Thursday, February 25, 2010

The last modernist

Attila -- Metropolitan Opera, 2/23/10
Abdrazakov, Urmana, Vargas, Meoni, Ramey / Muti

There were a slew of non-singing debuts in this house and company premiere of Verdi's 1846 opera on Attila the Hun -- not least the opera itself, here in Pierre Audi's new production -- but the most notable was conductor Riccardo Muti. Deposed five years ago from La Scala, he still retains iconic status in the opera world. Last night was the first time in many years that a conductor of comparable long acclaim and stature has stood on the Met podium in James Levine's absence.

Muti has the power and inclination to command. Like the first and greatest modernist conductor -- La Scala and Met legend Arturo Toscanini -- however, he quite publicly puts this at the service of the score, the composer's work as written. The most notorious result of this is that all unwritten high notes are suppressed in a Muti-led performance, and last night's Attila was no exception. But that hardly constitutes his aesthetic viewpoint: better to note the serious, fiery, and ever meticulously held and balanced musical execution he gets from his ensembles in both opera and concert.

The orchestra, of course, played well for Muti, with clear textures throughout and (for example) stupendous soft string sound at the beginning of Act III. Donald Palumbo's chorus, an essential (if ever hat-switching) player in this early Verdi drama, sang with similar skill and gusto. The cast, too, was strong top to bottom in the best Met tradition. And yet...

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The program note (written, I believe, by the editor of the new critical edition used in this production) helpfully observes that Attila is something of a high-water mark in Verdi's use of the cabaletta, the (usually -- and in this piece, always) quick, rhythmic, excited, and often virtuosic section following the slower "cantabile" section we often think of as the aria proper. More specifically we might say that Attila is a high-water mark in Verdi's use of the cantabile-cabaletta (slow-fast) double aria structure itself, which he goes to again and again here, providing equal interest in each part without messing around with the structure or balance as he would in later pieces.

But this cantabile-cabaletta setup is no modernist invention; it is the foundational building block of all bel canto -- that is, Italian romantic -- opera. And in this work Verdi is clearly using it (over and over) to his romantic aesthetic end.

The opera begins with Attila at the height of his power, being praised by the Huns for having just conquered the (northern Italian) Roman city of Aquileia. The prologue introduces the other three leads -- all Roman -- in succession: Odabella, Ezio, and Foresto. Each appears dispossessed, far from her or his much-desired goal -- Odabella needs honorable vengeance against Attila for her father, Ezio personal glory and power, and Foresto happiness (married to Odabella) in his now-wrecked homeland. Attila, of course, wishes to complete his conquest of Rome, and he does not get his big solo set piece until late in Act I -- when this great goal is, for the first time, in doubt.

The world can't accommodate all these desires at once, of course: not only is it Attila vs. the Romans, but -- as we see later in the story -- the particular Roman plans clash, though not quite so fatally. But each character, as he or she moves to enact his or her particular wishes, gets to take the stage for a solo sequence. First -- in the cantabile -- we hear the inner stirrings at length, pained or sublime or some combination of the two. Then the cabaletta, and what is that but the delighted roar of that individual's subjectivity as it attempts to become the world?

The protagonists of Attila are all confident in pushing their particular selves and visions forward in this way, which is no surprise given the chronology of Verdi's operas. We see an advance from 1844's Ernani, where all characters and singing (slow and fast) express, essentially, the same thing -- a glorious fatality -- while yet being leagues away from, say, Verdi's later masterpiece Don Carlo[s], in which the characters chase and express their wants ever the more mightily because it is so clear that all are beyond earthly reach. (Not to speak of Aida, where dramatic impulse has receded to a trickle before the immobile pageantry of ancient Egypt, and the cabaletta form appears transformed, at the end, in the slow (!) motion of "O terra addio" as the main couple's lives ebb away with romantic opera itself.)

And yet never in these main-career operas (one might regard Otello and Falstaff, written long after Verdi's post-Aida "retirement", as as proto-modern -- partly explaining their outsized 20th century esteem) is the musical-dramatic sense apart from these chained solo and ensemble outbursts: the later methods of, for example, through-composition or symphonic forms or an ever-acting and -commenting orchestra don't yet bring a conflicting truth against them. When a character takes the stage for a solo, the stage is his. Equality is seriatim, as each main character gets a turn -- or, perhaps, an interruption. (Even when, as in Don Carlos, Verdi inserts external comment on the action, it takes the form of such an interruption, on par with any other vocal bit.)

So the opera Attila is a confident Verdian glory of romanticism, the process by which European art proclaimed and elaborated first the infinity and then the infinite uselessness of human subjectivity and individuality. Attila's own course shows a not-yet-nihilistic form of the latter: humbled by Pope Leo's divinely-backed admonition at Act I's close, he veers to seek a sort of equality rather than complete dominion. But this is not, cannot be enough: the other characters have goals that demand complete victory for each of them, and Attila is opportunistically beset until the one for whom he sought most complete equality -- Odabella, his bride -- kills him. Just before the murder Attila, musically backgrounded after his great Act I revelation (he wished, after all, no longer to compete and squash), again attempts to reassert his self-suppressed ability to dominate, launching into a solo of accusation and outrage -- but his lone complaint is broken into by the other three leads, igniting with their interruptions the final quartet of Attila's doom. The musical form perfectly embodies the dramatic.

