What is it about Verdi’s Attila? An opera which had a fairly relative success in its time, which was described as frankly ‘feeble’ by the critic of the London Times, which rendered up one aria to the concert rooms, and perched thereafter on the edge of the revivable repertoire for years …
And now, it’s stormingly in fashion. I came from Vienna to Berlin this week. It’s playing in both cities. At the Theater an der Wien in a staged version, and in Berlin in a concert version. The concert version is pretty surely the more viable, because, from the beginning, the libretto of Attila was regarded as being somewhere from unsatisfactory to awful. Cardboard characters in lego-plot action. The ‘Wildhorn trick’ existed in the 19th century already: take a famous title and stick a bundle of the same old stuff behind it.
Well, the difference here is that Verdi’s ‘same old stuff’ isn’t all just stuff. His score throws up some beautiful bonbons – from the ‘celebrated War Song’ to the act three trio – by way of the pretty ‘dear daddy’ aria ‘Liberamente or piangi’ for the soprano, the basso showpiece ‘Mentre gonfiarsi l’anima’ and even the rather reminiscent but reasonably singable pasted-in megascena for baritone ‘Dagl’immortali vertici’.
The war song is a lively bit of vigorous show-off music worthy of a Rossini finale, and it’s a joy to have a basso for the central character ... in fact, I couldn’t help myself thinking, I wish Verdi had gone the whole hog and made the boring, tenorious Foresto a contralto. You can’t blame Atilla’s ‘hit songs’ for its semi-eclipse; and you can thank those showy solos, if not much else, for the subsequent return to favour.
Tonight I got my introduction to Attila, complete, at the Philharmonie. And I understood just why it has had a chequered life. The bits in between the pop songs – reminiscent choruses, vast duets, et al -- are just too ‘standard Verdi’ to be truly acceptable. But the pop songs are great fun.
Tonight, the audience exploded twice. Rightly. In Odabella’s surefire War Song and in Attila’s big solo. Both in Act I. Which meant that the second half, in spite of the Act III trio, and the stabbing bit, was a bit of a fizzle.
I came to the theatre tonight prepared to hear Erwin Schrott, my marvellous Leporello of last year, sing Attila. He scratched. Damn damn damn. And I could have seen Dmitri Belosselsy in Vienna! We got Roberto Tagliavini instead. Well. If that’s an ‘understudy’. give me understudies! I think ‘replacement’ would be a fairer word. This (very?) young man sang the role simply beautifully, dominated the stage, and only a little lack of weight in the lowest register stopped him from being wholly perfect. The house applauded him wildly and I was on my feet, cheering him. Which I don’t do often!
The other triumph was the Odabella of Liudmyla Monastryrska. She pinged out the power-packed frills of her War Song, made a gem of her daddy song, and it wasn’t her fault that her role fades away into the conventional in part two. The opera as a whole does. A really fine performance.
Massimo Giordano did what he could with the pale, uninteresting Pollio-Manrico part of Foresto without demeriting, and the even more boring part of Ezio was played by the same Dalibor Jenis whom I found ‘non-existent’ in last year’s concert Trovatore. He was non-existent (and occasionally imprecise pitchwise) again. The cellophane baritone.
The comprimario parts, however, were excellently done. Ante Jerkuinca was a smashing Leone (watch for him) and Jörg Schôrmer an incisive, plump Uldino. And because they were only two, we didn’t have the usual anguishing parade of music-stands and scores and folk traipsing on and off the stage! Hurrah!
The orchestra under Pinchas Steinberg was impeccable, and the chorus only irritating because they stood up and sat down distractingly, like oratorio extras, and sang music which sounded like leftovers from Nabucco.
The concert format works well for this piece. But what can you do with a show with two uninteresting, too-conventional-to-be-true principal characters, and with its two blazingly best numbers in Act I? Probably sing those two numbers in concert. Which is what the Victorians did.
Otherwise, I’d say. I think Verdi (and especially his librettists) wrote better operas.
But you have to hear or see them all to know that. Which I haven’t.
All I know is, I’d cross town any time, even at the renewed risk of running into an American president (a nice young soldier helped me round the barricades), to hear Tagliavini sing anything at all, and to hear that War Song again. I hummed it all the way home (‘Non piu me-he-he-he-sta…’).