My first experience of Verdi's early opera Attila was around 1960 as a schoolboy at the Rome Opera. Il Duce's name was still emblazoned above the stage, the sets fell down, but the singers stood firm, all guns a'blazing. I had no idea who did what to whom. Last night in Sydney, there were strange similarities to those youthful memories. Davide Livermore's La Scala production of 2018 has taken two years to reach Sydney – with him in attendance. Giò Forma's sets of a crumbling Roman Empire are monumental. They certainly didn't fall down, and moved to Attila's command. But why, in 2020, did we need three three or four minute blackouts to change them?

Taras Berezhansky (Attila) © Prudence Upton
Taras Berezhansky (Attila)
© Prudence Upton

Although set in 5th-century northern Italian city of Aquileia – which the invading Huns actually obliterated – Livermore has updated the scene to the 1930s, but seems to be ahistorically setting Mussolini's Italians against invading Germans. Though, even here, their Nazi uniforms are discarded for the wildest kinks of Weimar cabaret when they celebrate, seeming to have won the war.

Meanwhile, Verdi's intentional patriotism against the Austro-Hungarian occupiers of his country and the fundamental opposition of the Catholic Church and the Hunnish world of Odin and omens continue to shine through, the composer's nationalism sounding in his music as early as the overture. Oddly, the characters as they emerged in this production revealed Attila as a decent, if autocratic, chap whilst the Italian men continually break promises and are plagued by irrational jealousy.

Natalie Aroyan (Odabella) © Prudence Upton
Natalie Aroyan (Odabella)
© Prudence Upton

Which leaves Odabella as the straightforward heroine of the shining hour. Made to hit her big Verdian straps from the moment she opens her mouth, Natalie Aroyan, in her role debut, embraced the part in its totality and aroused the normally polite Sydney audience to Italianate heights of whistling and cheering. Could this have been partly a coronavirus consequence? For there was undoubtedly an acknowledgement that attendance at such a large gathering in mid-March 2020 was a) daring and b) potentially the last for a while.

Certainly, though, the enthusiasm for this youthful product of Opera Australia's development system was justified. Could there have been a slight fading of her vocal power towards the end? Not en route, as Aroyan managed the difficult balance between the three men in her life – the peremptory Attila (Taras Berezhansky) who assumes the right to take her in marriage, the ever-jealous Foresto (Diego Torre) who assumes the worst of her, and her dead father, killed by Attila himself on his black horse in D-wok's filmed backdrop, whom she mourns in a glorious, cor anglais accompanied solo. In duet with the quietly passionate tenor, Torre, distant thoughts of Dame Joan and the Pav were conjured.

Natalie Aroyan (Odabella) © Prudence Upton
Natalie Aroyan (Odabella)
© Prudence Upton

As at La Scala, Attila arrives on his dark mount, the perfect counterpoint to Pope Leo's white caparisoned charger – borrowed by Livermore from Raphael's painting of The Meeting between Leo the Great and Attila, which D-wok provided as the backdrop to Attila's prescient dream warning against a further advance on Rome. The rich Slavic voices of the two Russian basses – Berezhansky particularly, and Gennadi Dubinsky's Pope – aroused thoughts of Mussorgsky. And the painting that comes to life brought back memories of Damiano Michieletto's production of Il Viaggio a Reims last year.

Taras Berezhansky (Attila) and Gennadi Dubinsky (Leone) © Prudence Upton
Taras Berezhansky (Attila) and Gennadi Dubinsky (Leone)
© Prudence Upton

When Attila's dream becomes reality, he has sufficient superstitious justification to offer peace. At which point the psychological veracity tangled between rival librettists Solera and Piave fell to pieces. The supposedly slaughtering Attila keeps pardoning Foresto and Odabella, who have every reason to hate him. Virgilio Marino's turncoat Hun Uldino's attempts to poison Attila is given no justification for his treachery. Simone Piazzola's egotistical and equally traitorous Roman general, Ezio, overacts his fury at being ordered home by a child Emperor. And even Odabella's motives for saving Attila from the poison, only to cut his throat herself with the knife he's awarded her, is a surprise, especially to Attila, whose dying words, “E tu pure, Odabella?” (matching Caesar in Shakespeare) received the unwanted laugh that they probably deserved.

Should we deny productions to an opera with such flaws? Was Verdi just warming up for Macbeth the following year, especially in Lady Macbeth's vocalism tested on Odabella? Do we even expect psychological truth from opera? Ultimately, I'll buy the music, such as the great last quartet here where Attila takes on – but clearly doesn't listen to – Odabella, Foresto and Ezio, all of whom should have been grateful to him!

***11