Libretto by Temistocle Solera, based on the play Attila, König der Hunnen by Zacharias Werner
World premiere: Venice, Teatro La Fenice, March 17, 1846
Aquileia, Italy, 452 A.D. Attila, “the scourge of God,” has invaded Italy. The Huns celebrate their victory as a group of captured Roman women is brought in. The Roman leader is Odabella, daughter of the Lord of Aquileia, who has been killed by Attila. She declares that Italian women will always defend their country. Impressed by her courage, Attila offers to grant her a favor and Odabella asks for a sword. When Attila gives her his own, she vows to use it against him to avenge her father’s death. After the women have left, Attila summons the Roman general Ezio, greeting him with respect as a worthy adversary. Ezio proposes a secret agreement: the entire Roman Empire shall be Attila’s if he leaves Italy to Ezio (Duet: “Tardo per gli anni”). Attila angrily rejects the offer and declares that he will raze Rome.
A storm rages across a mudflat in the Adriatic lagoons. Once it has passed, the nobleman Foresto arrives with a group of Aquileian refugees. He is worried about Odabella, his fiancée (“Ella in poter del barbaro”). The refugees greet the sun as a sign of hope and Foresto urges them to build a new city there between sea and sky—the future Venice.
Odabella has stayed in Attila’s camp, which has been moved close to Rome, to find an opportunity to kill him. Looking at the night sky, she imagines seeing the faces of her father and of Foresto, whom she also believes dead (“Oh! nel fuggente nuvolo”). Suddenly Foresto appears. She is overjoyed but he rejects her and, having seen her with Attila, accuses her of betrayal. Odabella convinces him that all she wants is to have revenge, and the lovers are reconciled.
In his tent at night, Attila recounts a terrifying dream: an old man confronted him at the gates of Rome and, in the name of the gods, denied him access (“Mentre gonfiarsi l’anima”). Recovering his composure, he calls on his troops to march on the city, as a procession approaches. It is led by the Roman bishop Leo—the old man of Attila’s dream, who now repeats the same words. Attila is horrified as the Christians praise the power of God.
Alone in his camp, Ezio muses on Rome’s former glory (“Dagl’immortali vertici”). Slaves of Attila appear and invite him and the Roman captains to a banquet. One is Foresto, who suggests a plan for a surprise attack on Attila during the feast. Ezio is excited at the thought of avenging his country.
The King of the Huns welcomes Ezio and the Romans to his camp. Priestesses sing and amazons prepare to entertain the guests. Ezio repeats his suggestion to share power with Attila but is refused again. Meanwhile Foresto tells Odabella that Attila’s cup of wine has been poisoned. Feeling cheated out of her revenge, she warns the King as he is about to drink. Furious, Attila demands to know who is responsible. When Foresto steps forward, Odabella asks that the right to punish him be given to her in return for saving the King (Ensemble: “Lo spirto de’ monti”). Attila agrees and declares that as a sign of gratitude he will marry Odabella the next day.
Foresto awaits news of Odabella’s marriage, lamenting her apparent treachery (“Che non avrebbe il misero”). Ezio arrives and tells Foresto that his men are ready to attack the Huns at his signal. As the wedding procession is heard in the distance, Odabella suddenly appears, distracted and begging her father’s ghost for forgiveness for marrying the man who killed him. Foresto confronts her, but she protests that she always loved him, and soon everything is explained between them. When Attila, searching for his bride, finds Odabella with Foresto and Ezio, he accuses them of disloyalty and ingratitude (Quartet: “Tu, rea donna”). All three answer with hatred, and as distant cries signal the beginning Roman attack on the unsuspecting Huns, Odabella stabs Attila.