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Muti conducts Verdi’s ‘Attila’ at the MetBY: Steve Cohen 03.20.2010
Riccardo Muti is pumping new excitement into Attila, one of Verdi’s weakest operas— which, like Muti himself, hasn’t previously appeared at the Met.
Attila. Opera by Giuseppe Verdi. Riccardo Muti, conductor; Pierre Audi, director. Through March 27, 2010 at Metropolitan Opera, Broadway and 65th St., New York. (212) 362-6000 or www.metoperafamily.org/metopera.
Muti to the rescueSTEVE COHEN
They’re cheering Riccardo Muti these days at the Metropolitan Opera even before the performances of Verdi’s Attila begin. This premature acclaim isn’t misplaced. Attila is considered one of Verdi’s weakest, and it’s never before been staged at the Met. Yet Muti, the former music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra and La Scala Opera, is leading exciting performances.
Attila, the ninth of Verdi’s 28 operas, had historic importance when it premiered in 1846. Along with Garibaldi, Manzoni and Mazzini, the composer was a leader of Italy’s Risorgimento (“Rising Again”), an attempt to throw out foreign rule and combine Italy’s fragmented city-states into a unified kingdom. (Verdi’s name was used as a slogan because the initials proclaimed Victor Emmanuele Rex D’Italia– advocating Emmanuele to be king of the new Italy.
Early in Attila, the Roman general Ezio plots with Attila to divide the empire, singing, “Avrai tu l’universo, resti l’Italia a me!” (“You can have the universe, leave Italy for me!”). That baritone line had an electrifying effect on audiences and solidified Verdi’s place as Italy’s musical voice.
But over the century and a half since then, Attila fell into neglect. Critics considered it crude and noisy, full of empty oom pa pa.
Muti’s interpretation revealed an exceptional piece with wonderfully rich textures. They were subtly articulated by the Met orchestra, while still rising to excitement during the fast cabaletti that followed almost every aria, in the style of that time. Muti didn’t cut any of the repeats and had them sung as written, without any interpolated higher notes (just as he doesn’t allow his tenors to throw in a high C at the end of “Di quella pira” in Verdi’s Il Trovatore.)
Sleeping with the enemy
In this fictional story, a group of captured Roman women is brought before Attila in a scene that presages Act II of Aida. One of the group is Odabella, whose father was killed by Attila. She declares that Italian women will always defend their country. Impressed by her spunk, Attila is attracted to her. The implication over the next two acts is that Odabella is living with Attila and sleeping with him, although Odabella tells her Italian boyfriend that he has nothing to be jealous about: Her aim is to get close enough to Attila to assassinate him.
Violeta Urmana, the Lithuanian soprano, played Odabella. She negotiated her angry first aria with appropriately wild flourishes, taking exciting vocal risks that indicated what her character was about to do in the story. Her second aria, in the next scene, was a contrasting soft and slow prayer that was quite affecting.
Another great scene occurred in the last act, when Attila finds Odabella with her old boyfriend, Foresto, and General Ezio and the Hun accuse them of disloyalty and ingratitude: “Tu, rea donna,” Odabella sings softly with Foresto, as they plot against Attila. In the end, Odabella kills Attila with a sword that he has given her.
Where’s that snarl?
The Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov played the title role. Tall and good-looking, he made a decent visual impression but lacked the commanding charisma you expect for such a terrifying figure. Vocally, the same was true. Abdrazakov sang with musicianship but lacked the snarl or the power you’d want for the leader of the Huns.
The smoothest and most idiomatic singing of the night came from the Italian baritone, Giovanni Meoni, who stepped into the role of the Roman general when the originally announced Carlos Alvarez became ill. Samuel Ramey, a great Attila with Muti at La Scala in 1989, had an effective cameo as the Roman bishop. Foresto was sung by Ramón Vargas, a sweet tenor who seemed over his head here.
If this Attila was a musical triumph, dramatically and visually, it was not. The costumes, by Miuccia Prada, were horrible. Attila wore a black trench coat and a crown with flashing lights; Odabella had a beehive wig and a metallic ball gown. Other characters, in the middle of a jungle, wore heavy leather with blinking light bulbs on the shoulders.
The first set, apparently by the architecture team Herzog & de Meuron, was a pile of rubble, implying the Roman Empire in a period of collapse. The rest of the opera was set in lush green foliage that’s referred to in the libretto sometimes as the forest and other times as “the jungle.” The vegetation rose and fell, making room for the chorus to sing underneath it while principal characters appeared in clearings in the midst of it.
It was hard to divine why the designers chose this motif, which doesn’t resemble anything I’ve seen in Italy. Maybe they thought they’d tie in with the name of the tenor character, Foresto. Or maybe with Verdi, whose name means “green” in Italian. Director Pierre Audi tried to maneuver the performers amidst these trappings, without much success.
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