Program notes by George W. Martin
Verdi’s “early” opera Attila, the ninth of sixteen before Rigoletto, has three distinctions that have always drawn comment: It is the only opera in which Verdi gave the title role to a bass; it is the only opera in which he set all the scenes outdoors; and despite premiering in Venice in 1846 when Venice and Milan were occupied by Austrian troops, its most appealing character is Attila the Hun, who ravaged northern Italy in 452 AD. How could a composer so famously patriotic as Verdi have felt sympathy for a Germanic invader?
First, the bass voice. Some critics have said — and some still do — that it is less able than tenor or baritone to color its sound, to indicate varying emotions. It can be sonorous, commanding, terrifying, but not so ardent as tenor or as ambiguous as baritone, which is said to be best for wavering between good and evil. Think for a moment. Do basses sing Neapolitan songs: “O sole mio” or “Santa Lucia”? Seldom. Yet surely Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov displays a wide range of emotions.
Verdi, like Mussorgsky, created some magnificent roles for basses, such as King Philip and the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlos, but only this once gave the voice type a title role. In Attila, the great solo scene for bass occurs in Act 1, Scene 2, when Attila, encamped with his army in the Po valley, wakes in terror from a nightmare, which he recounts to his slave Uldino. He dreamt he was before the walls of Rome, preparing to attack, when an imperious, old man (the Pope) accosted him, saying: “You are the appointed scourge mankind only. Go back, the way is barred. This is the earth of the gods.” Frightened at first by the apparition’s bearing and voice, Attila slowly regains courage and sends orders to the army to prepare to march on Rome. No wonder basses like the opera!
As Verdi’s only one with all scenes outdoors — only Traviata has all indoors — Attila offers more “nature” music than most. The Prologue starts with the capture, midst fire and dust, of the Roman city of Aquileia, then shows the founding of Venice by the city’s refugees seeking safety in the lagoons. That scene opens with an orchestral storm over nightime waters, thunder and lightening, slowly giving way to dawn. A representational orchestration depicts the latter’s slow spread of peace and sunshine, and though in today’s era of television spectaculars it may seem a bit tame, it was much admired in 1846. Meanwhile, hermits on the lagoon’s chain of small islands — Verdi asked for an oxymoronic chorus of hermits — are praising God for the storm’s passing, when Lo, over the waters, come the refugees to found Venice. The scene is a designer’s nightmare. Others, too, trouble his sleep. The soprano, Odabella, in a forest by a moonlit stream, has a lovely aria in which she laments the death of her father and her lover, whose images she successively sees in the moonlit clouds — an effect usually left unattempted. But some cannot be evaded. At an evening banquet in Attila’s camp, lit by a hundred torches, a gale suddenly extinguishes most of them, terrifying the superstitious Huns. Attila orders the torches relit, while everyone, rattled by the omen, sings his or her secret thoughts in a huge finale. At the opera’s premiere in Venice the torches went out, but something in the material, as it guttered onstage, produced a terrible stink, an effect unsought and unappreciated.
Lastly, how could Verdi compose an opera in which Attila is the only decent human, and the three Romans, stand-ins for nineteenth-century Italian patriots who oppose the Austrian occupation, are portrayed as treacherous conspirators. At the opera’s close Odabella, though in love with a fellow-Roman, has just married Attila, whom she promptly murders, earning the epithet “Verdi’s most odious heroine.” Two things may be said. First, if the unsympathetic portrayals of the Roman patriots didn’t distress Italians of the 1840s, why should they bother us now? Moreover, Verdi was quite true to himself. Consider how in Rigoletto and Traviata he stirs sympathy in his audience for a protagonist who starts out unappealing or of dubious character. In Trovatore he even gives the unsympathetic Count di Luna an aria, “Il balen,” to melt the most stony heart. It seems he cared for people more than ideology, and could find some good in almost everyone. Even in the Hun, Attila.
George W. Martin has written several books on Verdi, including his often reissued biography, Verdi, His Music, Life and Times.