Attila, Verdi

The Metropolitan Opera

27th February, 2010

Unwelcome Invasion

The plot of Verdi’s Attila, an opera from 1846 having its very first run at the Metropolitan Opera this season, is not worth recounting. If you’re curious, the whole convoluted story can be found on Wikipedia. The music Verdi wrote for Attila ranges from very good to extremely silly. As a whole, the work never adds up as a musical drama, and neither did this production, despite much star talent.

The minimal staging by director Pierre Audi looked like it had been put together in a few days, at most. Audi’s own program note points out: “The result [Attila] is a work with a problematic dramatic structure but that is effectively powered by music of remarkable invention and energy.” The question, then, is why bother to stage this work? Attila, like other bel canto operas with great music but no plausible drama, has had plentiful “concert” stagings. Why bother with the rest—sets, costumes, stage action--if the music is the only reason to revive it? Upon further inspection of our Playbill, we find another note, this one from General Manager Peter Gelb: “Maestro Muti was someone I had hoped to engage here. When we began discussions about what might attract him to the Met, Muti immediately mentioned Attila…” OK. Mystery solved. We’re watching Muti-bait.

Photos by: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

This production promised much, boasting a design team of chic, bold-faced names. Clothing designer Miuccia Prada and architecture team Herzog & de Meuron shared the credit for both set and costume design, though one might hazard a guess that Ms. Prada probably had more say about costumes and Herzog & de Meuron more about the set. The production was sadly a misfire on all accounts, no matter who was in charge. As a setting for musical drama it was clunky, “conceptual” in all the wrong ways and was the cause of wildly varying acoustics.

The opening set of the Prologue--a stacked rubble mound reminiscent of Ground Zero--was momentarily impressive, as the curtain (black, in lieu of the traditional Met gold) raised itself to reveal layer after layer of ruin, but soon revealed itself inhospitable to any sort of dramatic action.

On the floor, the men’s chorus held various choreographic positions while above, amid the fallen concrete slabs, principals meandered, punctuating their lines with empty gestures. The chorus, as elsewhere in the opera, sounded glorious. The men’s chorus in particular, with more music than the women’s, brought beautiful phrasing and tone to both loud and quiet sections. The principals, though, all sounded dry and effortful on the upper levels of this set (no fault of their own).

The second set--a massive, solid wall of green foliage that was lifted up and down to various levels throughout the show--was also momentarily interesting as an installation but equally ineffective as an operatic setting. (If you wander across Lincoln Center plaza to the Rubenstein Atrium, you can enjoy a smaller version of the same architectural concept as you eat a sandwich from ‘Wichcraft). Within and below this colossal green wall, the performers were dwarfed literally and dramatically.

Ms. Prada is known to prefer very thin models in her runway shows and print campaigns. Her genius for dressing the human form didn’t translate here with the more ample operatic bodies. Poor Violeta Urmana looked porcine in a bright yellow dress that might—might—have worked on a size zero. Other costumes, in particular one for the character Ezio with light bulbs in the shoulder pads, unintentionally elicited giggles in the audience throughout the show. Despite the fact that I’ve not provided a synopsis within this review, you’ve probably already surmised that Attila was not intended as a comedy.

The singing should have provided a raison d’être for this production, but instead the Met proved once again how difficult it is, even with all the money in the (operatic) world, to field an exceptional Verdi cast these days. Ildar Abdrazakov, as Attila, sang well, but the role is one size too large and one third too low for his voice to thrive. Samuel Ramey, in the small role Leone, showed, despite the sizeable wobble his voice has developed in later years, how thrilling a true Verdi bass can sound in the Met. Ramon Vargas sang Foresto with increasing success over the evening, his final aria being his best, though the voice doesn’t always bloom above the passaggio, where one hopes it would. Russell Thomas’ Uldino made one wish Verdi had written more for that character; the voice is powerful and exciting. An ailing Carlos Alvarez was replaced by an impressive Giovanni Meoni as Ezio.

The often-wonderful Violeta Urmana is not a natural Verdi soprano, though she sings his roles all over the world. Her vocal and musical instincts are too angular, too northern European for his music. Her Italian repertoire thus all represents an ongoing, treacherous compromise. She gave a wild performance of Odabella’s first aria—itself an expression of rage featuring fast, high, florid outbursts. Urmana’s delivery was devoid of legato, grace or phrasing and featured many raw, splattered high notes. It was the opposite of bel canto: all muscle, no suppleness. But then she delivered an arresting and sumptuous prayer in the next scene. Some singers just sing better in slower tempi.

The star of the night was the man who caused the whole thing: Riccardo Muti, in his Met debut, drew exciting, detailed work from the Met chorus and orchestra. Granted, it’s tough these days to get a bad performance out of either of those entities, but it was notable that his musical leadership created the only real dramatic tension of the night, employing exacting articulation, stunning sotto voces and rousing fortes. Muti received not only the evening’s sole standing ovation but also hearty, vocal adulation before each act.

I can’t say I’m glad the Met finally staged Attila, but this show does inspire profound thanks that Verdi found new collaborators in Piave and, later, Boito, and makes one wonder whether, without these more talented librettists leading the way, Verdi might never have been, well, Verdi.

Bottom line: Better to have let sleeping dogs lie.


John Costello


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Production Credits

Conductor: Ricardo Muti
Director: Pierre Audi
Set & Costume Design: Miuccia Prada, Herzog & de Meuron
Lighting: Jean Kalman


Odabella: Violeta Urmana
Foresto: Ramón Vargas
Ezio: Giovanni Meoni
Attila: Ildar Abdrazakov