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But Muti is a modernist, and for all his musical understanding of Italian opera and its construction, his ear and brain gravitate to the objective -- not to the orderly riot of subjectivity that is the aesthetic essence of early Verdi. The score provides a measure of objectivity -- of course -- but it is deceptively flat, gives no special clue of the dramatic truths unleashed by having one singer grabbing the stage solo after another.

A modernist aesthetic in the pit does well for certain elements, and Muti is particularly fine in these: we hear all the various voices and harmonies clearly, phrasing is precise and appropriate, and, as mentioned above, the whole thing is based on a score restored by scholarship to a more Verdian state. Further, as one can hear from any Toscanini recording, modernism isn't incompatible with drama. But it's a peculiar kind of drama that's encouraged: with the composer's score at the center, it's the personality or ideology of the score's central, commanding interpreter -- the conductor himself -- that is ever more unitarily felt. This makes ever more sense with later, more modernist works, as the action shifts to the orchestra and the argument gets both longer and more abstruse -- or centered on a single character. Nevertheless it leaves precious little air for the multiple and various natural egoisms on which early Verdi -- like romantic opera generally -- depends.

So the characters of Verdi's Attila here appear a little shrunken, a little overzealously limited by Muti's baton and impressively accompanying orchestra. As modernism was born when individual subjectivity was sharply put in its place (e.g. "enough with the high notes!") -- replaced as the organizing basis of art with some new objective principle -- it can hardly be expected to display the thing with quite the unimpeded gusto of the romantic original. For all Muti's famous (and famously insightful) hands-on work with the individual singers, it simply does not come out the same. One sees Attila and his enemies a bit like the lions of a zoo, slightly depressing, no longer quite kings of the jungle-stage even if they are all kept in good trim.

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Not to take away from the singers, all of whom have shown plenty of personality in other, more expansive settings and actually do a good job here all around. Bass Ildar Abdrazakov (Attila) continued his string of strong outings outside the shadow of his wife (Olga Borodina); mezzo-turned-soprano (her last Verdi here was, I believe, Eboli) Violeta Urmana (Odabella) was strong and focused if not Italianate -- and did a decent try at a trill; meanwhile tenor Ramon Vargas (Foresto) did surprisingly well in rearranging his sound a bit to more heroic effect. Tenor Russell Thomas, who will sing Foresto in one of the later performances, also sang strongly in the smaller tenor part of Uldino, and Sam Ramey was authoritative in his few lines as Pope Leo the Great. But the big surprise was the unscheduled early Met debut of baritone Giovanni Meoni (Ezio). Meoni showed a layered, full-size instrument -- joining Ċ½eljko Lucic as perhaps the only full-blown "Verdi baritone" on the roster -- while not eschewing (as Lucic does) the nasty and villainous side of his character. In fact he seemed to embrace the crueler bits -- phrasing his part with spirit -- while retaining a certain charismatic integrity. Add these up and: more Verdi please. Di Luna, Rigoletto, Renato...

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The production got a fair amount of hype before the premiere, but turned out to be not much. It's far from the other premieres this season has seen: Tosca, From the House of the Dead, Hoffmann, Carmen -- all closely-directed, psychological shows with fine attention to character. This show appears not to have been directed at all, with some nicely textured but basically flat scenery acting as pretty backdrops to a stand&sing -- yes, a throwback to the bad old days, though in an updated primary-color palette. Miuccia Prada's costumes were low key for the chorus, a bit more elaborate for the principals. Attila and Odabella got tall headpieces: his an amazingly silly silver feathered helmet that sat atop his head for additional height (and was mercifully soon removed), hers a tall Marge Simpson hairdo. The Roman men got shoulder guards, I assume to show their military status, while Attila's slave Uldino was in a bulky snowsuit-looking thing that made him look sort of like a Krogan. (I'm quite sure, mind you, that Prada wasn't inspired by a video game.) The Pope was in a reasonably Pope-like plain outfit of white with red accents.

The two men (whoever they were -- was this the team of Jacques Herzog & Pierre de Meuron?) who came out to take bows for the production were booed, though not with the fury one heard at Zimmerman's Sonnambula or Bondy's Tosca. In fact I thought it was quite acceptably mediocre: the physical elements are attractive -- and acoustically friendly -- enough, the chorus is conveniently segregated into a bottom space and isn't made to run around, and perhaps on revival some assistant stage director will actually come up with nontrivial stage direction. Not worth a cheer, but not worth a boo either.

The show, however, is quite worth seeing and cheering, an unfamiliar but real example of Verdi's genius. I don't suppose next time could have Levine, Radvanovsky, and Calleja though...

1 comment:

  1. I, too, was in the audience for the first performance of ATTILA and agree with every word of this sensitive and intelligent review. In particular I was struck/surprised by the subtlety and sheer beauty of Meoni's voice. I only hope that he doesn't fall victim to Baritonitis and start that vocal strutting -- pushing his larynx down and back, bouncing testosterone off his vocal chords like drops of water on a hot griddle -- that bedevils so many otherwise good singers in this Fach. I also thought the production was perfectly adequate to the non-action that the libretto forces on the director. Not only do I agree that the boos were undeserved; I also thought the set for the Prologue was gorgeous, like a piece of architectural sculpture, and that it perfectly reflected the drama with which the opera opens. It was a fine night at the Met, and another notch on the bedpost for Peter Gelb.


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.