Verdi’s Attila is hardly a rarity in Italy the way it is in the United States, and after last Sunday’s premiere at the Teatro Regio di Parma as the fourth and final title of 2018’s Festival Verdi, I realized just how much we have been missing out on. 

Juvenile Verdi’s music stalks, crusades, and plows its way through 2.5 exciting and enjoyable hours. Attila may not be first-class Verdi – the rather weakly-sketched title role relies more heavily on physical than musical gravitas and the piece overall lacks the sense of atmosphere and more measured dramatic urgency that characterize his later works – but it is first-class Bellini. In all its formulaic glory, choruses, cabalettas and all, Attila works on stage and works rather well, at that.

In Temistacole Solera’s (and then Francesco Maria Piave’s once Solera got fed up with it) libretto, Attila’s Huns are charging across the Pianura Padana, though Rome remains an unattainable goal for the general and his robust male chorus (sung with gusto by the chorus of the Regio). They are met by the Roman general Ezio, the historical Flavius Aetius, who makes a plea: “You can have the world, but leave Italy to me.”

This proposition was especially persuasive as sung by Vladimir Stoyanov. His laser-focused but resonant baritone cut easily through the orchestra and he was often the most compelling presence onstage. His top of Act II scene, a pained meditation on Attila’s threat to his country, proved not only hypnotic, but directly referencing all those other great baritone soliloquys that Verdi would write down the road.

Attila brushes him off, mostly because he’s noticed Odabella, a freshly-arrived agitator with her own female chorus (though they don’t get to talk as much), and he likes what he sees. Wowed by her moxie, he hands her a sword that she intends for greater purposes than merely filleting a few Romans (she has to avenge Attila’s killing of her father, after all).

So, she takes up with Attila in a pairing that is almost certainly pleasurable for only one of them. That makes Foresto, her man that’s been watching from the bushes (get your mind out of the gutter), understandably mad. This calls for a duet in which Odabella compares her motives, in sharing a yurt with Attila, to those of the biblical Judith.

Maria-José Siri, La Scala’s go-to Cio Cio San and Francesca da Rimini, certainly gave an analogy to the Judith story in her performance. Except instead of the grisly beheading of Holofernes as the heroine’s biggest challenge, we got limited agility, a vibrato so wide as to be a wobble, and anything below a C’s sounding bottled and flat (In fact, in the descending cadenza at the end of “Liberamente or piangi” came out so constricted and pitch-free as to elicit an audible cringe from the audience mid-aria).

But like Judith, too, Siri emerged successful for what was ultimately a vulnerable and vigorous characterization of one of Verdi’s most underrated heroines. Vocally flawed as it was, her immediacy, multifaceted ferocity, and, dare I say it, campy commitment, as Attila’s war bride was as inspiring as it was enjoyable to watch unfold.

Has the line “l’odio armasti dell’oppresso coll’acciar del oppressor,” subtitled as “the oppressed is armed by the oppressor,” ever seemed quite so relevant?

It goes without saying that Odabella is doing all of the work here, both for her and Foresto. But it’s not like Foresto proved all that persuasive, either. Francesco Demuro’s small and distant tenor didn’t hold much attention (or consistency of pitch) on its own. But in duets and ensembles, it proved a more propulsive force, enriching the urgency that was so well established by Gianluigi Gelmetti leading the Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini from the pit.

Meanwhile, Attila’s still fretting about Rome, and it’s going to take an apparition from the Pope, a botched wedding, attempted poisonings, and a harsh demise at Odabella’s hands to get him to cool off. Despite his imposing stature, Riccardo Zanellato’s Hun king seemed best adapted to the moments of quiet contemplation.

His wooly bass was but a hair shy of both refinement and authority to give this storied warlord a sound consonant with his reputation and the result was an Attila that sounded more bullied than bellicose. A little more declamation would have been welcome in an attack that seemed better suited to “Pura siccome un angelo” than “Mentre gonfiarsi l’anima.” The lacking duality further obscured the title character’s rather hazy conflict-  maybe don’t let Germont-père lead your army.

Andrea De Rosa’s gently-updated direction and sets (with chiaroscuro lighting and costumes by Pasquale Mari and Alessandro Lai, respectively) put all this over in a smart, straightforward way, and he even managed a wall-crumbling coup at the end of the overture that the Met might borrow for its reportedly anticlimactic Samson. Especially affecting were the recurring ghostly trio of Roman women and children that were slaughtered by the Enemy in pantomime during the overture.

Besides the wonderful music, we listen to Attila to hear the seeds of what Verdi would solidify with his later operas that pit political power against personal anguish. However, in his second opera (and first comedy), Un giorno di regno, we’re more listening to hear what Verdi wouldn’t become. Written after the death of his first wife and two children, Giorno comes across as hurried, insincere, and underdeveloped on almost every front. Now, compare that to Falstaff.

Seen on Festival Verdi’s second night in the 300-seat jewel box that is Teatro Verdi in Busseto, the closest town to the neighborhood where Verdi was born, and cast with the young winners of the Regio’s Voci Verdiane competition, Giorno was given a lusty reading in a remounting of a spare Pier Luigi Pizzi production that nonetheless cluttered the tiny Teatro Verdi stage.

Michele Patti’s swaggering Cavalier Belfiore, dispatched by Poland’s Stanislaus I himself to impersonate the king at the Barol of Kelbar’s palace in Brest, seemed somewhat wary of his own rather easy, elegant baritone in this faux-buffo part.

Also arriving to the Kelbar home is the recently-widowed Marchesa del Poggio, a Donna Elvira-type without the dark back story. Despite an agile, if brittle, soprano, Gioia Crepaldi proved somewhat miscast in this part which merits a darker sound so as to contrast with Giulietta, the Baron of Kelbar’s ingénue daughter (sung with coy delicacy by soprano Diana Rose Cardenas Alfonso).

Giulio Mastrototaro as the Baron of Kelbar proved ideal in the patter portions of his music and Martin Susnik’s earnest and characterful Edoardo was a nice complement as the man Giulietta desires to marry and then, rather easily, does. If the Orchestra of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna wasn’t conducted with much variety by Francesco Pasqueletti, they certainly played with distinction. If only the Comunale’s chorus had sounded a little more cohesive, though the small venue certainly didn’t help.

The two-marriage happy ending is resentable enough and the rather cutesy costuming by Massimo Gasparon only compounds it. They say that hindsight is 20-20. With Verdi, as Festival Verdi maybe inadvertently showed us here, it’s even more than that.

Photos: Roberto Ricci