Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Jean Sibelius: Kullervo

Why did Jean Sibelius suppress Kullervo (Op. 7, 1892)? There are many theories why he didn’t allow it to be heard after its initial performances, though he referred to it fondly in private. This new recording, from Hyperion with Thomas Dausgaard conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, soloists Helena Juntunen and Benjamin Appl and the Lund Male Chorus, is a good new addition to the ever-growing awareness of Kullervo, on recording and in live performance.

Hampstead Garden Opera presents Partenope-on-sea

“Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside! I do like to be beside the sea!” And, it was off to the Victorian seaside that we went for Hampstead Garden Opera’s production of Handel’s Partenope - not so much for a stroll along the prom, rather for boisterous battles on the beach and skirmishes by the shore.

Henze's Phaedra: Linbury Theatre, ROH

A song of love and death, loss and renewal. Opera was born from the ambition of Renaissance humanists to recreate the oratorical and cathartic power of Greek tragedy, so it is no surprise that Greek myths have captivated composers of opera, past and present, offering as they do an opportunity to engage with the essential human questions in contexts removed from both the sacred and the mundane.

Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II - a world premiere

Is it in any sense aspirational to imitate - or even to try to create something original - based on one of Stockhausen’s works? This was a question I tried to grapple with at the world premiere of Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II.

The BBC Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music join forces for Handel's Israel in Egypt

The biblical account of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is the defining event of Jewish history. By contrast, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt has struggled to find its ‘identity’, hampered as it is by what might be termed the ‘Part 1 conundrum’, and the oratorio has not - despite its repute and the scholarly respect bestowed upon it - consistently or fully satisfied audiences, historic or modern.

Measha Brueggergosman: The Art of Song – Ravel to John Cage

A rather charming story recently appeared in the USA of a nine-year old boy who, at a concert given by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, let out a very audible “wow” at the end of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music. I mention this only because music – whether you are neurotypical or not – leads to people, of any age, expressing themselves in concerts relative to the extraordinary power of the music they hear. Measha Brueggergosman’s recital very much had the “wow” factor, and on many distinct levels.

World premiere of Cecilia McDowall's Da Vinci Requiem

The quincentennial of the death Leonardo da Vinci is one of the major events this year – though it doesn’t noticeably seem to be acknowledged in new music being written for this.

Mahler: Titan, Eine Tondichtung in Symphonieform – François-Xavier Roth, Les Siècles

Not the familiar version of Mahler's Symphony no 1, but the “real” Mahler Titan at last, as it might have sounded in Mahler's time! François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles present the symphony in its second version, based on the Hamburg/Weimar performances of 1893-94. This score is edited by Reinhold Kubik and Stephen E.Hefling for Universal Edition AG. Wien.

Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

In 1982, while studying in Germany, I had the good fortune to see Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear sung in München by the original cast, which included Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Júlia Várady and Helga Dernesch. A few years later, I heard it again in San Francisco, with Thomas Stewart in the title role. Despite the luxury casting, the harshly atonal music—filled with quarter-tones, long note rows, and thick chords—utterly baffled my twenty-something self.

Berlioz’s Requiem at the Concertgebouw – earthshakingly stupendous

It was high time the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra programmed Hector Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts. They hadn’t performed it since 1989, and what better year to take it up again than in 2019, the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death?

Matthew Rose and Friends at Temple Church

I was very much looking forward to this concert at Temple Church, curated by bass Matthew Rose and designed to celebrate music for voice commissioned by the Michael Cuddigan Trust, not least because it offered the opportunity to listen again to compositions heard recently - some for the first time - in different settings, and to experience works discussed coming to fruition in performance.

Handel's Athalia: London Handel Festival

There seems little to connect the aesthetics of French neoclassical theatre of the late-seventeenth century and English oratorio of the early-eighteenth. But, in the early 1730s Handel produced several compositions based on Racine’s plays, chief among them his Israelite-oratorios, Esther (1732) and Athalia (1733).

