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Opera Review (NYC): Attila – Metropolitan Opera, March 12, 2010

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Giuseppe Verdi’s ninth opera, Attila, finally makes its Metropolitan Opera debut after 164 long years. First performed in 1846 at La Fenice theater in Venice, this classic has been rarely performed throughout the ages. Leading this jewel of a masterpiece in his long-awaited debut was Maestro Riccardo Muti. Truly, this was two grand events to take stock of and lots of hype and fanfare rightfully accompanied the production.

The Met has been billing Attila as the only title role Verdi ever wrote for a bass. However, if someone had done their homework, they would have discovered the master’s first opera and his first title bass role – Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio – premiered in 1839. This was just the first of many slight miscalculations to occur with this particular production.

Attila conquers Rome. The Roman Captain, Ezio, pairing with Attila, says that he can have the universe, but let him have Italy – a relatively rousing patriotic line at the time the opera premiered. Odabella stands up to the voracious Hun and he is immediately attracted to her, of course. He offers her marriage, never guessing that she is plotting with everyone else on stage to kill him. She foils Foresto, her lover, in his plot to poison Attila. She wants to have the vengeance all to herself since Attila murdered her father. In the end, Attila meets his demise at Odabella’s hand with the sword that he gave her. Why he didn’t see that coming is a mystery to everyone. Not a complicated story, but, paired with the inspiring – rather stimulating – music of Verdi, it makes one heck of a performance when it’s done right.

Taking on the title character, Ildar Abdrazakov was unsteady and barely audible. He sang with little presence in his voice choosing to use a “woofy bass” quality that actually sounds more like a teddy bear than an almighty conqueror striking fear into the hearts of all who hear him. His acting was limited and rather flat. In a rather comical death that was staged horribly, he died with a plastic sword – finally.

Singing through a cold and hauling around a beehive the size of Texas on her head, Violeta Urmana tackled Odabella with care and thoughtfulness. She approached the higher passages a little too carefully however, ultimately screaming a few of the high notes just to get them out. Her best singing was done when left to her own devices in the middle of a bare stage with nothing to worry about except the magnificent musical line Verdi so skillfully interwove with the militaristically rhythmic orchestration.

Ezio was handled decently by Giovanni Meoni who was the first singer to get real sound out to the audience. He had a nice resonant voice, but at times pushed so much to be heard, air infiltrated into his sound. He showed no emotion and, therefore, was merely a walking clothes rack finding his spot and standing there until the director told him to move elsewhere.

Foresto is one of those under-appreciated roles because it’s not the title character and the part does not stand out at all, until now. Stepping in for a sick Ramon Vargas and actually stealing the spotlight, Russell Thomas was by far the surprise audience favorite. He opened his mouth with a wonderfully pleasant tenor sound and actually brought a youthful vitality to this otherwise dull production. He sang his high notes with that annoying hook-and-sing tenor trick – “ah-ee.” Although this tends to make the voice ugly, it was not horrible and, thankfully, the high notes were infrequent.

Making a much anticipated cameo appearance as Pope Leone, Samuel Ramey was sonorous and commanding, showing the audience the authoritative stage presence and vocal capabilities and proving that giants still walk among us. He simply stepped on stage and he owned the entire evening – proving that he is still the most famous Attila in history and that the infamous Hun will not be awarded so easily to just any boring basso that tries to claim it.

Eduardo Valdes filled in as Uldino, Attila’s confidant. He was a little awkward in the part and made for laughs when he was thrown around by the soprano.

The man of the evening was, without a doubt, Maestro Riccardo Muti. He dwarfed all of the disastrous aspects of this production. Making you forget about the circus onstage, he led the chorus and orchestra with vim and vigor, bringing out the most gloriously rich sounds imaginable. His fortitude provided the audience with something to actually enjoy and gave the performers a rock to lean on when everything else seemed so shaky – thereby saving this production and the Met’s assets. Essentially, Muti is, the master and it showed with every flourish of the baton.

