The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Met: Verdi's Attila - a Met first - Ricccardo Muti (debut) conducts new Audi production - Verdi's scourge on early 21st century voices

It has always slightly baffled me that Attila has received as much currency as it has for even early Verdi, as opposed to several other operas that never get staged here. It does have its commercial appeal - its choruses, ieading bass part, larger than life notoriety of the great Hun. It even contains a few pet would-be Wagernisms, while still safe for Verdi to include such resemblances in his work. How many times have we heard, quite mistakenly that Otello and Falstaff owe a debt to the Nordic bard? No debt here is really owed anybody either, but naïve choral writing a few places, not to mention invocations to Wotan, Valhalla, other Norse symbology, does crop up.

Attila, along with the immature Oberto, is one of only two operas by Verdi in which the leading character is a bass. Today it begins to get easier to name what even early Verdi operas the Met has never put on instead of those the Met has, this is the Met’s first Attila, in new plenty abstract production by Pierre Audi. Playing it safe instead of choosing a work more obviously complex than this one is Riccardo Muti, who chose Attila as his Met conducting and broadcast debut. I still await the Met’s first Battaglia di Legnano and I Due Foscari, but listening to Meg and Ira prattle on yesterday, one might think that Attila holds a place close to that of Simon Boccanegra in the Verdi canon.

Riccardo Muti, during intermission, invited perhaps us a little too well to see perhaps an error in conceptualization or two in how he and the Met went about doing Verdi’s Attila. First of all, to roughly paraphrase what he said, a good approach to even Attila begins from the podium. Even though Muti is right, there is with a piece like this only so far one can go this way without missing something entirely. With the new abstract production the Met has put on - explained in part by either Muti or somebody for what spiritual values might get brought to the fore this way - there is something here too that can too readily invite misperception. In the ways that Wagner, Weber, Verdi coincide, better elucidated by Julian Budden than even I can muster, the naivete on Verdi’s part is obvious. Certainly there are some moments in Attila where Verdi pulls off a certain gravitas for lines for mostly his principal characters, but there are also stretches therein where such inspiration runs thin, even precariously so occasionally.

Remarkable about Attila, to distinguish it from Nabucco and other early Risorgimento classics, is at least underneath the surface here the betrayal at least to critical ears some loss of confidence in the movement - even as to why to compose for it and so brashly. Orchestra and chorus, to help make Muti’s argument, rose prominently to the fore - even exaggeratedly so at times for such brashness and foursquare construction to come across as two-dimensional as certainly it does. Consider Il Trovatore of six or seven years later, Trovatore is characterized, much of it, by a thrust, drive, projection forward that begins to engulf the characters just starting to get swallowed up in vortex of the action involving their very selves. Verdi, in closing Attila, chose the option of quartet for principals, involving expression of their individual emotions, reaction to what is going on, over nationalistic hymn. In doing so, even for Attila, he chose wisely – only to lightly contradict how one still should most likely characterize Attila.

Here is the rub. It is a given that one is not going to make Attila work from just having a strong presence on the podium and accompanying attitude of high seriousness in any form so much. Of course, in terms of tight rhythm, making the more subtle pages of Attila count, such finesse as Muti calls for is to be reckoned extremely valuable. One though, including even Muti, must keep a little of the naivete in mind, or else one will come up with somewhat stilted results. Such is a trap, even after all the years Muti has conducted Verdi that he did not quite entirely avoid here. The thing most lacking in this Attila for either Muti or it was heroic voices. More than anything else, this was what was lacking.

Julian Budden cites Marini as being either the first or a very early Attila, a basso cantante for the part – in discussing the prologue duet between Roman general and Attila. Ildar Abdrazakov filled this bill somewhere between halfway and two-thirds well, depending on one’s perspective. He clearly sounded the Attila of the cantante variety, not the profondo;’ most of the duet with baritone Ezio, fluidly moving about in thirds worked very well for him. Otherwise, before ensemble following the papal confrontation at end of Act One for instance, Abdrazakov tended to push, and then his voice immediately became tremulous, wobbly, lacking in true line or legato. I even perhaps detected a few accents of the Sam Ramey interpretation and type of production Abdrazakov apparently had invited or sneaked in here and there. Sure enough, at end of Act One, there was Sam Ramey to stand right before this new Attila at the Met. Making way out of this moment and into later scenes, Abadrazakov more effortlessly relied upon naturally dark color and more relaxed means of production, attitude of sobriety to make something haunting out of much that followed. The part does in places hold promise for what is to come in mature Verdi – Fiesco, Guardiano, Procida, Ramfis, etc.

I speculate here, but what could have perhaps prompted an immediate rethink on Abadrazakov’s part, approximately halfway through Saturday was the brief stand-off with Ramey as Leone and anticipation thereof from his aria “Mentre gonfiarsi.” Muti gave the underpinning of “Di flagellar” all the forza one could ask for, but Abadrazakov lightly splayed on the D-flats to extent that practically all weight to his lines dissipated, giving ‘Di flagellar’ something of a Flying Nun intensity. Ramey’s Leone, once down several notes to A-flat from D-flat may have disintegrated into wobble, but his initial top D-flat or two matched Muti for sufficient heft with which Muti backed him.