Verdi: Messa da Requiem - Staatskapelle Dresden, Christian Thielemann (Profil)

It has often been the case that the destruction wrought by wars, especially the Second World War, has been treated unevenly by composers. Theodor Adorno’s often quoted remark, from his essay Prisms, that “to write poetry after Auschwitz would be barbaric” - if widely misinterpreted - is limited by its scope and in a somewhat profound way composers have looked on the events of World War II in the same way.

Ravel’s L’heure espagnole: London Symphony Orchestra conducted by François-Xavier Roth

Although this concert was devoted to a single composer, Ravel, I was initially a little surprised by how it had been programmed. Thematically, all the works had the essence of Spain running through them - but chronologically they didn’t logically follow on from each other.

Breaking the Habit: Stile Antico at Kings Place

Renaissance patronage was a phenomenon at once cultural, social, political and economic. Wealthy women played an important part in court culture and in religious and secular life. In particular, music, musical performances and publications offered a female ruler or aristocrat an important means of ‘self-fashioning’. Moreover, such women could exercise significant influence on the shaping of vernacular taste.

The Secrets of Heaven: The Orlando Consort at Wigmore Hall

Leonel Power, Bittering, Roy Henry [‘Henry Roi’?], John Pyamour, John Plummer, John Trouluffe, Walter Lambe: such names are not likely to be well-known to audiences but alongside the more familiar John Dunstaple, they were members of the generation of Englishmen during the Middle Ages whose compositions were greatly admired by their fellow musicians on the continent.

Manitoba Opera: The Barber of Seville

Manitoba Opera capped its season on a high note with its latest production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, sung in the key of goofiness that has inspired even a certain “pesky wabbit,” a.k.a. Bugs Bunny’s The Rabbit of Seville.

Handel and the Rival Queens

From Leonardo vs. Michelangelo to Picasso vs. Matisse; from Mozart vs. Salieri to Reich v. Glass: whether it’s Maria Callas vs. Renata Tebaldi or Herbert von Karajan vs. Wilhelm Furtwängler, the history of culture is also a history of rivalries nurtured and reputations derided - more often by coteries and aficionados than by the artists themselves.

Britten's Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House

“Billy always attracted me, of course, the radiant young figure; I felt there was going to be quite an opportunity for writing nice dark music for Claggart; but I must admit that Vere, who has what seems to me the main moral problem of the whole work, round [him] the drama was going to centre.”

Cool beauty in Dutch National Opera’s Madama Butterfly

It is hard to imagine a more beautifully sung Cio-Cio-San than Elena Stikhina’s.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Ildar Abdrazakov as Attila [Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera]
11 Mar 2010

Verdi’s Attila, New York

The curtain rises on an enormous pile of crumbling reinforced concrete, broken wires sticking out every which way – an image that has replaced (at least in the minds of set designers) the romantic columned or castellated ruins that thrilled our ancestors, especially around the time, 1846, that Verdi composed Attila.

Giuseppe Verdi: Attila

Attila: Ildar Abdrazakov; Odabella: Violeta Urmana; Ezio: Giovanni Meoni; Foresto: Ramón Vargas; Leone: Samuel Ramey. Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by Riccardo Muti. Performance of March 3.

Above: Ildar Abdrazakov as Attila

All photos by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

 

Seated precariously atop the heap of ruin, resembling a large, destructive boy who has been playing where he shouldn’t, is Ildar Abdrazakov with what looks like a feathered teapot on his head. The chorus, in uniform gray, sit on the floor at his feet and sing a hymn to Wodano (you know – Wotan – the god of war) and to Attila the Hun – for it is he – who has just destroyed the great Roman city of Aquileia. When I visited Aquileia in 2006 – admittedly 1554 years after Attila’d been and gone – there wasn’t a rod of reinforced concrete in sight but there wasn’t much ruined Roman cityscape either; just some glorious mosaics, a fine museum and a peaceful tree-lined path beside the canal that was once a harbor for the imperial fleet. Most of the city’s monumental stonework has been “borrowed” over the centuries by nearby towns like Venice. (Venice was founded by refugees from Attila – an event that opens the second scene of Verdi’s opera.)

