Giuseppe Verdi: Attila (1846)

Opera in a prologue and three acts. Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes.

I basically just like rehashing Verdi reviews so I can get my own opinions in. Since we recently tackled Polish nationalism in opera, why not discuss Italian nationalism in opera briefly as well?

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SETTING: Italy, circa 453. Odabella, an Italian amazon, wants revenge on Attila the Hun for killing her father. Her bravery leads to him giving her his sword, his hand in marriage, and ultimately his life. Her Roman boyfriend Foresto is a dweeb, and the Roman general Ezio wants to make a deal with Attila to split the planet between Ezio’s Italy and Attila’s the rest of the planet.

LOOK OUT FOR:

PROLOGUE: (35 minutes)

Scene 1: The ruined city of Aquilea.

0: The prelude * is a dark and gloomy piece based on two basic themes, both of which will return. I like it to the point that I will repeat-listen to it. Short, around three minutes.

6: Viva il re The opening chorus is at first a bit of a let down of military standard grade music. After Attila addresses the troops it gets better * for about ninety seconds.

12: Da te questo Odabella’s cavatina is rather standard but the cabaletta * is far more up-beat after Attila acquiesces to her request to hand over his sword to her. Overall an entertaining number.

17: Tardo per gli anni The Ezio-Attila duet * is something of a fragmentary mess which can never decide what it wants to be musically. It has bursts of rather jovial and entertaining music side-by-side with really ornery bits.

Scene 2: Pre-Venetian settlement of monks, swamp.

23: Moderately threatening storm music * dies down rather quickly and we get some ornery monks before suddenly we get some “dawn music” which if you have heard Jerusalem you will recognize from act 1. This is followed by a seven minute aria for Foresto, at first very standard as he frets about Odabella being captured. Don’t worry, you will like it, just mildly.

33: Cara patria The last two minutes of the cabaletta * are much better as he tells the survivors of the siege on Acquilea to build their new homes in the swamp.

ACT 1 (29 minutes)

Scene 1: A forest by moonlight.

0: Liberamente or piangi Lovely chromatic prelude and romanza for Odabella ** with harps and flutes abound.

7: Quell’io son Apparently Verdi’s idea of excitement here was to have Foresto perform multiple upward chromatic scales. A strong duet develops **. As he questions her motivations. She claims to be sucking up to Attila in order to lie in wait for the opportunity to kill him to avenge her father.

12: T’inebria nell’amplesso Odabella and Foresto pop into a fast-paced cabaletta ** in the last 90 seconds. By far this is the best scene overall in the opera.

Scene 2: Attila’s test.

16: Mentre gonfiarsi l’anima Scary prelude-like music leads to Attila waking up from a bad dream and calling for his servant Uldino. He recounts the nightmare *.

Scene 3: The Hill behind Attila’s camp near Rome.

25: No, non e sogno Attila’s men are ready to sack Rome to a fiery chorus, but are stopped by a chorus of Roman virgins dressed in white. A foreboding chord strikes multiple times as Attila realizes he is licked and although the first virginal chorus of off-stagers is nice, the number goes into lightening round far better *** providing about four minutes of magnificence as Pope Leo, Odabella and for some reason Foresto really take the lead as they stop Attila at the gates of the Eternal City.

ACT 2 (22 minutes)

Scene 1: The Roman camp.

2, 7: Dagli immortali vertici/E gettata la mia sorte Ezio’s solo about how Rome isn’t what it used to be *. At first it sounds like it is accompanied by organ. He gets an invite from Foresto for Attila’s party. This turns into a mini-mini duet and then an even smaller cabaletta for Ezio which ends the tableau *.

Scene 2: Attila’s camp decked out for a party.

9: Del ciel’ l’immensa volta The scene starts off logically with a drinking chorus *. This is followed by a lot of ornery stuff rehashing the prelude and some flighty priestesses who get interrupted by the turning out of all the lights.

15: Lo sprite de’monti A grand four-minute pre-finale ensemble *** as Foresto has Uldino poison Attila’s cup and tells Odabella who is determined to kill Attila herself and so stops. The chorus finishes things off with a pretty salute to the weather. Attila is about to drink the poisoned wine when Odabella stops everything, informs about the poison and Foresto volunteers the info that he put Uldino up to it (this is stupid but whatever). Odabella saves Foresto from immediate execution by Attila by saying she will kill him instead. Attila then tells her that as reward he will marry her.

20: Oh, mini prodi! The act ends with a furious concert finale **. Everything is confused plot wise but musically it is very satisfactory.

ACT 3: Same as act 1 scene 1. (16 minutes)

3: Che non avrebbe After a quiet prelude and an interaction between Foresto and Uldino again, Foresto gets a starchy (but brief) solo *.

5: Che più s’indugia? From this point onward mostly what happens consists of character entrances punctuated by off-stage choral bits and then the slaying of Attila. Here we have Ezio’s entrance which starts oom-pah * and ends up dead from a bit of off-stage wedding chorus. Odabella then flies on having run from her own wedding.

8: Te sol quest’anima A harp-accompanied trio * in which Odabella tries to convince Foresto of her love and not her two-timing.

11: Scellerati! The five minute finale begins with the arrival on the scene of Attila in a long recitative passage and a good quartet ** followed by a warning chorus as the Roman forces invade the Hunnic camp and Odabella shock-surprise stabs Attila to death with his own sword in the fastest death scene in all opera.

COMMENTS:

The thing about Attila is what little actually happens in it and how popular it has been. Apart from the first-half of the 20th century when it disappeared, it was performed everywhere! Following its revival in the mid-1950s again it is performed everywhere, but does it really merit so much attention? The plot really isn’t anything to speak of, because very little occurs. Apart from Pope Leo who is a minor bass part limited to a single scene, we meet four of the five  characters in the first scene and apart from Uldino’s unmotivated association with his master’s enemies (particularly Foresto whose jealously and motives are frankly never rational), all motive is plainly laid out in the first twenty minutes of the opera. What follows after the first scene are just a collection of not necessarily logically connected tableaux which could in theory get shuffled or even removed entirely until the act two party scene where literally the only thing happens that isn’t Odabella’s assassination of Attila, namely she warns him about the poisoning and he vows to marry her as repayment. Other than the there really isn’t any action to speak of, just a series of arias, duets, and choruses. The Italian nationalism of Ezio’s proposition to Attila (Ezio gets Italy, Attila the rest of the world) is frankly bizarre although I suppose I understand that it would be attractive to Italians during the early years of the resorgimento. Italian nationalism is an odd creature (it doesn’t really exist the way it does in other European countries as regional identifications far override any nationally unified conception), so I don’t know if Ezio is trying to save Attila a lot of trouble or really wants Italia all to himself for utterly ideological reasons. There is some good music here, but it is concentrated to act finales and the first scene of act one. I do like the darker tone of the work in comparison to earlier Verdi operas, and it might just be the best (Nabucco excepting) of Verdi’s operas up to that point as far as music is concerned, but the libretto is awkward and lacks dramatic cohesion, which makes it worse than some other early Verdi. This is most apparent in act 3 which had to be written up by a different librettist with input from Verdi at the last minute. The acts are also super short with only the prologue breaking the half-hour mark. Although not quite as episodic as the rambling I Lombardi and having a much tighter grip on its casting, (only one soprano, six soloists only one minor), and the scoring is improving, it is a beta minus with a few alpha patches in it. So possibly a solid B, albeit a low one?

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