Giuseppe Verdi’s most popular operas are so well known that it’s easy to forget that his initial fame rested on the strength of a half dozen earlier works, most of which are rarely heard today. One of the most remarkable of these youthful operas arrives at the Met this month: Attila. Written in 1846, it has its company premiere on February 23, starring acclaimed Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov in the title role. The production is directed by Pierre Audi and features the extraordinary design talent of Miuccia Prada, Jacques Herzog, and Pierre de Meuron.

If anyone can take credit for the recent appreciation of Verdi’s early works, it is renowned conductor Riccardo Muti, who makes his long-awaited Met debut leading this new production. For Audi, Muti’s involvement is both an inspiration and an emblem of this opera’s quality. “It’s a score that is fascinating for a conductor who can dig into the hidden treasures of the musical detail,” he says. “And that is something Riccardo Muti has done for years. With someone of his stature, you really realize what a great score it is.”

Attila explores a pivotal moment in history—the collapse of the Roman Empire under brutal attacks from the “barbarians” led by the opera’s title character. Attila is a ruthless but honorable leader. He keeps his word and rewards bravery in friend and foe alike. “It’s a story about what appears to be a hero, but who is, in fact, an antihero,” director Audi explains. “Verdi gives us a message that is very contemporary: political dominance in the end is a completely negative development. Personal freedom and emotional fulfillment are far more important.”

To match director Audi’s theatrical vision and Maestro Muti’s musical expertise, the Met has assembled a stellar lineup of designers: the Pritzker Prize-winning architectural duo of Herzog and de Meuron, known for the “Bird’s Nest” stadium of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and fashion icon Miuccia Prada. Together, they decided that the look of the production should focus on the characters rather than on the pageantry that often accompanies 19th-century operas. “Our approach is to stay very close to the descriptions supported by Verdi,” Herzog says. “Destruction, rubble, lagoon, forest, darkness—all in a very naturalistic way.” He and de Meuron felt this method was the best way to explore what they call the “many psychological layers” of the opera. “Attila describes the moment in history where an old world, an antique world, is collapsing and something new is rising out of the rubble,” Herzog continues. “It’s a moment of uncertainty and instability, and new powers are emerging. It is not unlike a situation we live in right now.”

Audi supports this view: “The choice has been to concentrate on the tragedy of the characters. The stage design helps to make that clear.” Prada’s contribution, the director adds, “is a very important artistic factor. Her work is usually very pure and quite simple. And I think her designs [for Attila] are very musical and will bring out the characters not so much in an operatic way, but in a natural way. It makes the emotional aspect of the opera more vibrant.” For Prada, clarity is of the essence: “I tried to express my vision of the characters from a psychological and historical point of view, and what they mean to me today,” she explains. “You have to do it in a way that is contemporary and understandable.”

Verdi and his librettist, Temistocle Solera, weave a fictional tale around the opera’s historical title character, in which three Romans are fighting the invader for personal and political reasons—and by private and public means. The warrior woman Odabella, sung by Violeta Urmana, pursues Attila because he has killed her father. Ramón Vargas plays her lover, Foresto, who rallies the defeated Italian people, and Carlos Alvarez is the general Ezio, a soldier whose battlefield prowess is matched by his willingness to cut an underhanded deal. Veteran bass Samuel Ramey, whose performances as Attila in the 1970s and ’80s did much to rekindle interest in this opera, makes a cameo appearance as Leone, a theatrical incarnation of Pope Leo I.

The historical encounter between Attila and the Pope (who convinced the invader to spare Rome the disastrous fate of other Italian cities) is transformed into one of the opera’s most stirring moments. The scene illustrates a strikingly contemporary aspect of Attila that Audi aims to bring out in his production: the clash of religions. “Attila tells the story of Christianity rising behind the pagan rites,” the director says. “But Verdi is very careful: he does not suggest that Christianity is better. I think that’s a very modern concept—the idea that some religions are superior or inferior to others has created a lot of misery in the world.”

The multiple strands of the story are united by Verdi’s music. Steeped in melody and rich in invention, it is the calling card of a rising composer on the brink of greatness. In the expert hands of Maestro Muti and his gifted cast, the score reveals many of the characteristics that would come to define the style of Verdi’s later works. The composer’s sense of humanity is already apparent, and it reconciles the warring factions in Attila—even if the opera ends in battle and with the death of the title character. “Attila is a fine example of a recurring theme in Verdi’s operas, which is the doomed hero,” Audi says. “He starts out as a very heroic figure, a man who’s about to be the scourge of the entire planet and a conqueror of just about anything. And he falls in love with Odabella, an Italian slave he comes across in his last battle as he enters Italy. And this relationship, the love that develops, is actually the end of him.”

Attila has it all: a complex protagonist, a fascinating story that combines politics, religion, and love, and the sweeping lyric vitality of the young Verdi’s musical genius. Now it has finally arrived on the Met stage—brought to life by a creative team that is up to the challenge of presenting this thrilling work to a contemporary audience. “It’s a big responsibility because few people know this piece,” Audi says. “But I want to tell the story.”  William Berger

This feature was first publisehd online in January 2010 and in the Met's Playbill in February 2010.