I’m not sure if singing from atop a heap of an elevated set undercuts vocal production, but Abdrazakov’s Attila, though competent and musical – and fearless on that rickety ledge – lacked the mighty depths signifying monumental and barbaric emotion that Jerome Hines and Samuel Ramey brought to the part. Abdrazakov was sturdy but never a force to be reckoned with, much less the Scourge of God.

Attila_Met_02.gifVioleta Urmana as Odabella

The contrast between a competent voice and a real one was clear the moment Giovanni Meoni entered as Ezio, the Roman general, his baritone rolling out to fill the room on the line: “Avrai tu l’universo, resti l’Italia a me!” (Take the universe, but leave Italy to me), which is the cry that made Attila a hit on its original appearance in Austrian-occupied Italy. Meoni has a genuine Verdi baritone timbre and line, makes a sturdy if stiff figure on stage in Miuccia Prada’s meter-long leather fringe epaulets, and if he hadn’t run out of breath towards the end of his Act II cabaletta, this would have been a headline occasion for him. The world seems to have run short of Bastianinis and Merrills and Milneses, and Verdi is hard to put over without them.

The sound of a real Verdi voice came, too, from the Attila of the previous generation, Samuel Ramey, who walked on – the part is no more than that – as “Leone, an ancient Roman,” in a crimson miter (for censorship reasons, the librettist demoted this figure, who is actually Pope Leo the Great) to forbid superstitious Attila from attacking Rome itself. Ramey’s ugly wobble was in evidence, but also his from-the-depths-of-the-earth authority, an echo of the true Verdi sound. Is it a coincidence that he was singing on stage level, and not two stories up in the air?Attila_Met_03.gif

Samuel Ramey as Leone

Violeta Urmana, though she sang all the cascading notes of Odabella’s famously hectic arias, seemed to lack a center, a depth of heart. Urmana has a beautiful instrument and an assured technique – is there anyone else nowadays who can sing Odabella without peeling paint? – and she got all the intricacies beautifully, but she has never shown much dramatic instinct for Italian music and this stern placidity was in evidence here. There was none of the suppressed passion one felt in her Kundry at the Met some years ago, or her Isolde broadcast in December from Vienna.

Odabella’s tenderer music never does seem credible, perhaps because sopranos are hired to sing the role based on their ability to deal with the fire-breathing coloratura of her sortita, “Santo di patria.” Connoisseurs sometimes refer to Odabella’s “Sutherland aria” (“Santo di patria”) and her “Caballé aria” (“Oh nel fuggente nuvolo”), for the matchless recorded versions, but the recording studio is one thing, the stage another – and neither of those sensible ladies ever sang the role on stage. Voice lovers nonetheless come to Attila irrationally expecting Sutherland’s blazing fioritura in “Santo di patria,” Caballé’s luxuriant velvet in “Oh nel fuggente nuvolo,” and they’re never going to get both, seldom either one. Verdi composed them for Sofia Loewe, also the first Elvira in Ernani – and for the same house, Venice’s La Fenice, which is one-quarter the size of the Met.

Urmana sang all this music with impressive ease, ducking some high notes for the honorable reason that she doesn’t have them, but never sounding less than in command. As a technical exercise, her presence was very welcome and I doubt anyone now singing could do it better – but there was little feeling behind it. Too, she looked absurd in a Queen of Outer Space coiffure (“They sacked my city, but I didn’t have a hair out of place!”), but that’s not her fault.Attila_Met_04.gif

Giovanni Meoni as Ezio and Ramon Vargas as Foresto

That leaves Ramón Vargas in the role of Foresto, who is not a character at all but a jumble of tenor “tropes” – soprano’s suspicious lover, refugees’ heroic leader, incompetent conspirator. There wasn’t much of Vargas’ youthful honey in his first scenes; his tone was dry, his pitch all over the place. He didn’t warm up until his aria in the last act, a lovely account full of melting phrases.

