Uno scandalo at the opera house? In his long-awaited Met debut, conducting the house’s first performance of Verdi rarity “Attila,” Riccardo Muti accepted the audience’s huge ovation along with his cast at opera’s end. But when his creative team fielded a chorus of boos, the maestro took one more bow, gave his orchestra a quick wave and then exited. It’s virtually unheard of for a conductor to leave his cast onstage before the final curtain comes down. But Muti had worked closely with the creative team and apparently took the affront personally. Too bad. Although not a polished, mature work, “Attila” deserves to be heard, and this production also makes it worth seeing.
If Muti can be faulted in any way, it’s for assembling a competent but less-than-ideal cast to sing the story of Attila (Ildar Abdrazakov), king of the Huns. He defeats the Italians only to make the fatal choice of falling in love with Odabella (Violeta Urmana), whose father recently died defending his country.
Abdrazakov is a sensitive singer with a sizable voice, but he lacks the muscle and mettle to make a truly electrifying portrait of this deeply tormented monster-general. It also doesn’t help that Samuel Ramey, who once owned the role and is now at the end of a great career, makes a brief appearance as a Roman bishop, as if to remind us what the lead requires.
Met audiences can only wish Muti had brought “Attila” to the house a decade ago, when Maria Guleghina might have made vocal fireworks with the dramatic coloratura that defines Odabella, a first cousin to Verdi’s Abigaille and Lady Macbeth. Urmana sang the fiendishly heated “Santo di patria” with caution, not abandon, exposing a dangerously unsupported top. Later, in her lament “Oh! Nel fuggente nuvolo,” a more contemplative moment that makes less vocal demands, she caressed the vocal line with a nicely spun legato.
As Odabella’s love interest, Foresto, Ramon Vargas overtaxed his lyric tenor. Only opening-night substitute Giovanni Meoni completely delivered the goods. In his Met debut, he replaced an ailing Carlo Alvarez as Ezio, the Roman general who gets to deliver the stirring “Tardo per gli anni,” which, at the opera’s 1846 premiere in Venice, turned into an immediate call for Italian unity. Meoni is the real thing, a true Verdi baritone.
Despite the singers at his disposal, Muti brings sweep and grandeur to the sometimes bombastic music. Verdi’s writing here may lack the subtlety of his later scores, but there’s a youthful fire-in-the-belly quality that offers much excitement.
While Verdi meant the opera as a kind of battle cry, director Pierre Audi delivers a decidedly antiwar message. His production opens with architectural team Herzog & de Meuron’s warscape of a contempo city turned upside-down; the stacks of crumbled reinforced concrete mesh seamlessly with the prone bodies of soldiers at the lip of the stage.
Miuccia Prada supplies those grunts with fatigues and tank tops, while the armies’ upper echelons — whether they be Huns or Italians — get to wear costumes replete with militaristic doodads: illuminated studs, flowing leather fringe and tortoise-like shoulder pads. Later, while their attire retains the same distressed elegance, the set turns into a gorgeously verdant place that will one day be Venice.
Swamp or cement, Herzog & de Meuron’s set pushes the action way down front and plays out the drama on a numbers of levels, with the generals and knights literally on top of the soldiers. Only those big circular holes in the foliage seem out of place, giving the proceedings a Disney “Tarzan” quality at times.
But what is the Met to do with its increasingly recalcitrant opening-nighters?
After one long pause for set changes, Muti took the podium and glared at the audience for several long seconds before the talking ceased. After another similar interlude, he held up his left hand to quiet them. And it must be difficult for a conductor of his artistry to endure the Gotham penchant for breaking into applause between every cavatina and cabaletta. Once again, the Met audience showed itself to be a bunch of boors.