Friday, 14 December 2018

Verdi - Attila (Milan, 2018)

Giuseppe Verdi - Attila

Teatro alla Scala, Milan - 2018

Riccardo Chailly, Davide Livermore, Ildar Abdrazakov, Saioa Hernández, Fabio Sartori, Simone Piazzola, Gianluca Buratto, Francesco Pittari

ARTE Concert - 7 December 2018

Attila is a dog of an opera. You can make excuses for it being an early Verdi work, full of youthful passion and fury, you can make claims for it being an expression in defence of national unity and liberty from foreign oppression, and you can even point to it anticipating Verdi's great mid period of Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata, but at best Attila is workmanlike and at worst ridiculously old-fashioned. Other than the fact that it was first performed at La Scala in 1846, I can see no reason why the Milan house would choose Attila to showcase their traditional December season opening extravaganza.

Well, there's one valid way - maybe two - of making it work and possibly have something worthwhile to put in front of a modern audience. As was proved earlier this summer with Alzira at the Buxton Festival, even the crudest Verdi operas can be rehabilitated when they have truly great singers capable of singing the principal roles, particularly the extraordinarily challenging writing for the lead soprano role. In practice this is rare and there are few singers of that calibre willing to push their voices to such extremes for the sake of a hokey melodrama.

Which brings up the other challenge of making early Verdi palatable for a modern audience; finding a way of updating the production to make it relevant and not look like - as is the case with Attila - an am-dram Gothic melodrama in period costumes. Unfortunately, early Verdi rarely supports any effort to bring nuance or indeed substance to the works.

As far as the Teatro alla Scala di Milano is concerned however, they wouldn't dare present such a work without the necessary singing forces on such a prestigious opening night, even though the brave lead soprano Saioa Hernández taking on the role of Odabella is a complete unknown to me at least. On the directorial side there's a little more room to risk the disapproval of a thankfully decreasing but still vociferous minority of boorish traditionalists at the opera house, and Davide Livermore - who has produced some imaginative and thrilling work at the Rossini Opera Festival to showcase the underappreciated value of Verdi's predecessor - is a good choice that offers some hope for Attila not being a complete disaster.

The question remains whether Verdi's Attila can sustain any deeper human sentiments in this context. Based on Livermore's record it's not likely that he will attempt the impossible, but you can expect him to at least find a way of illuminating Verdi as an operatic spectacle. And indeed it soon becomes obvious that Livermore has dispensed with the heavy fleeces, fur-hats with horns and the swords and shields for a more recognisable and relatable vision of war. The director goes for spectacle that includes jeeps, motorbikes and helicopters (ok, not the last one, but he would if he could) but also finds a good balance of showing us familiar modern imagery of the nature of war atrocities without going too far down the Damiano Michieletto Guillaume Tell route of explicit realism.

Plumes of grey smoke spiral into dark murderous skies and ruined buildings set the scene as Attila's Huns overrun the Italian capital during the Prologue, gunning down ordinary men, women and children in summary executions. So when Odabella launches into a defiant condemnation of Attila's brutality against the Italian people, against Italian women ("Ma noi, donna italiche... sempra vedrai pugnar"), you need to see why she is sufficiently roused, why she might be capable of carrying out her threats, and why the Hun leader might be impressed enough to spare her a similar execution. You need to hear it too, and when Saioa Hernández launches into this opening scene you're left in little doubt of how formidable this woman can be, particularly when she is facing an Attila as deeply sonorous as Ildar Abdrazakov.

There's nothing clever or revisionist or high concept in that, it just matches and brings into realisation the full force of Verdi's intentions in dramatic and scenic terms, playing up the Gothic, which is the best you can do. Addressed to an Italian audience, with its nationalistic flag-waving in the face of foreign invasion ("la tua patria in cenere" - your country in ashes) it could be seen as risky in these times of far-right insurgence (particularly in Italy), but Livermore's vision (perhaps more than Verdi's vision of noble sacrifice) shows what war means to the ordinary people caught up in it in terms that we are rather more familiar with today.

There are plenty of little touches that keep the drama grounded in this way, with cinematic back projections showing the death of Odabella's father that chrysalises her implacable quest for vengeance against the Huns. There is also plenty of spectacle and fireworks elsewhere in the impressive set designs and some good ideas that strive to get into the nature of Attila and his worldview, notably in the visualisation of Attila's dream turning to reality in Act I, and in Act II's party scene that has some sinister and decadent 'The Nightporter'-like Nazi imagery. Most of this works as well as can be expected for an opera like Attila.

The singing however is just superb. You couldn't ask for better than Ildar Abdrazakov and Saioa Hernández for total assumption of the roles of Attila and Odabella. Hernández is spectacularly good, nailing an extremely difficult role. There's still some standing, gesturing and striking of operatic poses, but the figures they play do often seem possessed and they try at least to make the Verdi-istic feel a little more naturalistic, or at least in the spirit of the work. The other performances are also outstanding; Fabio Sartori is a clarion-voiced classic Verdi tenor perfect for Foresto, with Simone Piazzola's Ezio and Francesco Pittari's Uldino also impressing.

Musically it's another matter, or another challenge if you like. In an interval interview Riccardo Chailly makes the case for Attila richly showcasing three musical colours for military scenes, for sacred scenes and for the supernatural, which sounds like typical Verdi by numbers to me that is done much better elsewhere. If it's insipid one moment and heavy-handed the next, Chailly at least tries hard to brings a little more uniformity and lyricism to the musical arrangements. It doesn't change my opinion that Attila is weak and démodé, but if anyone can make a case for it, they'd be hard pushed to improve on just about any aspect of this impressive La Scala production. A surprising success.

Links: ARTE Concert, Teatro alla Scala