Taras Berezhansky as Attila and Nathalie Aroyan as Odabella in Opera Australia's production of Attila - photo by Prudence UptonBig, bold and exhilarating, visually stunning and aurally magnificent, this epic production by Opera Australia of one of Verdi’s early operas, performed in Australia for the first time, tragically, received only two of its scheduled seven Sydney performances before being closed down, an early victim of the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions, which sadly also led to all its Melbourne performances being abandoned.

The storyline for Verdi’s ninth opera centres on the character of Odabella (Natalie Oroyan), who as a child, witnessed her father being slain by Attila (Taras Berezhansky). When the opera commences she’s an adult, captured by Attila’s army when it overruns her city. Impressed by her defiance of his soldiers, Attila courts Odabella presenting her with his dagger, which she secretly vows to use to kill him in vengeance for her father and her lover, Foresto (Diego Torre) whom she believes to be dead.

However, being opera, Foresto returns, accuses Odabella of unfaithfulness, and despite her protests that she only stays with Attila for the opportunity to kill him, also hatches his own plot to murder Attila who has managed to earn the wrath of Roman General Ezio (Simone Piazzola) by rejecting Ezio’s proposal to divide the empire.

But despite this interesting quartet of characters and their compact story, Verdi was more concerned with using the opera as a demonstration of Italian patriotism, which was very much to the fore at the time the opera was written.

Attila calls for huge resources, both visual and vocal, to do justice to Verdi’s grand vision, with its succession of glorious arias and massive choruses. Director Davide Livermore has a flair for spectacle, and with this co- production, shared with Teatro alla Scala, he doesn’t stint.

Setting the production in the war-ravished Italy of the 1940’s he’s shoe-horned massive set pieces of bombed bridges and ballrooms, even a couple of live horses, on to the stage of the Joan Sutherland theatre, augmented with spectacular digital images.

His use of LED screens in this production is more subtle than in his controversial production of Aida, in this instance, complimenting rather than dominating. However his propensity for repetition, particularly with the filmed sequence of the murder of Odabella’s father’s, tended to irritate more than enlighten.

Reflecting the period when the opera was written, he’s incorporated a series of spectacular tableau, complimented by freeze-frame sequences, particularly effective in the harrowing opening scenes when prisoners are lined up and shot.

Making her role debut in this production, Natalie Oroyan, as Odabella, was nothing less than magnificent. Her confident bearing, compelling acting, and creamy smooth soprano which effortlessly conquered the vocal complexities of demanding acrobatic runs through the full soprano range, and particularly impressive when soaring above the massive choruses, her performance in this role confirms her as a singer of International stature and a jewel among Opera Australia’s current roster.

No less impressive was Diego Torre, also making his role debut as Foresto. His ravishing tenor and passionate acting elevated an otherwise pedestrian tenor role into a highlight.

The sonorous voices of bass, Taras Berezhansky (Attila) and baritone, Simone Piazzola (Ezio), also provided a memorable highlight early in the opera with their duet You may have the universe, but let Italy remain mine, while Virgilio Marino as Attila’s confidante, Uldino, and Gennadi Dubinsky as Pope Leo, provided additional lustre to the line-up of particularly fine male voices.

Combined with the pleasure of thrilling sound produced by the massive ensemble and orchestra confidently conducted by Verdi specialist, Andrea Licata, this stunning production of Attila was a night of grand opera that few who experienced it is likely to forget.

Joan Sutherland Theatre – Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point
Performance: Thursday 12 March 2020

Image: Taras Berezhansky as Attila and Nathalie Aroyan as Odabella in Opera Australia’s production of Attila – photo by Prudence Upton

Review: Bill Stephens OAM