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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
AttilaDramma lirico in a prologue and three acts (1846)
Attila, king of the Huns – Ildebrando D’Arcangelo (bass), Ezio, Roman general – Simone Piazzola (baritone), Odabella, Lord Aquileia’s daughter – Maria José Siri (soprano), Foresto, a knight of Aquileia – Fabio Sartori (tenor), Uldino, young Breton – Gianluca Floris (tenor), Leone, old Roman – Antonio Di Matteo (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro Comunale di Bologna/Michele Mariotti
Daniele Abbado (stage direction), Gianni Carluccio (stage and lighting design), Gianni Carluccio and Daniela Cernigliaro (costume design), Arnalda Canali (video direction)
Video format: resolution 1080i, aspect 16:9 (filmed in High Definition, mastered from an HD source). Sound formats: Stereo LPCM 2.0ch 48kHz/24 bit; DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0ch 48kHz.
Subtitles in Italian (original language), English, French, German, Korean, Japanese.
rec. 2016, Teatro Comunale di Bologna, Bologna, Italy
C MAJOR Blu-ray 748804 [116 mins]

The booklet notes discuss the authors whom Verdi found most inspirational for his librettos. He was influenced by the works of William Shakespeare, as demonstrated by his operas Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff. He also relished the works of Friedrich Schiller; that resulted in Giovanna D'Arco, I masnadieri, Luisa Miller and Don Carlos. Verdi would also use works by lesser known authors. One example is Zacharias Werner’s play Attila, König der Hunnen (1809), the source for Attila, the opera on this new C Major release.

Verdi was attracted to the 5th century patriotic subject of Attila, King of the Huns, and Pope Leo I. It concerned the Hun invasion of Italy and the subsequent founding of Venice. For the libretto of Attila, Verdi decided to use Francesco Maria Piave, before Temistocle Solera was given the job. Solera proved to be unreliable, laboured with the task, and the work was completed late. The faithful Piave was then brought back in to polish the libretto. Verdi biographer George Martin wrote that “Solera’s libretto is sloppy in detail”. It is worth noting that, whilst writing Attila, Verdi was experiencing depression and was in poor physical health.

When Verdi’s Alzira premièred at Naples in 1845, the reaction had been very mixed, and it was quickly pulled. The next year, when Attila was introduced at La Fenice in Venice, there was a greatly improved response. The opera was seen as a rallying cry for patriotic Italians. Its success made Verdi a key figure in the Risorgimento, the ideological and literary movement striving for Italian unification. I find the title character a figure seemingly devoid of humanity, without an empathetic bone in his body. In some countries Attila was described as a “potboiler”. Not surprisingly, the success was only fleeting, and during the second half of the 1800s Attila fell out of favour in Italy.

The opera was originally set in fifth-century Italy. Stage director Daniele Abbado and his creative team bring the action forward to the modern day. There is an immediacy to this production, with more stage movement and overall vitality than I expected. Stage designer Gianni Carluccio puts the action in the region of Aquileia, and adopts a rather minimalist approach. He employs dimly lit grey and brown shades, commonly evoking for me a post-battle landscape laid to waste. As the curtain opens, the Huns, victorious under Attila, have sacked the city of Aquileia, capturing a group of prisoners. In the absence of a directorial note, I wonder if this part of the set, owing to the timber frames and rigging ropes, is intended as inside the hulk of a ship located off the Aquileia coastline of the Adriatic. Alternatively, the setting could be inside a castle. Contrary to many productions, here Attila does not have a throne. The significance of the group of curled-up stone figures on the floor escapes me.

Costume designers Gianni Carluccio and Daniela Cernigliaro use contemporary clothing. Attila and his Huns are attired in what might be loosely described as middle-eastern dress, notably wearing harem pants and green combat jackets, while the women wear hijab and abaya. Odabella, leader of the Italian women, is attired in a floor-length beige coat over olive green combat clothing and in army boots. Here the parallel of Attila’s prisoners to contemporary Syrian refugees is not lost on me. General Ezio and his Roman soldiers wear dark-grey military trench coats, black berets and boots. Another puzzle is why a small group of disheveled male prisoners have a strange flap of hessian sacking hanging over their eyes.

