Monday, 16 December 2013

Verdi - Attila

Giuseppe Verdi - Attila

Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège, 2013

Renato Palumbo, Ruggero Raimondi, Michele Pertusi, Makvala Aspanidze, Giovanni Meoni, Giuseppe Gipali, Papuna Tchuradze, Pierre Gathier

France TV Culturebox, Internet Steaming, 24 September 2013

In the bicentennial year that saw new productions of many rarely performed early Verdi operas, the unlikely popular success of Attila is perhaps the most surprising, if not downright baffling. There are many other neglected Verdi operas - I Due Foscari, I Masnadieri, Joan of Arc and Stiffelio, for example - that are surely more deserving of exploration and re-examination than Attila. Popularity is no sure indicator of quality but it can't be ignored either, and there's no question that Attila is a quintessential and entertaining Verdi work. It is filled with nationalistic sentiments, tragic romantic situations and family complications which have that recognisable melodic and dramatic Verdian touch, even if none of the melodies can compare to Verdi's best and the drama here is fairly static.

Musically, Attila is also fairly conventional, Verdi matching the situation with appropriate music that isn't terribly imaginative, but more often resorts to basic see-sawing, plucking and shimmering strings to accompany situations of stormy tension. The break-down into static numbers doesn't allow for a great deal of fluidity either, containing the requisite religious scene (Bishop Leone), that is preceded by a ghost scene (maidens in white appearing in a dream to Attila), and patriotic hymns ('Cara patria' - 'Dear homeland'). The problem with Attila however is not so much that it's a number opera, since Verdi can do wonders with such material (Macbeth, Joan of Arc), as much as the fact that Temistocle Solera's libretto provides little room for the composer to explore any deeper subtext to the situation or any personality in the characters.

The problem is highlighted in Act 1 after the lengthy prologue. Odabella sings a lament for her missing father and Foresto who she believes is dead ('Oh! Nel fuggente nuvolo'), but as lovely as it is, it's rendered immediately pointless when Foresto turns up at the end of the number not dead after all, and the sentiments evaporate as the chugging strings work up the tension yet again for their charged encounter. Like everything else in the opera, that's all pitched at a level of near hysterical declamation. Here Odabella furiously challenges his faithfulness, while Foresto just as furiously denies it. "Strike me with your sword, but not your words", Odabella declaims, and Verdi's music is that sword, wielded as defiantly as the fervent expressions of determined ambition to destroy and defeat Attila and his forces elsewhere. It's all rather tiresome, I find.

The lack of any real dynamic or more subtle exploration of character and situation means that there's not a great deal a director can do with it either. Conducting the orchestra of the Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Renato Palumbo doesn't find any unexpected depths or lyricism in Attila, but there's no doubt it's a very good performance of a mediocre opera. The production too, directed by Ruggero Raimondi - a man familiar with the role of Attila as a singer - is as well-staged as any of the fine productions at the very underrated Liège company, but there's similarly not much a director can do with this material. Raimondi's production designs are traditional, well-designed (the arrival of Leone descending from above is most impressive) and beautifully lit, with backdrops of thunder clouds and imposing columns closing down space, but you could just as easily use the same set for Ernani or Oberto.  

The main roles in Attila are challenging then not only from a singing viewpoint, but they require some personality and creative acting ability if the opera is not to be just static declamation. All of the performers here do as well as could be expected, the tenor and soprano roles of Foresto and Odabella in particular being well filled by Giuseppe Gipali and Makvala Aspanidze. Aspanidze is a high soprano, which can make Odabella's fervour a little bit shrill at length and the Georgian's Italian enunciation is also heavily accented, but she tackles the demands of the role valiantly and has no problem reaching its high notes. Much of what is enjoyable and memorable about Verdi's writing for this work comes from the dramatic bass/baritone stand-offs between Attila and the Roman commander Ezio, and those are also capably met by Michele Pertusi and Giovanni Meoni.

The Opéra Royal de Wallonie's 2013 production of Verdi's Attila can be viewed via internet streaming from France Television's Culturebox website.  Subtitles are in French only.