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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

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