The musical stars of the evening were none of the named singers but the orchestra and chorus, and Riccardo Muti, making his long-deferred house debut. Attila, like nearly all of Verdi’s early operas, is a major vehicle for chorus (not until Rigoletto and Traviata did he seem to find individuals more interesting than nationalities), and here we have rapacious Huns, pious monks, desperate refugees, unbowed Romans – although since they are dressed pretty much the same at the Met, or are visible only from the shoulder up, you might not know the chorus was playing any characters at all on this occasion. Still, they sang with the vigor and subtlety that has marked them ever since Donald Palumbo took over their headship.

As for Muti, he brought the score a sense of swiftness, lightness, speed, melodic arching, Rossini-esque brilliance that made me want to close my eyes and just forget about what was going on on stage. The many touches that reveal Verdi’s talent as an instrumental colorist beginning to achieve mastery were all brought forth.

If an opera has been around so long, and the composer has been represented in nearly every one of the 126 Met seasons (a few early all-German ones aside), and the Met has never chosen to stage it, there are probably very good reasons not to bother. All of them were apparent: The libretto is ungainly (director Pierre Audi barely tried to stage it, contenting himself with posed attitudes), the solo parts are difficult to cast, the dramatic effect of the work mediocre at best. Attila is worthy of its obscurity – as are most early Verdi operas, the thrilling Macbeth and the brooding Luisa Miller being the great exceptions. The only good reasons to put the others on are, first, to experience the master’s fascinating apprenticeship and, second, if you have spectacular singers who can do wonders with great melodies. Attila requires first-rate Verdi tenor, baritone and bass and a superhuman soprano, and the Met does not have such singers in its stable.

Herzog & de Meuron, the architects who designed this production, appear to have looked at the five-story-high Met stage and thought, “How can we fill that?” Not: “How can we stage an exciting drama there?” but “How can we fill it?” – as if they were designing a wall hanging. They have filled it, to be sure, with an eye-popping vertical green rain forest (turning a sere brown for the final act, and blood red when at last Attila is slain) in which little cavernous hollows appear so that Attila can have a nightmare and Ezio a change of heart. It’s very attractive but highly unsuitable for stage action. In order to present the scenes Verdi asks for (I’m sure Mr. Audi was very annoyed with him about it, but couldn’t get his phone calls returned from the tomb), the set has to rise in the air a story or so, and singers appear underneath it to “emote” against bare backdrop. This undercuts Verdi’s masterful scene-painting, dawn over the lagoons of Venice, sunset over Attila’s tent, saints appearing in the heavens at the pope’s command and so forth – all played magnificently by the Met orchestra under Muti – because nothing on stage corresponds to the music we are hearing. They might as well have given the whole thing in concert and saved a lot of money.

Attila_Met_05.gifIldar Abdrazakov as Attila and Russell Thomas as Uldino

There is a certain logic in pushing the singers to the stage apron – the singers like that – they feel somewhat lost fifty feet back. In front they think they can make more effect, more noise, and keep an eye on the conductor as well. But it’s a waste of space and of playing room, and it makes the action impossible to play.

Miuccia Prada’s costumes probably call for a special word: what the well-dressed refugee is wearing, a runway with cavalry in hot pursuit. The principals wear leather and fake fur and gold lame in improbably contemporary styles (when did capes come back in fashion?), but the chorus of monks are dressed in undistinguished shmattas so if we do not follow the titles we’ll have no idea they’re supposed to be monks, and the refugees in their fur vests who seek them out seem to be ladies out for an evening stroll. There is no theatrical thrill to this unless all you want from an opera is a fashion show.

John Yohalem

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):