New York's Metropolitan Opera is currently presenting Verdi's ninth opera, Attila, in a deluxe, only partially successful new production. Originally premiered at the 'Teatro La Fenice' in Venice in 1846, it is a problematic work in many ways, and cannot compare with the composer's greatest scores. Nevertheless, under the direction of conductor Riccardo Muti, the audience on 27 February, 2010 was treated to an unforgettable musical experience. Neither the production team, nor the cast can be excused from criticism, for both exhibited important weaknesses that were regrettable in light of Muti's inspired and illuminating treatment of Verdi's score. It is almost inconceivable that this production serves as Muti's embarrassingly belated debut at the Met: he should have appeared decades ago. Certainly, his reputation as one of the greatest contemporary conductors preceded him to the Met, where he received vociferous shouts of 'Bravo' upon his entrance, before even a note was played. Under Muti's skilled and loving direction, the score of Attila – ostensibly, one of Verdi's most mediocre – throbbed with passion and sincerity of purpose. The Met orchestra sounded better than I have ever heard them, playing with Italianate gusto, but also enough reserve to permit the cast and chorus to share in the spotlight. In the hands of a lesser conductor (plenty of pirate recordings exist as evidence), this score can sink into utter bombast. With Muti's guidance however, Verdi's inspiration came across with clarity and style, and a clear image of a young composer in transition came vividly into focus.
One of the trickiest challenges in staging the operas of Verdi's middle period is the fact that they tend to be short on action and long on vocal rhetoric. Additionally, although he had begun to focus his attention on the interpersonal conflicts of his characters, Verdi was still grappling with a reliance on grand choral tableaus during the composition of Attila. Part of this paradox can be blamed on the librettist Temistocle Solera, who apparently conceived of Attila with the same choral emphasis as previous Verdi operas like Nabucco and I Lombardi. To an extent, the composer and poet were working at cross-purposes. Thus, a successful stage director must conceive of simple, but effective blocking for the principal singers so that they don't just 'stand and sing' in moments between the many choral interjections. Apparently, stage director Pierre Audi forgot about the blocking, since there was almost none at all: essentially, this production of Attila amounts to a very costly concert performance. There are benefits to this approach: the singers can break free of the concerns of movement, interaction, and props, and simply focus on effective singing. In this respect, the principal soloists fared well, and were able to concentrate on negotiating Verdi's treacherous vocal lines without concern for 'acting'.
Miuccia Prada worked in collaboration with the Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron to produce strikingly beautiful costumes and grandiose scenery. Unfortunately, while they succeeded in creating a visual feast of colorful images, they also conjured a jarringly inappropriate sense of luxury directly at odds with Attila's setting and plot details. I loved the handsome costumes, though the cast had moments of obvious difficulty in movement from the bulk and/or lengths of fabric. And despite the high-style glamour they cast over the proceedings, they did little to illuminate the stark cultural differences between the Italians and the Huns, making it difficult to differentiate the aggressors from the victims. Still, given the static approach taken by Audi, the costumes added effectively to the overall visual appeal. Strangely, most of Audi's 'non-action' took place in an empty rectangular space beneath the main sets. That is, the physical constructs for most of the scenes (concrete rubble at the outset, and later, lush old-growth forest) were elevated about 10 feet above the main stage, leaving a void of space in which most of the interaction between the principal singers took place. This gave a layering effect which served well to a point: the oppressed Italians were generally confined to the void space beneath Attila's realm. Still, it was nearly impossible for the singers to interact believably, given such constraints. At one point, the Roman general Ezio was gazing out through a contrived 'hole' in the forest, about 20 feet in the air, while Foresto was below in the void space, attempting to conduct a dialogue with him about the plans for assassinating Attila. The effect was ridiculous.
Fortunately, the musical aspects of the production were solid throughout, and at times, mesmerizing. As mentioned above, conductor Riccardo Muti drew a meticulously detailed and emotional performance from the Met orchestra, showing his regard for the composer by skillfully coloring the music without ever resorting to cheap effects. Just as he received his applause with reticence, Muti resolutely refused to highlight the bombastic nature of the score, instead choosing to underline the arcing phrases and dynamic contrasts, all while giving maximum support to the singers. There was plenty of energy when called for, but also many moments of delicate serenity. His achievement was rewarded with the audience's rapt attention – much less mumbling and coughing than usual at the Met – and by far the largest ovation of the evening. Although he seemed to want to deflect the attention onto the soloists and orchestra, there is no denying that this was a splendid personal triumph.
