Attila the Hun – "Scourge of God" – invades Italy; Aquileia falls; Rome next. Verdi's Attila is an opera of news flashes. Scraps of history and legend are thrown into high relief like the spinning headlines of those old newsreels
The three "p"s loom large: plunder, passion and patriotism. Patriotism was, of course, the big money-spinner of the day. Italian audiences lapped it up. They identified with the underdogs. And it really didn't matter what nationality they were. Another rousing "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves" would do nicely.
With Attila, though, the young Verdi tapped straight into his audience's nationalistic sensibilities. He gave them Italian slaves (well, refugees), he gave them a very butch partisan heroine, he gave them Attila cowering before God's holy envoy at the gates of Rome, he even gave them, in passing, the birth of Venice. Nobody paused to draw breath, of course. For the most part, Attila was, and is, full-on blood and thunder – a stonking chorus here, a fervent hymn there, cries for revenge everywhere. But there are clear signs that Verdi is learning on the job. Macbeth is next, and it shows.
In the first act, Verdi pulls out a quite unprecedented and extraordinary romanza for his heroine. It sits amid all the fireworks like a prophecy. Obbligato cello, cor anglais, flute and harp shadow the voice as Odabella laments her father's death. Verdi has her float and trill like a departing spirit. The contrast with the fusillade of vocal pyrotechnics that marks her arrival in the prologue could hardly be greater. A real dramatic soprano with a facility for the lyric is the order of the day.
This first revival of Elijah Moshinsky's very primary and now rather tired-looking production brought us a dramatic soprano all right. The Russian-born Maria Guleghina sang for Italy and then some, striding into the first scene and straight away letting us have it, with a defiant two-octave-plus plunge into her growling chest register. Not a lady to mess with. Even Attila was impressed. So impressed, he gave her his sword – big mistake.
But the big notes – and Guleghina hurled them out with impunity – were not much help to her in the romanza, and it was there that she came to grief.
It's an age-old problem, and one that typified all that was wrong with this undistinguished evening. Find singers prepared to hack it in this demanding and non-too-grateful repertoire (as I say, Verdi was still learning on the job), and invariably stamina will take precedence over subtlety.
In short, more singing and less screaming would have been nice. Guleghina pushed from start to finish. But could she sing an airborne trill; could she float like the proverbial butterfly? Of course not. Push a voice that much, and it won't be long before it no longer speaks under mezzo forte. She was in good company with the tenor, Franco Farina, who gave us the top C, but too many other notes that were less readily identifiable. Intonation was a bit of a negotiation for him. Orlin Anastassov's Attila was decent enough, a Slavic voice, nasal timbre and lots of aspirates, but again the singing lost interest and colour when not at full tilt. Even Anthony Michaels-Moore, easily the classiest voice on the stage, was below his best, struggling a little to support a seamless legato in his big second-act aria.
Which left chorus and orchestra to acquit themselves lustily. The evening belonged to them and to the conductor, Mark Elder, whose love of this repertoire is always evident in the way he nurses and excites it. Even Verdi's most rudimentary accompagnamenti sprang from the page. The theatricality of the evening was very much down to him. The singing had more in common with the extremes of grey and blood-red in lighting and design.
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