Rare Verdi

Guiseppe Verdi's Attila, one of the composer's early operas, is rarely performed today. Judging from Houston Grand Opera's new production, though, this is one work that needs to be staged far more often.

Verdi himself said Attila was "not inferior to my other operas." It appears that the composer's assessment was pretty much on the mark. While not quite as refined as some of Verdi's later works, Attila contains all the elements that make the composer's works so popular with operagoers: stirring arias, touching duets and rousing choruses.

So why isn't this work heard more frequently? It appears that Attila was the victim of changing patriotic sentiments in Italy. First performed in 1846, it was intended to appeal to the nationalistic fervor during the drive for Italian unification. When these sentiments subsided after 1860, the opera gradually disappeared from the repertoire.

But at Friday's premiere of the HGO production a solid cast, led by world-renowned bass Samuel Ramey in the title role, demonstrated that Attila is still musically viable. And while the work's political message was intended for an audience long ago, it has chilling relevance for today. The barbarism demonstrated by the Huns in the opening scene was a disturbing reminder of the atrocities now taking place in Bosnia and Rwanda.

Because Attila is a powerful opera, it requires powerful singers -- and not just in the title role. Many of the opera's big numbers are sung by characters other than Attila. Fortunately, Ramey has been given a fine supporting cast. Last Friday, soprano Maria Guleghina sang the role of Odabella, daughter of the lord of the conquered region of Aquileia, while baritone Roberto Servile was Ezio, a Roman general. Franco Farina was Foresto, a knight of Aquileia.

The title character's best musical passages come toward the end of the first act, and Ramey sang these magnificently. His heartfelt rendition of the aria "Mentra Gonfiarsi L'anima" was deeply moving. Even more touching was his interpretation of the solo, "No, Mon e Sogno," where Attila submits to the will of God. But he drew the greatest ovation of the evening for his defiant rendition of the martial melody, "Oltre a Quel Limite."

Verdi envisioned Attila not as a conquering brute, but as a character who can evoke sympathy from the audience. Ramey portrayed the king of the Huns to near perfection.

Guleghina, as Odabella, has a powerful voice, and at times Friday it was a bit too powerful. This was most evident in her opening number in the opera's prologue, "Allor Che i Forti Corrono," which was sung too loudly and forcefully. For the most part, though, she sang beautifully. Her first act duet with Farina, "Oh T'innebria Nell'amplesso," was one of the evening's high points.

Farina also turned in a fine performance as Foresto. His renditions of two numbers in the opera's prologue were particularly memorable and exhibited his versatility. He sang the moving "Ella in Poter del Barbaro" with depth and feeling and the lively "Cara Patria, Gia Madre e Reina" with spirit and defiance.

Servile as Ezio offered a beautiful interpretation of one of the opera's best-known arias, "Dagli Immortali Vertici," in the second act. He followed this up with a stirring rendition of "E Gettata la Mia Sorte" in the same act.

The final quartet is one of the most memorable numbers in Attila, and the cast did not disappoint. Ramey, Guleghina, Farina and Servile offered a rousing rendition of this memorable closing piece.

In the 1840s, Verdi was dubbed the "King of the Choruses" because ensemble numbers were so prominent in his operas. Attila is no exception, and for the work to be entertaining, the chorus must be in top form. Fortunately, Friday night it was. The chorus' best moments came at the end of the first act when it offered a hauntingly beautiful rendition of the deeply spiritual "Sordo ai Lamenti Pur de' Fratelli."

The Houston Symphony Orchestra, led by Vjekoslav Sutej, was also in top form, and performed Verdi's powerful score with vigor and clarity.

About the only disappointing aspect of this particular production was the staging. HGO made use of minimal sets, which distracted attention somewhat from the production. The most effective staging was the second act depiction of a banquet in the camp of Attila. In all fairness, however, several of the scenes -- such as the final scene of the prologue, which depicts a mud flat on an island in the Adriatic Sea -- did not lend themselves to elaborate staging.

Many, if not most, of those who attended Friday's performance may not have been familiar with Attila. But that didn't seem to prevent them from enjoying the performance immensely. Maybe this will encourage HGO to present other obscure works. There are operas by Rimsky-Korsakov, Dvorak, Weber and other top composers that are seldom staged, but richly deserve to be seen, heard and, above all, enjoyed.

Attila plays through May 12 at the Wortham Center's Brown Theater, 500 Texas Avenue, 227-2787.