Despite the conventional nature of the plot, and the rather trite preponderance of cabalettas (seeming to finish off every set piece), the score – from a vocal standpoint – is frighteningly difficult. It also happens to provide a level of visceral excitement that few operas can achieve. As the titular conqueror, Ildar Abdrazakov sang well, if hardly befitting the character he portrayed. As fine a musician as Abdrazakov is, the role of Attila is not a very good fit for his soft-grained, lyric basso cantante. With little 'cut' to his sound, and a total absence of Italianate tone, Abdrazakov made a pale impression – faithfully negotiating his musical lines, but offering little in terms of menace or vocal charisma. He certainly looked the part, which helped somewhat. Fascinatingly, the nearly 69 year-old Samuel Ramey, for whom Attila was practically a signature role earlier in his career, sang the brief cameo role of the Roman bishop Leone with a sizable waver in the voice, but far more depth of tone and basso gravitas than Abdrazakov. It was an indelible moment when Ramey appeared at the end of Attila's dream narrative with his bright white robes and brilliant red shoes and mitre.
Spanish baritone Carlos Alvarez – originally slated to sing the role of the Roman general Ezio – was announced as indisposed prior to the performance. Baritone Giovanni Meoni filled in with a ringing voice and stolid acting, becoming the only Italian in this wonderfully nationalistic opera. Outfitted in a floor-length leather cape, Meoni spent much of his time pacing and/or swirling about with the fringes of his costume flying. His satisfyingly large voice had plenty of presence, but his inability to let the tone bloom on top robbed his performance of some excitement. His was a blunt, yet booming performance of an underdeveloped role. Tenor Ramon Vargas started a bit tentatively as the knight Foresto, but soon settled into a solid, workman-like performance of a deceptively difficult role. Both Ezio and Foresto were somewhat overlooked by Verdi and Solera in deference to the bass and soprano leads, and therefore tend to be difficult to flesh out as fully detailed characters. Vargas did his best with a voice one or two sizes too lyric and very little talent for acting. In the concerted ensembles, his contributions were swamped entirely, but he brought satisfying eloquence to his solo moments.
The role of Odabella is a slightly less voice-wrecking cousin to Verdi's Abigaille. From the moment she takes the stage, her music demands coloratura facility, repeated assaults on both the highest and lowest vocal registers, and tremendous breadth of tone. There is probably no 'perfect' singer for this role: with so many disparate vocal demands, it requires a true dramatic coloratura – a voice type that has always been in short supply. Latvian soprano Violeta Urmana gave it a good stab, and mostly succeeded both as a vocalist and as an actress. She certainly looked the part to perfection: a tall, handsome woman made all the more imposing with a huge blond beehive wig, Urmana bravely inhabited the role of the murdering warrior-princess. She also met the vocal challenges head-on, offering ringing high notes and satisfyingly full chest tones. Her coloratura was above average for such a large voice, though not always perfectly timed, and her soft singing was poised and sincere. The only serious drawback is her limited color palette. At full volume, her voice has a relentlessly brassy sheen than tends to rob her phrases of shape and flatten out dynamic contrasts. This was a risky assignment for Urmana. As a well-established spinto soprano, she could easily stick to much less punishing roles, so I give her a lot of credit for taking on this demanding challenge – especially in such a high profile production. As with Muti, the audience offered a boisterous and well-deserved ovation at her curtain call.
No review of this production would be complete without giving highest praise to Donald Palumbo and his Met chorus which sang superbly from the quietest, most contemplative moments to the grand, forte ensembles. Truly, their contributions were goose-bump inducing at several points, and there wasn't a flaw to be heard. This level of excellence and polish boggles the mind when one thinks back, even ten years ago, to how ragged and at times embarrassing the Met chorus used to sound. All of the musicians both on stage and in the pit were clearly focused on executing within the confines of Muti's vision. This unity of purpose catalyzed an impressive performance much greater as a whole than the sum of its individual parts. And fortunately, the musical excellence almost allowed one to forget the ineffective failure of a stage production in which it took place.
Photos: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera
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