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Verdi's 'Attila'

At first glance, Verdi's Attila, an opera about Attila the Hun, might seem like a theatrical relative of "Springtime for Hitler," the play within a play that Mel Brooks created for The Producers. Both the opera and the Brooks' spoof seem to be attempting something truly outlandish, by turning the life and times of a notorious historical figure into popular, musical entertainment.

The two also share one other key element — deceptive intent.

In The Producers, the main characters bill their Hitler musical as the next great Broadway sensation, while they secretly intend it to flop disastrously. Verdi's opera was billed as a historical drama depicting ancient events, while in fact it was a timely expression of one of the hottest political issues of the day — the push for Italian independence.

In 19th-century Italy, the movement was known as the Risorgimento, or Resurgence. The Italian peninsula had long been divided, and ruled by the Austrian empire. The goal of the Risorgimento was to expel the Austrian rulers and unify Italy under one government. Verdi was one of the movement's leading advocates and his many patriotic operas made him a national hero.

Verdi did have government censors to deal with, of course. He couldn't write dramas that actually portrayed current events. So, in operas like Attila, Nabucco and I Lombardi, he evaded the censors by taking contemporary, revolutionary sentiments, and disguising them within historical contexts — depicting the Mongol invasion, the tyranny of Nebuchadnezzar and the gallantry of the Crusades.

Not surprisingly, these operas take a few liberties with actual history. The real Attila may not have been the reflective, romantic sort of guy Verdi made of him. Still, when it came to the history being made in his own time, Verdi struck just the right chord — depicting a noble struggle against invading hordes-- and his music helped to inspire a real-life revolution.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Verdi's Attila in a performance from one of music's most storied venues, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. The stars are soprano Hasmik Papian as Odabella, the woman who both seduces and destroys the fearsome Hun, and the powerful bass Ildar Abdrazakov as Attila.

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