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Muti at the Met

New York
The Metropolitan Opera
02/23/2010 -  & 27 February, 3, 6, 9, 12*, 15, 19, 22, 27 March, 2010
Giuseppe Verdi: Attila
Ildar Abdrazakov (Attila), Violeta Urmana (Odabella), Russell Thomas (Foresto), Giovanni Meoni (Ezio), Eduardo Valdes (Uldino), Samuel Ramey (Leone)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Donald Palumbo (Chorus Master), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Riccardo Muti (Conductor)
Pierre Audi (Production), Miuccia Prada and Herzog & de Meuron (Set and Costume Design), Jean Kalman (Lighting Design), Robby Duivemann (Associate Costume Designer)

I. Abdrazakov & S. Ramey (© Ken Howard)

It was long past time for Riccardo Muti, one of the foremost Verdi conductors of this or any other time, to grant a wish long held by the Metropolitan Opera and its audience. We wanted him here and, at last, here he was. For his debut, Muti chose to conduct Verdi’s ninth opera, Attila which, astonishingly, had never before been heard at the Met. The opera takes place in the 5th century, at the time of the barbarian invasion of the faltering Roman Empire. Attila the Hun has conquered Aquileia, killed its ruler, and taken his daughter, Odabella, prisoner. There are two other main characters, Foresto, Odabella’s lover, and Ezio, a Roman General. Ezio initially tries to strike a bargain with Attila. He tells him that if he is allowed to keep Italy, Attila can conquer the rest of the Empire. Attila spurns his offer, and dreams that he is turned back at the gates of the city by Pope Leone. But he resolves to press on. The three others conspire against him and Odabella stabs Attila to death with the sword he had given her.

Maestro Muti requested that the veteran bass, Samuel Ramey, sing the small but crucial role of Pope Leone, the spiritual antagonist of Attila. Muti and Ramey have worked together for many years. Under Muti, Ramey made his La Scala debut as Figaro in 1981. In that same year, Ramey sang his first Attila, at the New York City Opera in a production that was revived four years later. In 1986, he sang the role in Venice (where the opera premiered in 1846). Three years later, Ramey went to La Scala to record the opera with Muti. And in 1991, Attila was staged at La Scala with Ramey in the title role and Maestro Muti in the pit. That magnificent production is preserved on DVD. Since then, Ramey has sung the role all over the world.

Attila first came to New York in a manner that reminds one of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta plot. According to a recent article in Opera News, Verdi’s hand-picked Attila, Ignazio Marini (who sang at the premiere in Venice), with the entrepreneurial assistance of opera impresario and former pirate, Don Francisco Marty y Torrens, brought the work to Havana and then to New York. Under the auspices of the wonderfully named Marty’s Havana Italian Opera Company, Attila had its American premiere on April 15, 1850, at a downtown Manhattan venue called Niblo’s Gardens.

Attila is an early work, following Nabucco by four years and Ernani by two, and immediately preceding Macbeth. It’s the last of Verdi’s operas to have a libretto by Temistocle Solera. Verdi’s much better known (and arguably more accomplished) collaborator Francesco Maria Piave is said to be responsible for the final edits of Attila. The opera abounds in cabalettas, which contribute to the rhythmic vitality of the work. Verdi conceived the opera as a celebration of Venetian patriotism. Indeed, the founding of Venice is depicted in the magnificent choral scene at the end of the prologue. The orchestra and the chorus evoke a brilliant sunrise after a violent storm, and the triumph of hope and patriotism over disorder, darkness and the despair of war.

From the delicate, almost shimmering opening bars of the prologue (the music that Muti chose for La Scala patrons to hear when they phoned for tickets), it was clear that this was going to be a revelatory reading of the score. Throughout the performance, Muti paid loving attention to every detail. Every nuance of the score was expressed. The rich and often ravishing details of the orchestration emerged. The string playing was extraordinarily lush, the dynamics always minutely calibrated. The orchestra played with seamless legato and rhythmic vitality. Muti did not conduct the work in pieces. Everything seemed connected, directed and purposeful. This was a performance of thrilling energy and dramatic force. Muti had worked tirelessly with the orchestra, the singers and the chorus and it showed. Near the end of act one, the hushed voices of women and children had an otherworldly beauty. This really must be among the most sublime choral music ever written. The Met chorus was simply superb here and throughout the evening.

