Hear Giuseppe Verdi’s Attila on The Tuesday Night Opera starting at 8:00 PM
If one discusses the topic of Attila the Hun with Riccardo Muti, it’s best to forget that deeply ingrained, American pronunciation of the barbarian’s name, \ə-’ti-lə \, in favor of the Italian \’ä-ti-lə \. Apart from the Maestro’s insistence on the matter, it is the pronunciation favored by Verdi and his librettist Temistocle Solera, and is a sensitive topic for the Italian people. Verdi wrote Attila confident that his audience at La Fenice in Venice knew Attila’s back story: Attila the Hun led his forces into Italy for the express purpose of…well…raping and pillaging. When the curtain rises on the opera, it is assumed that the audience feels a strong sense of loathing for the title character. Thus, Verdi wastes no time developing Attila as a treacherous man, but plunges headlong into a tale of vengeance.
The historical Attila is problematic for historians, because of the personal biases of surviving accounts. Historians seem to agree that Honoria, the sister of the Roman emperor Valentinian III, invited Attila to come to her aid and prevent an unwanted marriage. Whether or not she intended this, Attila took this to be a marriage proposal and an invitation to take Roman lands. Valentinian attempted to nullify her overture, which angered Attila. When Attila lost his bid to conquer Gaul, he diverted his forces to Italy.
For Verdi, Attila coincides with an awakening sense of patriotism, part of a wave which culminated in the unification of Italy in 1861. Interestingly, Verdi does not use the historical account of Honoria (though it certainly has the makings of a great opera plot), but instead creates a more patriotic heroin who yields to Attila just long enough to avenge her father. One piece of history which Verdi does employ: 1500 years ago, Pope Leo I took credit for convincing Attila to abandon his plans to sack Rome. Some historians doubt the legitimacy of Leo’s claim, but the barbarian-placating Bishop of Rome does make an appearance in Verdi’s opera, first in a dream, and then as an emissary for peace. The historic Attila did not die at the hand of Verdi’s heroin, Odabella, but as a result of asphyxiation due to hemorrhage, possibly induced by too much alcohol.
View a score of Attila (from a French production).
Hear Samuel Ramey and Cheryl Studer in a production from La Scala with Riccardo Muti conducting on The Tuesday Night Opera, 8:00 PM.