San Francisco Opera | Nicola Luisotti and Gabriele Lavia Discuss Attila

Nicola Luisotti and Gabriele Lavia Discuss Attila

Verdi’s Attila is a powerful opera that has galvanized audiences since its 1846 premiere in Venice, with its political undertones that hint at the universal struggle for freedom. Maestro Nicola Luisotti and director Gabriele Lavia share their thoughts on this co-production with Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, new to San Francisco Opera.

What makes Attila such a compelling opera?

GL: I was inspired by Verdi’s treatment of the story of Attila the Hun because Verdi does not draw on the historical facts—rather, he treats Attila as a myth. Attila is a complex figure portrayed with positive and negative attributes. He is not a liar or a traitor, unlike other characters around him—Odabella, Foresto, and Ezio. In their pursuit of eliminating “the scourge of God,” the invader of their land, they will all become traitors and liars. So, there is a central ambiguity in this opera: Attila is both a violent anti-hero, and a vulnerable man. How, and why, does this opera make Attila simultaneously sympathetic and despicable?

NL: The ambiguity exists because the enemy, Attila, represented the Austrians who occupied Northern Italy in the nineteenth century. The Italians and the Austrians in some ways held one another in high regard. Yet, at the moment your country is invaded, you realize that no matter how much you respect your charismatic enemy, you have to cut off the invader’s head. Thus Odabella cuts off Attila’s head in order to free her land: she both marries him and kills him. Her actions are a metaphor for Italy’s long battle for freedom in the nineteenth century, known as the Risorgimento (“Resurgence”).

GL: Precisely because of these cross-historical connections, I thought that it would be interesting visually to tell the story through different historical moments. There are three phases on stage. First, there is Attila’s historical time (fifth century); then Verdi’s historical time (midnineteenth century); and finally our own contemporary age. In the third act, these periods coexist because we want to bring to light a sense of freedom that traverses all eras, and a sense of rebellion against the invader and destroyer. The metaphor of destruction is very important for this production, and it takes shape on stage through the material destruction of the space of the theater—three different theaters, from each of the three eras. First we have the ruins of a Roman amphitheater, then a nineteenth-century theater, and finally a theater so destroyed that it has become a movie theater in ruins. Our choice of the movie theater was influenced by recent barbaric Italian policies: many important theaters, that were also historical sites, were demolished or refashioned and turned into modern movie theaters. So, the transformation from theater to movie theater is not a commentary on the cinema industry, but rather on the architectural violence done to historical buildings?

NL: Yes. It’s the physical space that is violated. We are not commenting on the cinematic art. Instead, we want to show the destruction of the space itself. Cinema is a fundamental art and, indeed, we use filmic images in our staging.

GL: Yes, we modified scenes from two different films on Attila to create a new work that comments on the symbolic presence of Attila in our culture. What are some moments that you think will be particularly emotionally engaging for the audience?

NL: The very beginning of the opera is extraordinary. You’d expect that an opera about Attila the Hun would start with some warlike, harsh lines. But as I heard the very first delicate, melancholy notes, I remember saying to myself “What is this?” Verdi’s Attila is not violent; it’s the world in which he lives that is violent. His humbleness is reflected in many scenes, for example the chorus of children in the second act.

Attila is not afraid of anything, and yet he is scared of the children’s song. Attila is touching because it’s an opera about an oppressed people struggling for freedom that could only be accomplished by unity. We may or may not recognize ourselves in it the opera, but seeing Attila encourages us to reflect on the danger of denying people their freedom.

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