March 30, 2021

Adapting Attila: Highlights in Concert

Lyric’s 2020/21 Season was to include Attila, an exciting continuation of the company’s series of early operas by Giuseppe Verdi. When all performances in the Lyric Opera House were canceled due to the pandemic, Lyric refused to give up the chance to present Attila to our audience. While presenting the full production was not an option, offering glittering highlights, sung by thrilling artists filmed under the strictest health and safety protocols, certainly was.

Maestro Enrique Mazzola, Lyric’s music director designate, chose the excerpts and conducts the performance, which features members of the magnificent Lyric Opera Chorus and four extraordinary American singers. Two of them had been scheduled to perform in Attila this season: soprano Tamara Wilson in the fearsomely difficult role of Odabella and Ryan Opera Center alumnus Matthew Polenzani as the opera’s principal tenor, Odabella’s beloved Foresto. These two artists are joined by two more Ryan Opera Center alumni: bass-baritone Christian Van Horn in the title role and baritone Quinn Kelsey as the Roman general Ezio. All four have triumphed in Verdi roles at Lyric, as well as in many other major houses internationally.

The program includes 11 excerpts, all illuminated by commentary from Maestro Mazzola, who is acknowledged worldwide as one of today’s leading interpreters of the Verdi repertoire. At the two pianos are William C. Billingham and Jared Mosbey, distinguished members of Lyric’s music staff.

Enrique Mazzola conducts

Maestro Mazzola and the performing artists prove that the Verdi of 1846 is a composer whose music is alive with excitement, with energy, and also with an incomparable beauty that was Verdi’s legacy from the bel canto masters who preceded him.

Attila is a fantastic opera for chorus. Maestro Mazzola is choosing to begin the program with the men’s chorus that opens the opera, which finds Attila’s men literally singing his praises, as if he were a king.

The so-called “Scourge of God,” Attila has conquered and destroyed the city of Aquileia, but he reckons without the warrior maiden Odabella, who appears before him to declare that, along with the other Aquileian women, she can fight on the battlefield as bravely as any man. It was vital to include Odabella’s stupendously exciting scene, sung by Tamara Wilson, leading lady of Lyric’s recent production of Il trovatore. A star of Verdi productions worldwide, she has all the range, beauty of sound, and brilliant technique to do this music full justice. She’s joined by the Lyric Opera Chorus, always at their finest when singing Verdi.

Matthew Polenzani sings Foresto

The tenor in this opera, Foresto, is the leader of refugees from Aquileia. In a moving and vocally very exciting scene, he wonders if Odabella has been taken prisoner by Attila’s forces. At the same time, he urges the refugees to form a new city. Matthew Polenzani was to have added Foresto to his repertoire in Lyric’s production. He’s starred at Lyric in Verdi’s Rigoletto and La traviata, and has sung the gamut of lyric-tenor roles all over the world.

Very atypical of Odabella is her quiet and intimate second aria, in which she thinks of her father, who fought against Attila and was killed by him. She looks to the clouds, where initially she sees her father’s image, but then the clouds change and she seems to see Foresto. This is one of the most exquisite arias in early Verdi, and it gives Tamara Wilson a wonderful opportunity to “float” her voice in soft high notes, one of her specialties as a Verdian.

What about Attila himself? He has a riveting scene in which we see that the bravado he expresses outwardly masks a terror within. Attila wakes from a nightmare and tells his servant that he saw the entrance of Rome barred to him by an old man who ordered him to turn back. Subsequently, he abandons his fear, and in a second, more vigorous aria, he calls on his men to join him in marching on Rome. The vocally and dramatically electrifying Christian Van Horn, who has excelled in a remarkably diverse repertoire at Lyric and internationally, is an ideal choice for this very demanding scene.

Christian Van Horn sings Attila

The baritone in the quartet of principals is Ezio, the Roman general who initially forges a truce between Rome and Attila, but eventually joins forces with Odabella and Foresto. Early Verdi is a gold mine of great music for baritone, and this opera is no exception; it gives Ezio a magnificent scene in which he recalls Rome’s glorious past, and then declares that he won’t rest in restoring its greatness, even if that means dying in the attempt. Quinn Kelsey, who has starred in five Verdi operas at Lyric and is recognized internationally as one of today’s few true Verdi baritones, is our Ezio.

Attila has invited the Romans to a banquet, and in that scene there are two terrific choruses: first, for Attila’s men, singing their leader’s praises, and then a captivating melody sung by a group of priestesses. Lyric’s Attila highlights include both of those numbers, sung by the world-renowned Lyric Opera Chorus.

Tamara Wilson sings Odabella

The finale of Act One, at the banquet, presents a thrilling quartet for the principals, encompassing a range of feelings: Attila, with his determination to conquer Rome; Odabella, desperate for Foresto to save himself from Attila’s army; Foresto himself, who believes Odabella has betrayed him with Attila; and Ezio, who anticipates that Attila will be vanquished. There’s no finale of an early-Verdi opera more spectacular vocally than this one!

The final highlight is Foresto’s beautiful second aria, in which he worries that Odabella has married Attila, not knowing that she plans to murder her conqueror in revenge. This will give us another opportunity to savor Matthew Polenzani’s elegant command of Verdi style.

We hope you enjoy these wonderful performances from Attila, and that they whet your appetite for more early-Verdi works at Lyric in the future!

Attila: Highlights in Concert” will premiere on Sunday, April 11 at 2:00 p.m. CT

Quinn Kelsey sings Ezio

Photo credit: Kyle Flubacker