Ildar Abdrazakov (Attila) © Teatro alla Scala | Brescia e Amisano
Ildar Abdrazakov (Attila)
© Teatro alla Scala | Brescia e Amisano

At his entrance to the La Scala season opening night, the President of Italy received several minutes of standing ovation before proceedings could continue. Is Milan getting ever more conservative? Davide Livermore’s new staging of Verdi’s Attila seems to indicate so, invoking memories of an age when opera sets were impressive backdrops into which singers marched on, stood tall and sung their stuff. Tallest of all was Ildar Abdrazakov’s King of the Huns, showing off his equestrian skills to make his entrance aria on a black horse (that was somewhat better behaved than the skittish grey ridden later by his nemesis Leone).

Some La Scala traditions are well worth keeping, most notably that the recipe for Verdi is to bring in four outstanding singers with huge voices. Abdrazakov’s bass is full, warm and lilted – a shade too charming for Attila, who does spend a lot of the time invoking the spirit of Wotan as the sponsor of his massacres – but still gorgeous to listen to. One of the best moments of the opera is the standoff where his duplicitous Roman antagonist Ezio proposes a stitch-up of Italy: George Petean’s strongly sung, steely baritone combined well with the smoother bass of Abdrazakov.

Fabio Sartori (Foresto) © Teatro alla Scala | Brescia e Amisano
Fabio Sartori (Foresto)
© Teatro alla Scala | Brescia e Amisano

Fabio Sartori has a huge tenor voice in the Pavarotti mould. It’s a voice that he has been known to overstretch, not least in his recorded version of Attila, but not here: the timbre was lovely, the big money notes were sung with great strength but without pushing the voice past its limits, and there was even the occasional well executed pianissimo. Foresto isn’t the most rounded of roles, but Sartori made the most of it.

But this première will be best remembered for the house début of Saoia Hernández: rarely can there have been such an instant love affair between a soprano and this audience. Hernández may not have the most natural sweetness of timbre, but her Odabella was infused with regal authority and heroic fighting spirit. Her entrance aria gave a rush of excitement that brought a smile to one’s face, and it just got better from there. She has exceptional power: in the big chorus that closes Act 2, with orchestra and chorus giving it their all, Hernández and Sartori’s voices could be heard shining through.

Saioa Hernández (Odabella), Fabio Sartori (Foresto) © Teatro alla Scala | Brescia e Amisano
Saioa Hernández (Odabella), Fabio Sartori (Foresto)
© Teatro alla Scala | Brescia e Amisano

Livermore’s approach to the opera is that of a visual artist, not that of a theatre director. With the help of video designers D-Wok, Livermore creates one visually arresting tableau after another: Nazi firing squads, crumbling Roman cities, huddled refugee masses, Attila’s murder of Odabella’s father, the Hunnish feast turned into a warped version of a Weimar-era cabaret. The most striking is a recreation on stage of Raphael’s The Meeting between Leo the Great and Attila, with many of the painting’s details lovingly reproduced in a fusion of stage and video backdrop: it’s just a pity that D-Wok were unable to restrain themselves from shades-of-Monty-Python waggling up and down of the angels and their limbs.

There's little evidence of close attention to body language, character interaction or coherence of images with the dramatic flow of the story: I could cite dozens of instances of items that rang false in one way or another. But maybe, in this opera, working the detail is a hiding to nothing: Temistocle Solera’s libretto contains many fine poetic lines and great dramatic moments, but it was a rush job and that shows. The construction of the narrative and the coherence of the characters’ actions with their motivations is haphazard at best.

Saioa Hernández (Odabella) remembering her father's death © Teatro alla Scala | Brescia e Amisano
Saioa Hernández (Odabella) remembering her father's death
© Teatro alla Scala | Brescia e Amisano

Verdi himself was far from well when he wrote Attila, in an extremely fragile physical and mental state brought on by severe work overload. That may have stopped him making the demands for dramatic coherence that characterise so many of his works, but it didn’t stop him producing passages of music that are sublime and not far short of his very best, from the soaring string theme that rises out of orchestral darkness in the overture to the splendid trio in Act 3. And you could not wish for a better orchestral performance to showcase those passages than that provided by Chailly and the La Scala orchestra. There was verve, there was incisive accenting, there were storms whipped up into a frenzy and calmed to serenity, there was sensitive accompaniment of singers, there were wind solos of rare beauty. With the La Scala chorus on their usual powerful form and four soloists at the top of their game, here was a musical performance to savour.

This was opera from 30 years ago but with posh video and “Park and bark” replaced by “Park and neigh”. There were inevitable boos for the staging, perhaps for a lack of horned helmets, but I loved every minute.

The Huns' feast © Teatro alla Scala | Brescia e Amisano
The Huns' feast
© Teatro alla Scala | Brescia e Amisano
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