La Scala premiere ‘Attila’ speaks to today’s global turmoil

La Scala’s season premiere Friday of a new production of Verdi’s “Attila” takes on contemporary themes of male leaders selling out to self-interest while the final act of heroism falls to a woman.

“Not even a rapper from the Bronx is as contemporary as Verdi,” said the production’s stage director, Davide Livermore.

The timing of the “Attila” premiere — against a backdrop of global insecurity and women’s rising power via the #MeToo movement and U.S. midterm elections — is coincidental.

“Attila” was chosen years ago by musical director Riccardo Chailly to be the second in a trilogy dedicated to Verdi’s early works, starting with “Giovanna d’Arco,” which opened the 2015-16 season, and “Macbeth,” which has yet to be announced. Chailly conducts the opera, his fifth premiere in 40 years with La Scala.

In the prologue, Attila, sung by Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov, accuses the Roman general Ezio of betraying his people when he offers to give invaders the Eastern and Western empires in exchange for the Italian peninsula.

Abdrazakov enters on a horse, adding drama but raising protests by animal rights activists. Livermore said the animals in the production are professionally trained and that all proper procedures are being followed.

The confrontation between Attila and Ezio has a political message that resonates today. “Attila teaches Ezio a moral lesson. He says: ‘You don’t sell out a country for your personal account,’ ” Livermore said.

At that point, Livermore initially envisioned having a bridge in the background collapse as a symbol of ruin, but after the Genoa bridge collapse that killed 43 people earlier this year, he changed the staging. Now the bridge is pulled apart, leaving a gap.

Spanish soprano Saioa Hernandez makes her La Scala debut and sings the role of Odabella, who seeks to avenge the death of her father, the leader of Aquileia, by killing Attila.

Abdrazakov, who is singing in his third La Scala season premiere, said it was always his dream to sing “Attila” at the famed Milanese opera house.

“In the early 1990s, when I had no interest in opera or classical music, I saw a video of ‘Attila’ at La Scala. I don’t know what happened, but the next day I went to my teacher and said I wanted to study opera,” he said.

The gala event every Dec. 7 is one of the highlights of the European cultural calendar. This year, President Sergio Mattarella plans to attend his first season premiere. None of Italy’s populist political leaders are expected.

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