Machiavelli writes that a prince must be bold, ruthless, impetuous, shrewd, cunning, and willing to make and break alliances, to fight like a lion but be clever like a fox, and to plan for every contingency. Machiavelli’s favorite prince, Cesare Borgia, exhibited all these aspects of virtú – or manly prowess – and had an answer for every situation, except for his own sudden death by illness. So had Machiavelli known much about the historical Attila the Hun (Attila lived in the 5th century and Machiavelli in the 16th), he surely would have lauded him as a noble prince with one fatal flaw.
Director Pierre Audi, however, turned the Metropolitan Opera’s Attila, sung by bass Ildar Abdrazakov, into a narcissistic, pouting overgrown teenager. From the moment the romantic lead, his new sex slave Odabella (an Italian warrior woman sung by soprano Violeta Urmana) walked onstage, it was clear that the fictional Attila’s flaws were many, not the least of which were gullibility, easy infatuation, and singing as underwhelming as his use of both hard and soft power.
The opening moments of the opera (and certainly the buzz leading up to it) promised something very different. The overture is darkly ominous but in a familiar Verdian mode. Throughout the opera, acclaimed Verdi conductor Ricardo Muti leads the orchestra in the lush land of Verdi, in unsettling contrast to the disjointedness of the singers and production.
Violeta Urmana had beautiful vocal moments that unfortunately were out of place in her treatment of the ornate and surprising music Verdi gave her. Ezio, envoy of Rome (Giovanni Meoni, a stand-in for Carlos Alvarez) was one of the most impressive singers on Saturday night and far outsang Abdrazakov, especially over the orchestra. If the Hun is so easily defeated by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, he never had a chance against the armies of Rome. Even Foresto, an Italian guerilla leader (and Odabella’s former beau) sang wonderfully, though his acting seriously detracted from his presentation.
These four main characters, all of them at each other’s throats, were frequently directed to stand all in a line or a clump singing about how much they feel betrayed and want to kill each other. They had four opportunities throughout the opera but waited until the last two minutes! Moments like these, and other moments throughout the libretto, gave Audi obvious choices for literal visual interpretation of the music (as when Attila sings of his nightmare of angels piercing him with their fiery swords, or when the chorus mutters about ominous red clouds spreading overhead). Audi did accept a few moments of thunder and lightning when both the orchestra and the singers told of a terrifying storm but left the rest ignored. The singers were similarly emotionless throughout the opera both visually and vocally. They and Audi rejected dynamic characters and plot for a fashion show.
The production, designed by Miuccia Prada, could have provided a backdrop for heightened emotion. Instead, the singers stood on a blank stage below a suspended wall of rubble or lush forest slope (or sometimes in holes in the forest. Even bizarrer was the placement of the chorus, which often appeared in a cave below the forest wearing miner’s headlamps. Indeed, LED lights were one of the main hallmarks of the costumes, as well as large animal skins and leather sacks (and skinny jeans and gray t-shirts for the chorus). In the second act, the newly married Odabella and Attila changed to gold tunics and all the characters switched on their lightbulbs. Perhaps their costumes were supposed to dazzle and distract the audience from the music.
Attila by Giuseppe Verdi, playing through March 27 at the Metropolitan Opera. Conducted by Ricardo Muti. Ildar Abdrazakov sings the title role, joined by Violeta Urmana, Ramón Vargas, and Carlos Alvarez.
Double Take: Read Anthony Tommasini’s review here.