Odabella is a part hybrid between Abigaille warrior maiden and lirico spinto. Violeta Urmana is more convincing as the former, but perhaps not by much. Her top, when not pressed upon, does sound lyric, much as Jessye Norman could often sound like a lyric soprano above the staff, and a mezzo much of the rest of the way down. Norman, however, stayed away from Odabella and similar. These are, after all, still two quite different singers. For more heroic accents in Odabella, Urmana mostly has them as far as making it to top of the staff, but above the staff, the tone turns hard, tight, and when pushed, really strident. Some of Odabella’s tessitura is slightly above where height of it should normally be for Urmana. By contrast, lower notes sounded full with time to prepare them well, but while rapidly so instead, slightly wan.

Most curious, in taking on such a part, Urmana’s voice now starts to show breaks between what might be detected to be as many as four, perhaps five different registers. There was in a way more of an Amneris on stage for this than really an Odabella, except when notes at the break, for instance F’s at end of ensemble closing Act Two, would also go slightly loose on Miss Urmana. In leading choral, ensemble passages, one or two in unison with the Foresto of Ramon Vargas, had both of their voices blend into, instead of lead the ensemble - such as to end the banquet scene (Act Two). The great romanza that opens Act One came across slightly cloudy – decent expression, legato otherwise – with smudged, yodeled sextuplets in cadenza toward its conclusion.

Foresto again was entrusted to quite pure Rossini-Donizetti lyric Ramon Vargas, whose top has already appeared to have again come a bit loose from middle and below, as it had often early on. I found it curious how fine a match he and Urmana made, with what heavier assignments are commonplace for her, throughout this. Vargas relaxed well on lyrical pages, such as especially for romanza to open the final scene of the opera. Notes, even for such, were at once both lightly bench-pressed and placed in head voice. Whatever forza Foresto must get across that a secure lyric spinto tenor like Bergonzi mustered very well, was nowhere to be found, however valiantly attempted.. Such valor brought from Vargas the bitter fruit of choppy line and at times questionable intonation. The Manrico-Leonora type cabaletta ending one long duet had to rest content for Urmana and Vargas to merely coast through it.

Most successful of the four principals was a relative unknown in Giovanni Meoni, to replace Carlos Alvarez on short notice, as Ezio. Nothing occurred here to overwhelm one’s impression of Abdrazakov; one sensed from Meoni too a little squeeze above the staff in reaching notes there. He had the most comfortable time though, essaying his lines, finding fine variety of color to nuance them and make, if a somewhat lean, still a forceful impression, even at the Met. The fine bloom on his voice, musical sensitivity and fine profiling of his lines throughout the brief afternoon made a few passages of Ezio’s music sound the best that they could. Russell Thomas was the equally incisive Uldino to the Foresto of Ramon Vargas, though obviously assigned the simpler task – Thomas first introduced to many of us at the Met in HD Macbeth as Malcolm.

The prelude to Attila started things off well, with good ominous color from lower reaches. Color Muti drew especially out of the Met winds and mostly flexible support he very capably gave all his cast offered much promise.. Even if this could have been an Attila without singers, Muti’s success with Attila one would still best judge as qualified – even with his having made his work in Verdi of practically legendary status at La Scala, drawing higher standards of playing and choral singing there than is most likely still possible today. If there was way in which one found a lapse in the quality of Muti’s work, it was not all due to Muti curiously not placing it quite entirely in perspective the thinness of inspiration in some of Verdi’s writing here. Such first became conspicuous from clean, but wan sounding violins during the prelude on their unison lines over brass.

Imbalance of voices toward end of Act Two that failed to make ensemble closing it calibrate as well as it should have was beyond Muti’s control, as was Abadrazakov’s solo entry of recitative between mostly a cappella concertato and stretto therein, restoring intonation back up almost a quarter-tone to where it belonged. Instability of Met tenors and at times of Met chorus overall was practically as disturbing as usual; this could only be fairly referred to as an internal problem.

Excessive clipping of part of the storm interlude toward the end of the Prologue was however mostly indiscretion on Muti’s part; towards what, it was hard to tell – except for pedantic accenting of major choral announcements moments later also evident. Much compartmentalization of rehearsal time that has taken place at the Met as of late is also likely a culprit. If however he did not secure optimum tone from his choral forces, Muti showed particular insistence on tight rhythmic accuracy and point from them, such that was very clear and very welcome. Muti managed to make closing passages of Attila cohere very well, with fine cumulative sense to them well anticipated and delivered.

Most of all, this Attila lacked voices – juice that must flow from such quintessential for really practically any Verdi - Otello and Falstaff only being partial exceptions.

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At March 13, 2010 at 9:14 AM , Blogger karlufert said...

"Most of all, this Attila lacked voices"... No one else seems to be talking about this point. If there were great voices in the production accompanied/partnered by Muti's great conducting, it would have been a triumph despite some of the odd constraints of the production. Imagine if we had prime Ramey or Siepi or Ghiaurov, Callas or Dimitrova or Mancini (or Deutekom), Bastianini or Zancanaro, and Corelli or Bergonzi or Cossutta with Muti's great orchestra? Who would have given a c--p about the eccentricities of the staging? :-)

At March 13, 2010 at 12:45 PM , Blogger Don Quixote said...

In the YouTube playlist of Attila excerpts above, we can well hear and/or see everything that went amiss at the Met, from the production to the singing. And although none feature Callas or Dimitrova or Mancini or Deutekom, notice that the soprano isn't chopped liver and, in fact, it merits mentioning that she suprassed the miscast Odabella in NYC, by several intergallactic light years. And oh yes, Ramey and Muti too are in there somewhere. How fortunate we are to have the above documents for posterity!


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