“You can have the universe, but leave Italy for me!” Shady deals and political backstabbing are all the rage at the moment, but Verdi’s Attila has three major characters plotting against the King of the Huns, almost making you feel sorry for the guy. Roman general Ezio’s proposed pact is a thing of operatic fiction – Attila was more into pillage and plunder than occupation – but there are more twists and turns here than a Tory leadership contest. After evading a plot to poison him, the one who literally sticks the knife in is the pillaged Odabella, whom Attila has made his wife. His dying gasp of “E tu pure, Odabella?” always reminds me of Caesar’s “Et tu, Brute!”

Ildar Abdrazakov
© ROH | Tom Parker

It’s a great pity that The Royal Opera did not see fit to revive Elijah Moshinsky’s 1990 staging (assuming it still exists) for Speranza Scappucci’s house debut. Instead, two concert performances tacked onto the end of the season had to suffice for the Roman conductor to make her mark in a house desperately seeking a new Music Director. Among the audience were present incumbent Antonio Pappano and heir apparent Daniele Rustioni. 

But at least a concert performance allowed us to watch her in action, the orchestra on stage in the house’s rarely deployed acoustic shell. I’ve heard Scappucci conduct Aida and Jérusalem before at the Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège and she is an excellent Verdi conductor. She made an immediate impact in the short prelude, its atmospheric opening bursting into ominous, brassy declamations. Further fire was then unleashed in the rousing men’s chorus – has pillaging ever been so jolly? – and she drove ensembles with tremendous energy. It was not all blood and thunder though. Scappucci drew sensitive phrasing from the orchestra and followed her singers closely, especially those who were a little generous in their rubatos. 

María José Siri and Stefan Pop
© ROH | Tom Parker

Attila hasn’t played at the ROH for 20 years. In its time, the Moshinsky production boasted some terrific basses in the title role, including the great Ruggero Raimondi and Samuel Ramey. Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov is up there with them, both in terms of charisma and voice. Attila’s aria “Mentre gonfiarsi l'anima”, where he is awoken by a vision of an old man denouncing him as the scourge of mankind, was full of tremulous drama, while the ensuing cabaletta where the Hun brushes any fears aside found Abdrazakov in majestic voice. 

Nobody else in the cast could match him. Odabella is, like Abigaille in Nabucco, one of those treacherous early Verdi soprano roles. María José Siri, making her Royal Opera debut stepping in for Sondra Radvanovsky, threw herself into it, tackling the torrent of notes with determination, although her intonation was not always secure. It’s not a voice with a huge amount of “blade” though, so she was at her best in gentler numbers, such as the Act 1 romanza that she shaped with care. Foresto, her tenor love interest, was sung well by Stefan Pop, himself a very late replacement for Joseph Calleja. His sound was bright and he has an engaging stage manner, but his tone narrowed at the top, giving it a constricted quality. 

Speranza Scappucci, cast, Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House
© ROH | Tom Parker

Simon Keenlyside, scorebound and gesticulating wildly, did not convince as Ezio. His baritone sounded tired and there was too much hectoring in the brilliant duet with Abdrazakov’s Attila. The long phrases of his aria “Dagl'immortali vertici” were lumpy, and he forced the voice uncomfortably in his cabaletta, the swift swig of water between verses perhaps indicating that all was not well after such oppressive heat in the past few days. Alexander Köpeczi, who impressed in the ongoing run of Otello last week, was suitably implacable as Pope Leo I and the Royal Opera Chorus continued their fine form with some rousing interventions, spurred on by Scappucci who can take great pride in this accomplished debut.