to descend in a coloratura run to the depths of B natural. Indeed she frequently has to occupy the extremes of her range and if I had a slight reservation it is in her comfort at the lower end at the start of the opera; but it is a discomfort that resolves quickly. Here is an Odabella who can be brilliantly savage in voice and acting and then at the start of Act I deliver a beautiful gentle sound with some stunning notes floated on high. Her acting is never less than first class and when in duet or ensemble there is admirable control not to overwhelm – many other sopranos please note.

Foresto is an odd character: patriotic leader of displaced persons, hesitant plotter who needs his resolve stiffening (by Ezio) and easily swayed lover. Kaludov’s slightly sharp timbred tenor manages to convince in all facets: vocally certain throughout, balancing superbly with Studer and contrasting with both Ramey and Zancanaro. He just about manages with Studer to avoid the almost rum-ti-tum-tum sounds of their unison Oh t’innebria ... .

Gavazzi, as Uldino, has a smoother tenor sound. He performs this small part effectively particularly as a vocal foil to both Ramey and Kaludov. Sadly the few lines sung by Luperi are almost overpowered by the one occasion when the orchestra do not rein back for the singers. This is a pity because it reduces the dramatic effect vocally – although visually the contrast between the different choruses on stage is powerful.

This is a performance to savour visually. Stage movement is excellent. The costumes are stunning with gloriously subtle and muted colours for the Aquileian refugees contrasting with the dour colours of the costumes of the hermits. All is helped by some excellent camera work producing several ‘paintings’ on the screen.

The accompanying simple booklet gives a detailed synopsis with the Italian libretto. There is no translation but providing you can tolerate subtitles, they work effectively here.

If this opera is a strong candidate for the title of Verdi’s weakest, then this performance must be an equally strong candidate for the best production of it. It is patent that all those taking part enjoyed it: even the usually reserved and urbane smoothy Muti joins in the broad grinning at the final curtain – and with every justification.

Robert McKechnie


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