Attila, Verdi’s ode to Italy (one of them), made its world première in Venice to huge bursts of patriotic feeling. “You can have the universe, but leave Italy for me!” exclaimed the Roman general Ezio, and the audience erupted. Small wonder: the opera appeared at the height of the Risorgimento, when Italy was in the process of unifying into one state. Indeed, from Odabella’s insistence that Italian women will die for their country to Attila’s quotation of Caesar as he dies, the entire opera is a hymn of praise to the Italian peninsula. Attila’s sentiments were aptly conveyed at the Deutsche Oper Berlin’s concert performance in the Philharmonie. Led by Pinchas Steinberg, the performance was an evening of great operatic fun.

Roberto Tagliavini and Pinchas Steinberg performing Attila with the Deutsche Oper Berlin Orchestra i © 2013, Bettina Stöß
Roberto Tagliavini and Pinchas Steinberg performing Attila with the Deutsche Oper Berlin Orchestra i
© 2013, Bettina Stöß

Attila is a very straightforward story. The great Hun has just sacked Aquileia and taken captive a number of warrior women, led by the princess Odabella (whose father he has just killed). Impressed by Odabella’s courage, Attila offers her anything she wants. She asks for his sword, which he gives her. Meanwhile, the general Ezio attempts to parley with Attila, asking to be granted Italy in return for joining forces with the barbarians. This does not work out, and Ezio spends the rest of his time lamenting the fall of Rome. Foresto, Odabella’s lover, manages to be everywhere at once (as befits the Heroic Romantic Tenor), yet never accomplishes anything, and Odabella plots revenge for her father’s death, all while being haunted by his spirit. Pope Leo makes an entrance, too, and we get to witness the creation of Venice. Everyone but Attila and the pope spend the entire evening shifting their loyalties and alliances, until at last, Odabella kills Attila and Italy is saved.

Starring Roberto Tagliavini in the title role, with an excellent supporting cast, the evening was a smashing success. Attila is not a subtle opera in the slightest: the music is loud, fervent and martial, the characters hysterical, the chorus raucous. Yet not once did the performance reach the over-the-top outrageousness that so often stereotypes Italian opera. The singers gave it their all, and they carried the night. Tagliavini, stepping in at the last moment for the indisposed Erwin Schrott, sang with a deep, smooth voice, at once powerful and beautiful. His Attila came off as somewhat pompous before mellowing into a man with very real fears and desires. His Roman counterpart, the general Ezio, was sung by Dalibor Jenis. Jenis was the vocal match of Tagliavini, with a smooth, textured baritone. His voice is somewhat gravelly, which lends it an intensity that brought across the proud warrior very nicely. The famous scene in which Ezio offers to join forces with Attila in return for Italy was a gorgeous vocal mixture of light and dark, as the two deep voices wove together to form a luscious aural tapestry.

The opera’s other warrior is the soprano Odabella, the daughter of the king of the recently sacked Aquileia. Liudmyla Monastryska sang her with all the intensity of an Italian Valkyrie, her huge and supple voice ringing ever higher and more powerful. Monastryska’s soprano is rich and beautiful, and she used it to grand effect. In the Act III ensemble, she had four particularly high notes, and each was successively louder than the one before. Odabella wants revenge and she will have it, and with Monastryska it was entirely believable. Her love interest, Foresto, sung by Massimo Giordano in crystal-clear tones, seemed to love his role as subordinate to this driven woman. His aria about the creation of a new city, Venice, was beautiful: the sadness of loss and hope for the future filled Giordano’s voice, and his silvery tone filled the hall. He was amply backed up by the orchestra and chorus of the Deutsche Oper, who managed never to drown him (or any of the others) out, despite the loudness of the music. As Pope Leo, Ante Jerkunica was stentorian and full of Christian doom. As the slave, Uldino, Jörg Schörner sang with a light, lyrical voice. Together, the voices were rich and strong and beautiful, but sadly, Verdi did not give them the chance to portray a range of emotions.

Attila premièred at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice in 1846, during the Risorgimento, and though the critics were quick to point out its flaws, audiences at the time loved it. The music runs full steam ahead, an almost breathless pace with very little time to stop and let the characters grapple with their situations. There is no emotional shift to the music, giving it an air of constant charge. This is a shame, as the characters would do well with a little fleshing out. Perhaps this was the librettists’ intention: to let the music tell the story. Or perhaps Verdi did not state his intentions clearly enough to the two librettists, Francesco Maria Piave and Temistocle Solera, the man behind the libretto for Nabucco. Nabucco this opera is not, but it is rollicking good fun. The cast of the Deutsche Oper’s Attila performance delivered a powerful performance of patriotic ideals, and they did it with all their hearts. And that is what mattered.