Attila the Hun, known in the 5th century as "The Scourge of God," was, in Verdi's operatic depiction, a strange mixture, but one that conforms to history's account of the famous barbarian.
In 452, the year before his mysterious death, Attila led successful armies into Italy, pillaging Verona, Milan and other cities. Legend says that he was stopped at the gates of Rome by Pope Leo I, who told Attila that the Eternal City was under divine protection.
Verdi's "Attila" was strongly performed on Tuesday night at Wolf Trap when the New York City Opera Company opened its weeklong run. Written just before the better-known and far finer "Macbeth," "Attila" is one of Verdi's blood-and-thunder operas, filled with sentiments that could and did arouse his fellowl countrymen to throw off the shackles of Austrian tyranny.
One of the powerful moments in "Attila" occurs in a duet between the King of the Huns and the Roman general, Ezio -- a name Italianized from the histroical Aetius. The Roman leader, trying for a deal with the invader, sings, "You may have the whole world but leave Rome to me!" Italiank audiences in 1846 loved that suggestion and used the line as an excuse for some of the demonstrations against Austria which they were forbidden to make, but which, under cover of music, could not be stopped.
While nothing in "Attila" can equal the great moments of "Rigoletto" or "Trovatore," it is fascinating to observe the maturing composer as he writes a tenor scene that is clearly a forerunner of "Di qualle pira," and an ensemble in the lastk act that has some of the seeds of similar scenese in the "Ballo in Maschera" to come. Verdi's score is strongly influenced by the primitivism of his characters. Combined with his desire to inflame patriotic sentiments, the music tends more toward bombast than toward the subtler inflections that make "Macbeth" such a step forward.
For a successful performance of "Attila," you need a strong ensemble under astute musical and dramatic direction. And you must have powerful bass capable of vigorous, virile singing who can look believable in the guise of Attila. All of this is heard and seen in the New York City production, which also is staged credibly. More difficult than the director's is the conductor's assignment, simply because the orchestra, which does not have anything difficult or particularly musical to do, must not sound routine. Antonio de Almeida, in his Washington opera debut, was unusually convincing with both orchestra and chorus as well as soloists.
There are numerous choruses that require alert responses and the City Opera's singers were on their toes. There was even a ballet but it was one of those cases where little could be done.
The solo singing was brilliant in the work of Samuel Ramey in the title role. His voice took on suitable kind of raw texture that served Verdi and the drama well without ever sacrificing good vocal technique. His acting and fine makeup were touches of genius.
The other principals upheld a good level in singing without reachng any unusual heights. Marisa Galvany sang Odabella, the heroine who eventually murders Attila.In a long aria addressed chiefly to an unsheathed sword, she seemed strangely like an ancient Sweeney Todd. Enrico DiGiuseppe was an admirable Foresto, one of Verdi's more thankless roles, and Ralph Bassett sang adequately as Leoni, the rather strange stand-in for the brave Pope Leo.
Richard Fredericks sand Ezio eloquently and James Clark gave particular value to the minor role of Uldino.