Wednesday, November 2, 2022

ATTILA - Opera Australia


Michael Honeyman - Natalie Aroyan - Taras Berezhansky- Diego Torre in "Attila". 

Composed by Giuseppe Verdi – Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave

Directed by Davide Livermore – Revival Director: Kagte Gaul

Conducted by Andrea Battistoni –Set designed by Gio Forma

Costumes designed by Gianlucca Faschi – Lighting designed by Antonio Castro.

Joan Sutherland Theatre – Sydney Opera House Oct. 29th to November 5th.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens OAM

Natalie Aroyan - Taras Berezhansky - in "Attila"

This was always going to be a memorable night. With the sudden decision by long-serving Artistic Director, Lyndon Terracini to step down from his position a year earlier than originally advised, Opera Australia announced that the opening night of “Attila” would be his official farewell.

This was particularly appropriate, because this would be just the third performance of this massive production since it was forced to close down because of the Covid pandemic after only two performances in 2020. “Attila” was re-scheduled in the 2021 season, but that whole season was also lost to the pandemic. Therefore the re-scheduling of this production, which Opera Australia shares with La Scala, in 2022, was highly anticipated, particularly as the company had been able to present it with most of the original 2020 cast still intact.

Making it even more appropriate, this cast features soprano Natalie Aroyan repeating her much lauded break-out performance as the heroine, Odabella. Aroyan has been steadily cementing her reputation as an outstanding singer, but those two performances as Odabella in 2020 have catapulted her into being recognised as a major star in the operatic firmament, and few who were lucky enough to experience either of those performances would disagree.  Aroyan credits Terracini as the guiding force behind her career.

Performing beside Aroyan in this production, the great Mexican tenor, Diego Torre, lured to Opera Australia by Terracini, and now an Australian citizen and audience favourite. Also repeating his magnificent performance in the title role as Attila, the celebrated Ukrainian bass-baritone Taras Berezhansky, who would be returning to his family in war-torn Kyiv immediately after the “Attila” season finishes.

This production is also a wonderful showcase for Opera Australia’s chorus, which Terracini takes pride in describing as one of the best opera choruses in the world. Marshalling the huge musical resources necessary to mount this production would be one of Terracini’s favourite conductors in Andrea Battistoni.

So expectation was already high when Tahu Matheson, took the stage just before the opera commenced to acknowledge Lyndon Terracini in the audience in the favoured seat in the Joan Sutherland Theatre that he had occupied for the countless performances he has attended during the 13 years of his tenure. Matheson’s graceful announcement was greeted with enthusiastic applause and cheers from the audience, many of whom were Terracini’s admirers who wanted to share this momentous performance with him.

When the applause died down however, Matheson made another unexpected announcement. The Italian baritone, Mario Cassi, who was to perform the role of Italian General, Ezio, had taken ill, and that role would now be performed by Opera Australia Principal Baritone, Michael Honeyman.

However it was the opera itself, and the events that had occurred between its first two Sydney Opera House performances and this performance that made this performance even more memorable.

Although Verdi originally set the action for his opera in 5th century Italy, he had written it as a thinly veiled argument for Italy’s independence from Austria. But when Director, Davide Livermore decided to update his production to fascist Italy during the 1930’s, he could hardly have imagined how closely his production would reflect present day events in Ukraine.

The first scene in the opera is played out on a massive setting depicting a war-damaged city.  Prisoners are herded on to the stage and summarily shot by Attila’s army.  The murders are interrupted by Attila’s entrance on his horse, and while he is surveying this scene another group of female prisoners are herded in. Among them is Odabella, who defies the gunmen to challenge Attila. 

This scene is so realistically staged, that it was shocking in 2020, but now in 2022, it was impossible not to be reminded of the unintentional similarities to the horrible events occurring daily in Ukraine.

Later in the opera there is another disturbing scene depicting Odabella’s childhood recollections of witnessing her father being murdered by a soldier on horseback, and the final Fellini-like decadent party scene in which Odabella reeks her terrible vengeance on Attila, all carefully restaged for this revival by Kate Gaul.

By sheer happenstance, I found myself sitting next to Ukrainian conductor, Vladimir Fanshil, who, with his opera singer wife, Eleanor Lyons, found themselves stranded in Australia by Covid. Ashen-faced at interval, Fanshil confided that Lyons was currently singing in Poland, and while waiting to re-join her, he was busying himself raising money to support his compatriots in the Ukraine. He was attending tonight’s performance in support of his friend, Taras Berezhansky.

“Attila” is an opera which requires massive resources both vocally and physically to stage successfully. It would be hard to think of a more appropriate opera to illustrate and celebrate Lyndon Terracini’s achievements during his tenure as Artistic Director of Opera Australia.

Aroyan of course was even more spectacular during this performance having grown in confidence between the seasons. Together, with Berezhansky, Torre and the ever-reliable Michael Honeyman, who rose to the occasion to match them every step of the way, as well as  Virgilio Marino and  Richard Anderson in lesser roles, this was inspired casting that would be the envy of  any opera company in the world.

Richard Anderson - Taras Berezhansky - Natalie Aroyan in "Attila"

Together with the magnificent Opera Australia Chorus and the Opera Australia Orchestra under Andrea Battistoni, it treated its appreciative audience to an unforgettable evening of grand opera at its grandest.

It was a performance destined to live long in the memories of those who experienced it, but particularly for Lyndon Terracini, to whom the evening was dedicated, and perhaps also for Taras Berezhansky, who when taking his bows, draped himself in a Ukrainian flag; a gesture which earned tumultuous applause from the appreciative audience. 


                                                     Images by Prudence Upton.

     An edited version of this review first published in CITY NEWS on 1st November 2022.