Friday, March 05, 2010

Metropolitan Opera – Verdi’s Attila. March 3, 2010.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Dress Circle Seat B102 ($147.50).

Story. Attila is laying siege to Rome and captures a group of Roman women including Odabella, daughter of the Lord of Aquileia. Attila is impressed by Odabella’s courage and gives her his sword. The Roman General Ezio offers to split the empire with Attila but is rejected. Odabella’s fiancée Foresto is with a group of Aquileian refugees. He mistakes Odabella’s decision to stay with Attila as a betrayal. During a banquet hosted by Attila with Ezio, Odabella and Foresto attending, the attempt by Uldino – Attila’s slave – to poison Attila is foiled by Odabella who wants to kill Attila herself. Foresto flees Attila and laments Odabella’s marriage to Attila. As the wedding preparation is underway, Odabella meets up with Foresto and Ezio. Attila happens upon the three and accuses them of disloyalty and ingratitude. Odabella stabs Attila to death.

Conductor – Riccardo Muti; Attila – Ildar Abdrazakov, Uldino – Russell Thomas, Odabella – Violeta Urmana, Ezio – Giovanni Meoni, Foresto – Ramon Vargas.

We exchanged tickets for some other opera for this because of scheduling conflicts. I didn’t know much about it until the afternoon of the concert when I got to read up the synopsis on the Met website. The story is straightforward enough, and I was expecting a straightforward experience, given this is one of Verdi’s earlier operas (9th out of 28).

Muti, who will start his CSO appointment next season, seems to be spending a lot of time in New York. We will be seeing him Friday conducting the New York Philharmonic, and he will conduct at least another New York Phil series the following week.

I was somewhat surprised by the opera. When the curtain was drawn up after a very nice but relatively short overture, what we saw was Attila standing amidst massive and brightly lit ruins. In front of the ruins were what I initially thought were dead bodies who ended singing a chorus. Impressive, even though I didn’t know people were using re-bars to build city walls during Attila’s time (5th century). That was one indication of how the designers wanted to make the staging “timeless.” Since Attila is a historical person (although this opera takes a lot of liberty with historical facts), having people wear jeans and heavy parkas just looks weird, not timeless. The other thing is his head gear actually had a group of small lights so it glows in the dark. Interesting, not sure it is germane or necessary.

Towards the end of the prolog, the entire set was raised and Foresto showed up with fellow Romans in the space below. The Met employed a similar technique in Aida (also Verdi) and it worked quite well there also. For subsequent scenes we had this as a regular arrangement. In a couple of them you have this wall of plants with holes on each side where the singers were, and a space underneath for the masses. From where we sat, with our poor eyesight, we couldn’t tell whether the plants were real, fake, or simply projections on a screen. My best guess is a combination as the holes were circled by some leaves, and yet the entire scene moves ala Damnation of Faust. My overall opinion is the overused the effect.

Per the program notes, this is the only Verdi opera where the protagonist role is sung by a bass. The bass Abdrazakov made the best of the opportunity. Although weak in some places, he in general sang well.

Urmana as Odabella needed some suspension of belief on the audience’s part. I have to comment on her hair which was made into this huge beehive (ala Marge Simpson), that, combined with her stature, made her more like a Brunnhilde rather than a princess. And she seems to have one volume setting: extra loud (I guess the proper term is fortissimo) while many passages call for much softer singing. Anne insists there were a few occasions in which she did that; I must have a different definition of “soft,” or simply fell asleep.

The Ezio role was sung by Meoni who substituted for the scheduled tenor Carlos Alvarez. He did well. While not outstanding, his performance was dependable and of uniform quality.

Several years ago Ramon Vargas seemed to be a fixture of the Met, playing quite a few roles. He has not appeared in any of my blogs which I started in 2005, so it’s been a while. I used to wonder why people thought he was good enough to sing regularly at the Met, now after a few years I think he has improved quite a bit. His voice is strong, and steady for the most part (that was my biggest complaint a few years ago.) However, his smallish stature, especially next to Obadella, also strains credibility.

Anne and I had a long discussion on whether a sound enhancement system was used. We base our question on several factors. The singers sounded very loud. We were relatively close to the stage (second role center Dress Circle), but not that close. There was a noticeable difference in the quality (loudness and timber) of the voices when the singers move from the right side of the stage to the left side. It was a bit disturbing as the changes were abrupt. I also wonder if the sound got reflected from the roof as it got louder if I tilted my head up. We couldn’t find any loudspeakers, though. And I thought people used to swear professional opera singers seldom used microphones and speakers.

Overall, while the opera lacks the dramatic effects and historical accuracy compared to the best in the genre, it is still a great Verdi work that can be enjoyed as a musical composition. This is the first ever series of performances of this opera at the Met. And we saw the third show. I enjoyed it, and wonder about how opera houses decide on what to produce.

The New York Times has an interesting article (I couldn’t find a review) on this opera. The Bloomberg review is quite interesting to read. It calls the libretto nonsensical, uses beehive to describe Urmana’s hair, and adds some insight into Muti, the Met, and La Scala.

Today (March 6) I found the New York Times review. The reviewer is very enthusiastic about Muti, various singers, and the opera. He also describes Odabella's hair as "Marge Simpson-y," and is a little critical of the set designs. No mention of the acoustics, though.

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