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When Verdi's Attila Met Odabella...

On September 9, 2011, the Dresser walked away from Washington Concert Opera's production of Giuseppe Verdi's Attila exhilarated, and puzzled. How could a concert version of an obscure opera--no actor movement of dramatic consequence, no sets, no props, little in the way of costumes, little in the way of lighting effects--cause such positive response? One might logically question, how can you go wrong with the music of Verdi? Certainly the engaging music coupled with excellent singers and musicians is a good part of the reason for WCO's success with Attila, Verdi's ninth of twenty-six completed operas.

So as the Dresser thought more about the various elements of this performance that brought extensive cheers and clapping from the sellout crowd and how the featured and choral singers were moved interestingly and efficiently around the orchestra, which filled most of Lisner Auditorium's stage, she realized how much credit goes to Anthony Walker, who was not only the energetic conductor but also the artistic director. Antony.jpgIn other words, Walker was the lynchpin for all aspects of the production and he chose stand-out singers like bass-baritone John Relyea to play Attila and soprano Brenda Harris to play Odabella (the woman who kills Attila in this fictitious story about the notorious barbarian who sacked Rome).

Moreover, Maestro Walker is fascinating to watch. His passion is apparent as his left hand conveys a quivering shake or clenches into a fist to emphasize his direction. He also seems to care about every detail and was quite interactive with his singers, turning to them to make sure they were together with the orchestra. Of the twenty-five years that Washington Concert Opera has been presenting programs to Washington, DC audiences, Walker has been in his leadership role for ten. It shows and he attracts an audience every bit as passionate as he is.

Verdi's librettist for Attila was Temistocle Solera, who based the libretto on the play Attila, König der Hunnen by Zacharias Werner. Solera, who wrote libretti for five of Verdi's first nine operas, including Nabucco was known for his anti-Austrian resistance that manifests metaphorically in the story of Attila. The opera with a runtime of approximately two and a half hours includes a prologue and three acts totaling seven scenes. It is set in 454 A.D. in Northern Italy and opens after Attila and his Huns have conquered and plundered the town of Aquilea. In the ruins of the city, Attila meets and falls in love with the fearless Odabella. While he knows she is inhabitant of this town, he does not know she is the daughter of the Lord of Aquilea, whom Attila has slain. She, or course, is out for revenge, but she will play along with Attila's interest in her and even marry him to gain access.

BrendaHarris.pngVocally, Brenda Harris gave a breath-taking performance as Odabella. The vocal gymnastics required of this role are demanding, but Harris seemed at ease and quite able to move between opposing emotional terrains requiring power or gentler reflective contrition. Harris seems to be the old school soprano who has perfected the vocal skills necessary for projection that requires no electronic support. Beyond her voice modulations, this performance gave no indication of her acting ability.

John Relyea's performance of Attila was notable for his ability to show the audience that he was in character. The way he held his entire body with his head thrown back gave force to his deep voice and satisfying performance. Compared to the other featured male singers who wore cutaway tuxedos, Relyea's longish brushed-back hair and dark suit with black shirt made him standout as the barbarian leader. What Relyea did to project Attila made a significant difference since all the other featured singers are male and most (except Uldino, played by tenor James Flora) belong to Odabella's camp or political way of thinking.john relyeaSM.jpg

Baritone Jason Stearns as the opposing Roman general Ezio provided a performance in good counterpoint to John Relyea's performance of Attila. However, while tenor Arthur Espiritu as Odabella's lover Foresto gave a good musical performance, Espiritu did not project the kind of power necessary for a woman like Odabella. Therefore Espiritu, as well as able bass Soloman Howard as the Roman bishop Leone, seemed to be more musical placeholders than dramatic partners.

In John Bradley's poem "The Song of Judas," the story of love and betrayal pivot on uncontainable human desire. When Odabella tells Attila she wants her sword back, the smitten Hun gives her his, certainly a metaphoric symbol of his sexual desire for her.


The laws of the desert
are such: we do not trust
the wakefulness of the owl,
the goat loose in the granary.
Here, let me sharpen your knife.
Have you seen that cockroach
your grandmother carved
from soap? The one who cuts
lilacs enters your beloved
on the riverbank, a towel
wrapped around her wet hair.
All night, Adeema and I
breathed the darkness in
and out through one another.
It hurts, but it only hurts
when I look up, to see
a small thing, a grasshopper,
a dirt road, fleeing us.

To be loved. Not by one.
And not by everyone.
On what does a doorframe
depend? A bit of tortoise
shell fell from the heights
of the cedar. What is it,
friend, you lost, there
in the tall grass? Judas,
someone calls, and he wakes,
and I with him. Whatever
the heart is, so is it
not the heart. A needle
clings to a certain stone.
Then, in a moment, lets go.

She was peeling a grape,
pregnant. For some reason
I bent down, and kissed her
belly. Through the cotton
of her blouse, I could feel her
breasts watching me. Passion
has but one cure. The stillness
after passion. A heated blade
laid on a cyst. Here. I
wanted, and I wanted, and
I want.

by John Bradley
from Love-in-idleness

Copyright © 1989 John Bradley

Photo credit: (head shot of Brenda Harris) Lisa Kohler
Photo credit: (shot of John Relyea) Dario Acosta


Comments (2)

I did not know this Verdi, so thank you

S Fox:

I did not know this Verdi piece either and your review was generous and illuminating. I loved the poem which I also did not know and was strangely fitting and other worldly.

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