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CD: Crotchet

Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Attila - opera in a prologue and three acts (1846)
Attila, King of the Huns - Samuel Ramey (bass); Ezio, a Roman general - Giorgio Zancanaro (baritone); Odabella, daughter of the Lord of Aquileia - Cheryl Studer (soprano); Foresto, a knight of Aquilea - Neil Schicoff (tenor); Uldino, a young Breton, Attila’s slave - Ernesto Gavazzi (tenor); Leone, an ancient Roman - Giorgio Surian (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Riccardo Muti
rec. Abanella, Milan, July-August 1989
EMI CLASSICS 3091062 [76.01 + 39.50 + CD-ROM]

Experience Classicsonline

Premiered in 1846, when Verdi was thirty-three years old, Attila is Verdi’s ninth opera. It appeared well into the period following the success of his third opera, Nabucco in 1841. He called this period his Years in the galley as, during this time, he was constantly on the move from his base in Milan to bring his latest opera to the stage and supervise revivals of others. The punishing pace took its toll on his frail psyche and bodily well-being. In 1845 he wrote My mind is always black. I must look forward to the passing of the next three years. I must write six operas. One of those six was Attila. It was the first of three written under a contract with the publisher Lucca who retained all rights. It was the first time Verdi had written for a publisher not a theatre. Some years later Lucca sold the autograph to a wealthy Englishman living in Florence. It is now held in the British Museum and is the only Verdi autograph not held by the Italian publisher Ricordi or the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.

Based on Zacharias Werner’s play Attila, König der Hunnen, the opera was first performed at the Teatro La Fenice, Venice, on 17 March 1846. It follows on from the failure of Alzira whose limitations the composer himself recognised. Interest in Attila only waned as it was overtaken by the popularity of the great trio of the composer’s middle period: Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata.

With their rousing choruses and oppressed people, Verdi’s early operas became associated with the Risorgimento, the battle for the unification of the separate states of the Italian peninsula, most of which were under foreign occupation. Certainly, when the Roman General Ezio calls on the conquering Attila, You may have the universe but leave Italy to me, the line roused the contemporary population against the occupying Hapsburgs. Verdi was certainly inspired by the story, and although there are significant choral contributions, the librettists followed his instructions to concentrate on the principals.

The role of the somewhat magnanimous victor, Attila, requires a full and refulgent basso cantante voice. In the well-conducted and recorded rival CD version on Philips (426 115-2), one of the earliest of its early Verdi recordings, Ruggero Raimondi sings the title role sonorously albeit with a lugubrious touch. In this EMI reissue, Samuel Ramey’s singing is strong voiced, well characterised and has good diction and an idiomatic feel for a Verdian phrase. These attributes are heard to good effect in Attila’s duet with Ezio who utters the fateful phrase Avrai tu l’universo, Resti l’Italia a me (CD 1 tr.10). The duet between Attila and Ezio is thrilling in typical middle period Verdian style with some rum-ti-tum music that belies the sentiments expressed (CD 1 trs. 9-12). The Ezio of Giorgio Zancanaro matches Ramey for vocal strength but fails to do so in characterisation. His singing lacks any great variety of tonal colour and is no match for that of Sherrill Milnes on the Philips issue (CD 2 trs.1-4). As Foresto, the American Neil Schicoff is even less of a match for the ever vocally elegant Bergonzi. Shicoff sounds strained in places, monochromic in tone with the tendency for an incipient bleat to protrude when the voice is under pressure (CD 1 trs.16-19). The role of Odabella, whose father Attila has killed and who stabs him in revenge at the conclusion of the finale (CD 2 tr.18), needs a strong voiced soprano with flexibility and heft as well as a wide tonal palette. Cheryl Studer has these qualities in abundance in her outstanding portrayal here and is a very significant plus over Cristina Deutekom for Philips who lacks the ideal tonal weight and variety as well as dramatic vibrancy.

Of the two conductors, both distinguished Verdians, Muti is strict in adhering to the score and is intensely dramatic whilst Gardelli for Philips is better balanced in his treatment of the more lyric moments. The idiomatic chorus of La Scala, whose Italian squilla is a big plus, aids Muti in his realisation of the work. However, the added clarity of the digital recording is somewhat marred by the rather forward placing of the soloists which adds a hardness that the analogue recording of Philips avoids. That being said, the Abanella is far preferable as a recording venue to La Scala whose acoustics have defeated many recording engineers.

Robert J Farr








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