The cast is strong and very well chosen. In high demand for many great bass operatic roles, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo is pretty much ideal for the role of Attila. Blessed with exceptional stage presence, the Italian bass soon settles down, and makes a striking impression as the fearsome all-conquering warrior. Generally steady, his dark tone and his aptitude for communicating feeling and drama make for an engaging portrayal. He is outstanding in the famous Act 1 scene and aria Uldino! Uldin!... Mentre gonfiarsi l'anima... Oltre quel limite: Attila awakens from a dream, an old man approaches and tells him to withdraw his army because his path to Rome is barred by the gods. Occasionally some minor strain is noticeable in D’Arcangelo’s high register, conspicuously with the words È van! è van! in the prologue duet with Ezio.

Uruguay soprano Maria José Siri throws herself into the role of Odabella, a seductress and slayer, with directness, daring and plenty of skill. She is vigorous and powerful in her Act 1 scene and cavatina Allor che i forti corrono… Oh! Nel fuggente nuvolo… Da te questo or m'è concesso: the heroine in a forest at night prays for her dead father and expresses her love for Foresto, believing him dead. Siri has a considerable voice. She achieves first-class high notes, strongly projected (this does not come at the expense of smoothness), and an impressive and sustained level of expression.

Simone Piazzola in the role of Roman General Ezio makes a significant impression. The Verona-born baritone excels in his Acty 2 scene and aria Dagl'immortali vertici and the audacious cabaletta E' gettata la mia sorte as Ezio fervently anticipates his hour of triumph by defeating Attila’s barbarians. Piazzola is in commendable voice. He shows stability and smoothness in his portrayal, and augments it with engaging acting. I noticed during Ezio’s Act 2 aria Tregua è cogl'Unni that Piazzola’s voice for a short time seems to have been inadvertently recorded at a low volume.

Undoubtedly a Verdi specialist, Fabio Sartori gives his usual sound performance as Aquiliean knight Foresto. In the prologue, Foresto’s scene and cavatina Cara patria già madre e reina are impressively rendered, expressing how the sun will shine brightly again over Rome. Here the Treviso tenor sings with genuine sincerity, achieving reasonable vocal colour and revealing a sweetness in his top register.

The Orchestra of Teatro Comunale di Bologna directed by Michele Mariotti plays well, with plenty of Verdian vigour, certainly very much at home in this repertoire. Coached by Andrea Faidutti, the chorus is in quite excellent voice, noticeably maintaining full solidarity with the orchestra. The chorus have the final say in the opera, when they compellingly intone the words “God, the people and the king are fully avenged”.

The spectacle was recorded in February 2016 at live performances at Teatro Comunale di Bologna. There are no problems whatsoever with the sound quality: there is the choice of stereo and surround sound options. Filmed in High Definition, the work of video director Arnalda Canali is impressive. There is clarity and focus, and a fine range of shots. Canali is not afraid to use close-ups at times, a technique often avoided by directors currently. In my opera videos, I favour the addition of some audience shots to help promote the live atmosphere.

Disappointingly, there are no on-screen bonus features, perhaps interviews with principal soloists, or with Daniele Abbado and his design team. In the accompanying booklet there is a helpful track listing, a synopsis and an essay “Verdi’s Attila in Bologna” by Bernd Wladika that – in the absence of a directorial note – explains something of Abbado’s concept.

There are three filmed productions of Attila that I appreciate on DVD/Blu-ray. First features Ildar Abdrazakov in the title role of Arturo Gama’s 2010 production conducted by Valery Gergiev, recorded at Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg (on the Mariinsky’s own label). Next there is Pier Francesco Maestrini’s 2010 production at Verdi Theatre at Busetto, with Giovanni Battista Parodi as Attila and conducted by Andrea Battistoni; it is part of the “Tutto Verdi” collection on C Major. Samuel Ramey excels in the title role in Jerome Savary’s 1991 production at La Scala in Milan conducted by Riccardo Muti (on Opus Arte). All three have merits yet my overall first choice is this new Attila on C Major.

Daniele Abbado’s Attila, with D’Arcangelo the epitome of the feared warrior king and Siri a formidable Odabella, is a valuable addition to any Verdi collection.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Robert Farr

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