Muti selected the soloists. His Attila, Ildar Abdrazakov, made his debut at the Met as Masetto in 2004. He has worked with Muti for years. As Attila, he sang with a burnished tone, a powerful (if not overly large) voice, and a dashing presence. He was particularly effective as he awoke, terrified, from a nightmare in which his invasion of Rome was halted at the gates by a spectral presence. When the nightmare came true, and Pope Leone appeared to block his way, Muti, the orchestra, the singers and the chorus delivered the most memorable performance of the evening. Abdrazakov conveyed Attila’s combination of awe and fear with sensitive half-voice singing and superb acting. In the small but crucial role of Leone, Samuel Ramey’s richly voiced, vividly characterized performance conveyed the Pope’s enormous dignity and moral authority. His voice had an eerie, sepulchral quality. After all, his appearance to stop Attila at the gates of Rome had been prefigured in a nightmare. The electrifying encounter of the two men also had a metaphysical dimension, reminiscent in both its power and its strangeness of the final confrontation between Don Giovanni and the Commendatore. Here, the awe, the fear and the determination of both characters was amplified by the marvelous choral singing.

As Odabella, Violeta Urmana was impressive. When required, she sang with unforced power over a large vocal and dramatic range. She was Amazonian in her quest for vengeance against Attila, who killed her father. But she was also loving and gentle in her lyrical singing, both alone and in her duets with Foresto. As a replacement for Carlos Alvarez, who was announced as indisposed, prior to the run, Italian baritone Giovanni Meoni made an excellent Met debut as Ezio, the Roman general. Meoni has a powerful, rich baritone voice and fine dramatic skills. All in all, his was the best vocal performance of the evening. Russell Thomas, substituting for the indisposed Rámon Vargas sang ardently with an earthy tone. His best singing came in the third act, as he grieved over what he believed to be Odabella’s treachery, Eduardo Valdes, stepping in for Thomas, who was originally cast as Uldino, made a fine replacement.

In contrast to the musical glories of the evening, the production was, in a word, unfortunate. Pierre Audi’s lengthy director’s note in the program explained that he aimed to bring out the more poetic elements of Attila’s character and he therefore staged the work in a manner that brought it closer to Greek tragedy. There were two sets. The first was a pile of concrete rubble, which afforded the singers a very limited range of movement along what seemed to be rather precarious walkways. The inherent drama of the struggle between the Huns and the Romans, although embodied so beautifully in Verdi’s music, and realized so brilliantly through Muti’s conducting, was nowhere to be seen on stage. In his confrontation scene with Meoni’s Ezio in the prologue, Abdrazakov could only spin around and twirl his cape.

The second set was, if possible, even more dramatically constricting and inapposite. We were given a lush, tropical forest, which Audi in his program note says was meant to symbolize “subliminal primeval mystery.” Abdrazakov was stuck in what looked like a tree house on the upper left of the stage, which was raised to leave a rectangular space below the overhanging foliage. That space was variously occupied by his soldiers (in Act one, Scene two, evoking nothing so much as the entombed warriors of Xian), by Leone and his followers, and by Odabella and Foresto. The disempowering separation of Attila from his army seemed particularly strange for a barbarian warlord.

The costumes – by Prada—were more runway-ish than Hun-ish or Roman. The garish accoutrements included Attila’s overly large helmet complete with headlights and a floor-length leather coat with a feather train for Odabella, who also sported a Marge Simpson beehive hairdo. The extras were skinny models in Prada boots. However, the lighting by Jean Kalman was imaginative and extremely effective, particularly in the storm scene. The stage set was pulled up leaving a brightly lit rectangle below it. Figures appeared in silhouette. It had a shadow puppet flavor and was marvelously evocative.

Muti will be conducting Verdi’s Otello in a concert performance at Carnegie Hall next season. It promises to be an extraordinary occasion. We can hope that as he takes up his position as the Music Director of the Chicago Symphony and renews his presence in the musical life of the United States, he might be enticed to return to the Met. He can certainly be assured of a rapturous reception. For those who would like to experience Muti’s Attila with a magnificent cast headed by Samuel Ramey and Cheryl Studer, the 1991 DVD is still available from Opus Arte.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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