Verdi’s ‘Attila’ opera helped unify Italy in 19th century

  • Wed Jan 11th, 2012 3:26pm
  • Life

By Jackson Holtz Herald Writer

Although “Attila,” the obscure Verdi opera that premiers in Seattle on Saturday, is based on the tale of Attila the Hun, the great Italian composer barely veiled a nationalistic theme.

First staged in Milan in 1847, “Attila” was Verdi’s way of promoting Italian unification. He wrote “Attila” at a time when the boot-shaped peninsula was still a collection of city states, kingdoms and papal states.

Verdi, already known for his nationalist songs, was a great proponent of political causes, but is remembered today for his wonderful operas. “Attila” is his ninth.

The story recounts the founding of Venice and promotes Italy as a nation, wrapped up with a vengeful heroine, a love triangle and noble but ruthless warrior hero, Attila, the “scourge of the Gods.” When the opera opened, an adoring Venetian public got the political message, heaping praise on Verdi. Within years, the modern Italy was born.

Along the way, “Attila,” a late Bel Canto-style opera — meaning it adheres to strict conformities and is a vehicle for the singers’ voices over narrative — was overshadowed by Verdi’s later material, including “Aida,” “La Traviata,” and “Falstaff.”

Rarely performed because of the difficulty in casting the roles, “Attila” is a tightly constructed opera, it is just longer than two hours, and quite beautiful, said Seneca Garber, an educator with Seattle Opera, the company mounting this production.

The young Verdi was notorious for writing arias that could ruin singers.

“They are fiendishly, fiendishly difficult,” Garber said. That also makes them marvelous to hear.

Seattle Opera General Director Speight Jenkins selected “Attila” to highlight the gorgeous instrument of bass John Relyea, who returns to Seattle after his sensational performance last season in “Don Quichotte,” and in 2008’s “Bluebeard’s Castle.” Soprano Ana Lucrecia Garcia sang “Aida” here in 2008 before going on to make a huge splash at La Scala, the famous opera house in Milan. She returns to McCaw Hall as Odabella.

The alternate cast, who sing at the Jan. 22 matinee, stars two singers making Seattle debuts, bass Mika Kares as Attila and Ukrainian soprano Anna Shafajinskaia as Odabella.

In “Attila,” the characters cross, double cross and triple cross each other. Verdi’s score gives clues along the way, building to dramatic crescendos and delivering soaring arias, terrific choruses and one of the briefest death scenes in all of opera.

Stage director Bernard Uzan has tried to tone down some of the silliness that can come with this style of opera, Garber said. He’s done that through clever theatrics and heavy reliance on Seattle Opera’s digital technology.

The company will be dressed in contemporary costumes designed locally by Melanie Taylor Burgess. Since this is an opera about war and refugees, the Huns wear camouflage and carry military weapons. If it works, the outfits will evoke the conflicts raging around the world today, reminding audiences that senseless death, vengeance and ruthless warmongering aren’t merely the subjects of ancient tales.

Seattle Opera purchased the sets from an Israeli opera company and had them shipped by boat from Tel Aviv, which was cheaper than trucking an alternative set from New York, opera spokesman Jonathan Dean said.

Closer to home, Lynnwood actor Sonia Perez has a non-singing role in the opera.

“Attila” opens at 7:30 p.m. Saturday with additional evening performance on Jan. 18, 21, 25 and 28 and a 2 p.m. matinee on Jan. 22. All performances are at McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle.

Tickets are $25 to $209 at or 800-426-1619.

Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3447;