Pierre Audi supposedly provided the direction for this grand event. However, there was little if any direction at all evident here. The design of the opening scene’s set begged to be used by the performers, but merely served as a backdrop. The total lack of direction left the singers with no clue on how to use it. Hearkening back to the old “stand and sing” days, this production provided the audience with two hours of beautiful music with which to enjoy their snooze.

Costumes by Miuccia Prada were laughable. What other company would throw away hundreds of thousands of dollars on a designer just to have your ensemble dressed in t-shirts and boxer shorts from the local thrift shop? The leads were not dressed much better, wearing luggage straps and pleather. Giving no thought to the actual form of their bodies, the leads resembled walking waterbeds more than warriors. The curtain opened to an unimpressive Attila wearing two bicycle helmets glued together with some plastic feathers stuck on them. The wedding attire was a metallic taxi-cab yellow. The common design element? LED lights! Yes, Prada used LED lights – on everything! Everyone onstage wore headbands, helmets or shoulder pads lined in lights and looked as though they worked in a coal mine. This must surely have been a tactic to draw our attention away from the utter lack of ability to dress an average person’s body.

Architects Jaques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, designers of the Beijing Olympics’ Bird’s Nest Stadium, gave theater set design the old college try. There was hope at the beginning when the curtain unveiled a massive pile of destruction and chaos that was quiet impressive. However, no thought was given to theater mechanics and how to quickly changes scenes as the audience set waiting for the curtain to rise for more than five minutes at times.

The second set, which overwhelmed the audience for four full acts, was a floor to ceiling tropical jungle – at the time of Google Maps last update, Italy was nowhere near the tropics. The giant topiary then opened at various places to reveal a different scene. It resembled the video arcade game where gophers pop their heads up and you bob them with a mallet. Then, taking a rather cheap route and apparently paying homage to Hurricane Katrina, the wedding feast was played with blue tarps as the back drop. Classy, really classy – like a shot gun wedding. After Prada pocketed most of the budget, I’m sure the Met couldn’t afford canvas and blue paint. Maybe Universal Studios gave them the jungle sets after they finished filming Jurassic Park. It would have been nice had they been able to acquire T-Rex along with it – at least he would have known how to make an entrance and it would have made for one hell of a death scene for Attila.

It seems as though everyone involved came up with a concept for this production and then gave up on it mid-way through – ultimately producing a half-assed set, half-assed direction and half-assed costuming. The one exception was Maestro Muti – his contribution to the project was absolutely stunning.

Maybe that pile of rubble in the opening scene was symbolic for what has become of this one-time powerhouse. Once a highly-respected company that set the gold standard in producing awe-inspiring traditional operas, it has now become a second-rate wanna-be contemporary opera company – producing commonplace productions with no substance or relevance to the actual art form.

Save yourself the anguish by listening at home on Sirius Satellite Radio or tune in for free on National Public Radio! Unless you’re dying to have a good laugh at the Met’s expense, don’t waste your money purchasing tickets to see this disaster.

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About Dan Boone

  • c. diamond

    I’m reading this years later (about to see a production from La Scala this week at the SF Opera) –June, 2012–but find this review such a delight–lots of humor/wit, and now feel that I should see what the NY Times had to say about the same show. I think I will look for your blog again, if you are still at it! Bravo!

  • I think your review is right on. I saw the production last nite and thought it was simply an awful overall show. That is not to denegrate the singers, however who did sound really great. I also agree that the Met has been drifting a little too far from tradition, which is part of why opera lovers crave and enjoy the artform.

  • Bob

    The annual Vanity Fair list of “the world’s most powerful people,” reveals that most of its members are Jewish. Joseph Aaron, of The Chicago Jewish News, feels very good about it. “Talk about us being accepted into this society, talk about us having power in this society,” Aaron wrote this week.
    Miuccia Bianchi Prada, a paid-up member of the Communist party and champion of women’s rights in Milan, Peter Gelb, General Manager, and James Levine, Music Director, of the Metropolitan Opera are on the list, too. Their contribution to this society is well described above, in Dan Boone’s article.