Monday, December 26, 2011

The Rabble-Rouser’s Guide to Attila

Giuseppe Verdi (left) loved pushing boundaries. During the decades when he dominated Italian opera, he changed the way operas were written, flaunted social convention, and played an important role in the Risorgimento, the political movement that led to Italian independence and unification. This December, we’re gearing up for Attila and simultaneously looking back on a year which has seen momentous political upheaval, particularly in the Middle East. In Attila and his other early operas, Verdi wrote the theme music for nineteenth-century Italy’s equivalent of what’s currently going on in much of the world.

Research for costume designs for Attila's troops by Melanie Taylor Burgess

There was no such country as Italy when Verdi was born in 1813. The places where Verdi lived and created his operas were a handful of small states and city-states mostly ruled from faraway Vienna. The imperial Austrian government maintained its tenuous hold over the peninsula that was to become Italy by exercising strict control over any means by which large groups of people might communicate, such as newspapers, churches, and the theater. Yet Verdi, who wanted the Italians to break free of foreign domination and create a country of their own, again and again found ways, in his early operas, to get his message across.

His first ball-out-of-the-park hit was the chorus “Va, pensiero” from his third opera, Nabucco (1842). The enslaved Jews are toiling on the banks of the Euphrates during the Babylonian exile, and sing at this point of how they long to return to the Jewish homeland in Israel. Everyone in the audience immediately understood that the Jews symbolized would-be Italians, enslaved by their Austrian overlords and yearning for a country of their own. The Italians quickly adopted “Va, pensiero” as an unofficial anthem, a status the piece enjoys to this day. And because Verdi’s name formed an acronym naming the eventual leader of the united country—Vittorio Emmanuel, Re DItalia (Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy)—people who screamed “Viva Verdi!”, or whistled the tune of “Va, pensiero” at Austrian soldiers were actually making incendiary political statements.

Coded graffiti: is this man an opera-lover or an anti-government rebel?

Verdi, who came from the most salt-of-the-earth kind of people (today he’d undoubtedly claim membership in “the 99%”), was in no way beholden to the Austro-Hungarian power structure that controlled northern Italy. In the operas he wrote following Nabucco, he seized every chance he could to incite his audiences with patriotic sentiment. Eventually, it became a regular thing for Verdi to run afoul of governmental censors who objected to much of the action he wanted to portray onstage. (In Attila, for instance, they wouldn’t allow Verdi to show the Pope onstage; so Leone, who is based on the historical figure who became Pope Leo the Great, is not yet pope when he appears at the climax of Act One. Regardless, he testifies, with all the power of the Christian church and a mighty bass voice, that “This [Italy] is the land of God.” )

Verdi designed the Attila Act One climax to mimic Raphael's famous painting of Attila's meeting with Leo

Seattle Opera’s upcoming production of Attila is set in today’s war-torn world, and isn’t specific as to location. But again and again in the music and text, you’ll hear the characters wax eloquent about their passionate feelings for their country, which, in 1846, was very specifically Italy.

The patriotism begins with Odabella’s thrilling first line. Verdi asks his soprano to come onstage, open her mouth, and immediately dazzle the audience with a wild coloratura flourish, dashing up and down two octaves, responding to the fearsome Attila the Hun’s question, “What inspires your courage?”

Boundless love for our sacred homeland!

Odabella then goes on to sing her rousing first aria, featuring her proud characterization of Italian women (sung here at Seattle Opera in 2012 by Ana Lucrecia Garcia):

Ma noi, donne italiche,
Cinte di ferro il seno,
Sul fumido terreno
Sempre vedrai pugnar.

But we are women of Italy.
Our bosoms are girt with steel.
You shall always find us
on the reeking field of battle.

Ana Lucrecia García, who sings Odabella in Seattle, did the role at La Scala last year. Brescia/Amisano © Teatro alla Scala, 2011

Before the opera moves on to its second scene, we get ANOTHER enthusiastic statement of Italian patriotism: in this case the Roman General Ezio, negotiating with Attila in a beautiful duet for baritone and bass. Verdi wrote a pithy motto, almost a campaign slogan, for Ezio:

Avrai tu l’universo,
Resti l’Italia a me!

You will have the universe--
let Italy be mine.

And sure enough, this line got pulled from context, just as Verdi must have hoped, to became another rallying cry in support of Italian unification. (No matter that in the context of the story, Ezio, whose line it is, comes across as untrustworthy!)

The patriotism continues in the opera’s second scene, which depicts a historical pageant of the founding of Venice. It gets the history wrong, but the audience didn’t care—at the theater in Venice where Attila had its premiere in 1846, they got so excited they made the tenor and the chorus repeat the rousing cabaletta that concludes the scene. The tune is so catchy, I imagine many in that original audience were singing along during the encore. The metaphor here, comparing ‘la patria’ to the phoenix, is no accident: the name of the opera house in Venice where Attila premiered is La Fenice, the Phoenix, and over the centuries this theater has in fact burned to the ground and been rebuilt a number of times!

At 11:17 in the video below, you can hear and see Foresto’s patriotic cabaletta as sung by Kaludi Kaludov at La Scala about twenty years ago.

Cara patria, già madre e reina
Di possenti magnanimi figli,
Or macerie, deserto, ruina
Su cui regna silenzio e squallor.
Ma dall’alghe di questi marosi,
Qual risorta fenice novella,
Rivivrai più superba, più bella,
Della terra, dell’onde stupor!

Beloved homeland, queen and mother
of great and glorious sons,
now you are a sad wreck,
a desert of silence and rubble.
But you shall rise up from this lagoon
like the phoenix new-born,
more proud, more beautiful,
the wonder of earth and sea!