Then Rome ends up sinking

By Thomas Wieder and Jérôme Gautheret

Posted today at 12h00

As it is not a premiere night, the men are exempt from smoking; they can be satisfied with a jacket and a tie. For women, the evening dress is strongly recommended. In any case, we see few deviations from customs: we do not dress in any way when we have the chance to go to La Scala in Milan.

Tonight in January 2019, the room is full, as always. In the program : Attila, by Giuseppe Verdi, a work created in 1846 at the Fenice in Venice, which had the honor of inaugurating the Milanese lyric season on the previous December 7. Characteristic of this period that Verdi himself called“Anni di galera” (years of hardship), in which he multiplied his creations, building step by step his stature as a poet of an Italian nation in the making, Attila has not always been popular with critics. The piece has been considerably re-evaluated in recent years and appears more and more on the repertoires of major opera houses, in Italy and elsewhere.

Read also Verdi, the hard years

The plot begins in the year 452, in the ruins of the city of Aquileia, once a jewel of the Empire, when Attila, leader of the Huns, celebrates his total victory. When the curtain rises, it is indeed a setting of desolation that we discover, but it evokes the Europe of 1940 rather than the twilight of the Western Roman Empire. The Hun warriors were also transposed into costumes of the XXe century. On this winter evening, Attila wears the uniform of the army of the IIIe Reich.

By choosing to move the plot in space and time, the director of this Attila contemporary Davide Livermore has done everything but betray Verdi. He has even, at bottom, been perfectly faithful. Indeed, if his operas take place in times and places far away, the composer’s purpose is never completely foreign to more or less recent news. To design this opera, Verdi relied on a tragedy written by the German romantic poet Zacharias Werner (1768-1823), Attila, König der Hunnen (1808) and historical accuracy is not its goal. Like the slavery of the Hebrews, in its Nabucco (1842), had quickly been understood by the Milanese public as an evocation of the forced submission of northern Italy to the Habsburg Empire, the fate of the inhabitants of Aquileia also evokes the fate of the Italian nation, hampered by barbarians from elsewhere.

An infinity of memories

The upheaval caused by the surge of Attila’s troops in Western Europe, in the middle of the Ve century, provoked a shock so profound that it was transmitted over the centuries, taking on, with the distance, a supernatural, almost timeless aura. Feared like the “Plague of God” in the Catholic world, who became a hero worthy of admiration in the medieval Germanic world, as attested by Song of the Nibelungen, composed at the beginning of the 13th centurye century, we even find his trace in the Icelandic sagas, centuries and thousands of kilometers from the theater of his odyssey.

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