Could grandiose music transform a dark comedy of errors into thrilling tragedy?
The enduring popularity of Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore seems to have answered that question, but the composer had many other works that often get lost in the spotlight given to his best-known masterpieces. While American fans of opera look toward the Chicago Lyric Opera’s November production of Attila—pandemic permitting— people around the world can already experience the Mariinsky Theatre’s production through All Art’s free streams.
All Arts Showcases a Struggle for the Right to Avenge
Conducted by Valery Gergiev, director Arturo Goma’s vision draws us into the world of dreaded omens, shadowy intrigues, and the Scourge of God.
Attila’s advance men don’t mince words. “Shouts, pillage, groans, blood, rape, devastation, massacre, and fire are Attila’s sport!” they proclaim at the show’s opening, in the immediate aftermath of the Hunnic king’s latest victory. Having set Aquileia to the torch, their path through northern Italy is wide open, and several new slaves have been captured. Among them is Odabella (Anna Markarova), who defended her city with shocking ferocity, and whose defiance immediately sets the king’s (Ildar Adrazakov) lust on fire. He invites her into his retinue and gives her his own sword, which she naturally plans to use to avenge her father when the moment is right.
A Roman general, Enzio (Vladislav Sulimsky), arrives with an offer: make him the governor of Italy, and there will be peace. Attila rejects this a dishonorable betrayal of the Roman child-emperor, and besides, he is winning the war and doesn’t need a truce. Meanwhile, Odabella’s beloved, Foresto (Sergei Skorokhodov), has led the survivors of Aquileia to a swamp where they will build Venice, and has succeeded in flipping the loyalties of Attila’s enslaved footman, Uldino (Mikhail Makareov). While Enzio lurks nearby with a fresh Roman army, Attila and his druids receive visions of impending disaster and a treacherous plot. In fact, there are three plots to kill him, which pile up on each other.
Shadowy Figures on the Mariinsky Theater Stage
There’s no shortage of passionate music in Attila. Although this opera is characterized by Verdi’s heavy use of declamation and scarcity of light moments, in this writer’s view Goma’s pace keeps it exciting. The designs by Frank Philipp Schlössmann help establish a sense of danger and eeriness. Lighting is low, there always seems to be a swampy haze hanging about, and the camera angles often keep the stage obscure. People dart in and out of shadows, with the Huns always waiting to attack but Attila himself enjoying little safety in his camp.
Most will likely agree with this reviewer that the big man himself, Adrazokov is a magnetic presence. Even if he’s not the deepest character, his battle anthem “Oltre quel limite, t'attendo, o spettro” is rousing, and his swagger remakes the stage around him. Equaling him in headstrong boasts is Markarova’s Odabella, while Skorokhodov’s gloomy Enzio brings a melancholy tone to his aria “Dagl'immortali vertici” on the past glories of Rome.
Rarely in this opera does Verdi reach for softer sentiment, but he does tap into the sublime for the scene in which Venice is consecrated, as refugees arrive safely onto land that barely counts as land, and would seem to need a miracle to turn into a great city.
A Personal Drama Amid Massive Forces
For fellow fans of Verdi, one of the pleasures of watching his less-performed early works is getting to recognize elements that would recur throughout the composer’s work. Here, Macbeth, which debuted in its original form the year after Attila, is clearly anticipated. But no deep knowledge of Verdi is required to enjoy the Mariinsky’s production, which stands on its own as a story about personal vendettas in a collapsing world. The charismatic ensemble makes for an engrossing story that is serviceable for an escapist night in, as well as a trip to a great concert hall.
About the Author: Jacob Davis
Jacob Davis has lived in Chicago since 2014 when he started writing articles about theatre, opera, and dance for a number of review websites. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Theatre, where he specialized in the history of modernist dramatic literature and criticism. While there, he interned as a dramaturge for Dance Heginbotham developing concepts for new dance pieces. His professional work includes developing the original jazz performance piece The Blues Ain’t a Color with Denise LaGrassa, which played at Theater Wit. He has also written promotional materials for theatre companies including Silk Road Rising.
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