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opera australia presents verdi’s ‘attila’ @ the sydney opera house

Above:  Diego Torre as Foresto, Richard Anderson as Pope Leo I, Paws on Film horse and handler, Taras Berezhansky as Attila, Natalie Aroyan as Odabella, Virgilio Marino as Uldino and the Opera Australia Chorus. Featured image: Michael Honeyman as Ezio, Natalie Aroyan as Odabella, Taras Berezhansky as Attila, Diego Torre as Foresto and the Opera Australia Chorus . Photo credit: Prudence Upton.

Invasion of one country by another, with all its horrors, politics and personal tales has never been as graphically or as comprehensively covered as it has recently using modern resources in news and social media.

Lacking such luxuries in the nineteenth century, the youngish, politically keen Giuseppe Verdi used the resources of his own theatrical genius to convey issues of invasion in his early opera, Attila (1846).

This opera was written one year before the composer’s Macbeth  and with  assorted more enduring  blockbusters to come. Attila emerged already gilded with Verdi’s signature vivid storytelling, characterisations, soundtrack, lyricism and exquisite writing for ensemble voices and chorus that made his later classics such as Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, La Traviata and La Forza del Destino so popular.

This current production was planned as a pre-Covid collaboration between creatives from Milan’s Teatro alla Scala and our own Opera Australia. Twice cancelled due to pandemic restrictions, it now forges ahead triumphantly and expressively as a spectacular late-season  jewel in the crown of an already quite star-studded 2022 for Opera Australia.

Since the cancellations of  2020 and 2021, the world and opera in this country has undergone significant change and upheaval. Russia’s invasion in fierce Hun-like style of the neighbouring Ukraine shocked every country around the globe.

Opera Australia’s Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini AM’s resignation following thirteen years in fruitful command of the country’s flagship company was also a shock and a loss, and the end to a productive era of opera performance in this country.

Above: Taras Berezhansky as Attila and Michael Honeyman as Ezio. Photo credit: Prudence Upton.

It is fitting then that the final production of the Terracini era should be a successful international co-production, harnessing Australian and Italian talents and visions to present Verdi’s lesser performed work.

The ferocity of invasion, strength of the victims and efficiency of opera and especially  Verdi’s language  to quickly convey human feeling or predicament is elaborately on show here. The production makes use of traditional solid set construction and the digital-content backdrops now  popular in opera staging, pioneered during Lyndon Terracini’s reign of pleasure.

This production has all the drama and spectacle of any grand opera, the verismo tugging at the heartstings of any Verdi blockbuster and the composer’s song-like moments during any plot twist. It is also  a classy vehicle for the stellar Verdian orchestrations. These are played with admirable momentum and a crystal clear timbral tapestry in the hands of conductor Andrea Battistoni and Opera Australia Orchestra.

The Opera Australia Chorus, here in excellent form, devour complex group choreography and vocal challenges in the score and staging. Their beautifully chiselled, well acted and exquisitely nuanced group voice, with warming movement across the stage, is a great advertisment for opera in this country.

The OA Chorus  emerges as a key component in the success of this opera’s shift in time from 434 AD as covered in Werner’s 1809 play to a now chilling setting in Director Davide Livermore’s 1930s facist Italy.

Above: Natalie Aroyan as Odabella, Taras Berezhansky as Attila. Photo credit:  Prudence Upton.

Kate Gaul’s revival direction preserves believable modern scenes complete with violence, the opulence of the invading class, the pageantry of battle and civilsation depicted using live horses, composite sets, Children’s Chorus and performance in front of the stunning black and white D-Wok digitals.

And in the strong principal cast are several European-Australian superstars who are no strangers to the Opera Australia stage. Whether it be via a subtle, shimmering ensmble blend as principals or a dramatic and bold rendering of the larger high drama solo declamations, these principals shine.

Michael Honeyman boldly steps up and in for the unavailable intended Italian baritone Mario Cassi in the role of Roman general, Ezio. His strength of character and secure voice is one of the consistently strong elements on this stage as he digs a boot and a lot of heart into his well-sung and well-realised role. This pivotal part, joining the Hun and his horde to the invaded Roman troupes, country and people, is steadfast and exemplary.

In the title role of The Hun comes Ukrainian -born Taras Berenzhansky. A bass primo uomo is not a common thing, but this singer makes it an earthy and exciting  role. He also makes it his own with variegated tone, fine stage prescence and excellent vocal and dramatic clashes with fellow principals. His  commanding, demostrative dictatorish character is well supported by some expert interpretation of the Verdian musical model.

Above: Diego Torre as Foresto and the Opera Australia Chorus. Photo credit: Prudence Upton.

Berenzhansky’s onstage chemistry with Armenian-Australian Natalie Aroyan’s fiesty vengeful character is a joy to witness. Aroyan’s Odabella in super strong and silvery voice is a pleasing match for this bass. Their emotional tussle and physicality is matched by some fine vocal sparring. The pair’s fleshy, well-voiced personalities are presented  with attractive realness.

Whether in civilian mode wearing cardigan and skirt, with hair defiantly rolled plus active face,  or swathed in the decadent fur of the invader as Attila’s chosen, Aroyan takes control of her scenes and darts about the stage with alacrity. There is stillness from this diva also, as in the aria ‘Oh, Nel fuggente nuvolo’ sung with nice organic growth as it trembles with strength before the D-WOK  screen panels, which often billow with black clouds.

As a tortured foil and previous lover of the scheming Odabella and as one who also wants to assasinate Attila is Diego Torre in the role of Foresto. He is one of the best exponents of Verdi’s endlessly beautiful sprawling melodic trajectories. He intones his anxiety with  impressively firm yet flexible, fragility even in the most pointed of moments.

As a new opera for many, and as an early, quite nationalistic work of Verdi’s,  this opera resonates well with  our tumultuous, post-pandemic 2022. The combination of costuming from Gianluca Falaschi and multilayered composite sets from Gio Forma makes for lush packaging indeed when pitted with effective contrast against the modern digital comment.

This is a new Verdi experience for many to sink their teeth into. The ovations on opening night, complete with the lead bass’ bold carrying of the Ukrainian flag symbolised the success of this collaboration. The flag’s now familiar contrasted stripes also betrayed the survival of the Arts and persecuted  humanity through the recent dire times.  Let Opera Australia find a brave new leader for the exciting road ahead- the stage has been well set for the future.

Attila plays at the Dame Joan Sutherland Theatre until November 5.

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