If there was an opera production to capture the essence of the Verdi Festival, this was not it. Expanded and restyled a decade ago, the Parmesan festival has developed an international reputation for its innovative outreach schemes and often daring programming (for example with Graham Vick's radical participatory Stiffelio in the last edition, and Bob Wilson's production of the French version of Il trovatore this year). In contrast, this new production of Attila is a middle of the road, traditional affair.

Riccardo Zanellato (Attila)
© Roberto Ricci

Not that the audience found that off-putting, judging by the applause that followed each aria and erupted at the curtain call. Conductor Gianluigi Gelmetti was worthy of such a reception: his unfussy, rather old school reading was highly persuasive. Gelmetti took the music at a brisk pace – good for generating a sense of excitement, but problematic for the singers who sometimes felt pushed – though his tempi also had a nice elasticity to them. His laissez-faire rather than autocratic management style meant instrumentalists could play while the conductor focussed on overall phrasing and coordination. The Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini took well to the Verdi idiom, providing limpid winds and lustrous strings, and artfully shaping their legato lines. Players also provided plenty of mettle when required, so that the storm music thundered mightily. 

Maria José Siri (Odabella) and Francesco Demuro (Foresto)
© Roberto Ricci

It was more surprising that the singers were so unanimously well received, considering how patchy their performances were. Traditionally, Italy's most unforgiving loggionisti are reputed to reside at Parma's Teatro Regio. Thankfully for the cast, they appear to be a dying breed. Francesco Demuro's bright voice sounded nasal and constricted, and the result was that his Foresto was not strong enough. We wanted his character to rage in “Che non avrebbe il misero”. Instead he sounded whiny. Maria José Siri was having an off night as Odabella. She sounded uncentered, her high notes were sour and her coloratura badly wayward. Consequently, the vocal leaps from high to low in "Allor che i forti corrono" made for uncomfortable listening.

Riccardo Zanellato was a mighty Attila, his deep, rugged voice well suited to portraying the King of the Huns. Vladimir Stoyanov looked the part as Ezio, here clad in a long trench coat, and his robust baritone sounded regal, especially as he sang of Rome's former glory. Paolo Battaglia and Saverio Fiore were solid as Leone and Uldino respectively, and the chorus was on rousing form, making an especial impact aurally when they walked to the front of the stage in recalled marching workers in Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo's Il quarto stato. Visually, though, this was an unimaginative move, and the cliché was employed not once but twice.

Vladimir Stoyanov (Ezio)
© Roberto Ricci

Indeed, Andrea De Rosa's soulless production as a whole is quite unimaginative. The director has opted for a dark and dramatically lit stage in attempt to cast a brooding atmosphere, but there are few new ideas. Nor are we ever quite sure whether we are supposed to be in 5th-century Aquileia (as suggested by the characters' cloaks and tunics) or 20th-century Europe (as suggest their furs and trench coats). A wall splits in two during the overture, revealing flames behind – not a particularly inspired way of representing the destroyed Adriatic city. If the pastel-coloured seascape for site of Venice was more striking that was mainly thanks to Gelmetti and the orchestra's vivid account of dawn. Singers strike melodramatic poses behind sheer strips of fabric. The audience loved it all.