First, let’s get to the truly good news about the first production ever of Giuseppe Verdi’s 1846 Attila at the Metropolitan Opera. As conducted by Riccardo Muti — in what is an unusually delayed debut by a major conductor — the early work is bright, vigorous, and rousing. And as Muti has guided Attila often, he knows the opus inside-out and makes certain its martial atmosphere pulses unceasingly. Under his baton, the Met Orchestra sounds as persuasive as it does at its best.
The less-than-good news is the production itself, directed by Pierre Audi with not inappropriate stateliness. Unfortunately, it eventually becomes so static that it gives the incorrect impression that the item on view is an oratorio with backdrops, rather than a full-fledged opera.
Famed architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron have designed what looks like a granite pit for the prologue and a lush-forest upstage curtain for the following three acts. When a circle of flora is removed for a few of the short scenes to reveal the singers, there’s the distinct suggestion of Osama bin Ladin hiding in caves. Meanwhile, legendary fashion designer Miuccia Prada has created the costumes in her familiar murky colors, including what looks like Army skivvies for the superb chorus.
Everything robust and melodic in Verdi’s work is present in the opera’s arias, duets, quartets, and orchestral interludes. The reluctance to air the opera more often can be traced to its story, which recounts the obstacles conquering warrior Attila (Ildar Abdrazakov) faces when deciding whether to sack Rome in 425 A.D., including his encounters with Odabella (Violeta Urmana) — who is avenging her father’s death and allied with Roman General Ezio (Giovanni Meoni, replacing the indisposed Carlos Alvarez) — and her beloved Foresto (Ramon Vargas).
At the time of Attila‘s premiere, the opera was understood as veiled recognition of Italy’s desire for emancipation from the Austro-Hungarian empire, and the score’s anthems were a matter of patriotic response. Obviously, that same urgency is no longer felt by audiences today.
Still, the piece proves a fine showcase for the right singers. Abdrazakov produced lush sounds that, although not quite large enough to fill the house, were underpinned by sensitive acting. In his “Mentre gonfiarsi l’anima,” during which Attila goes from reluctance about attacking Rome to conviction that he will, he was particularly moving. As the conniving Odabella, Urmana was affecting throughout her middle register, but shrill at her top. Vargas was effective as Foresto, and Meoni easily commanded the hall.
In the small role of the Roman bishop Leone, Samuel Ramey, an often acclaimed Attila, indulged a vibrato that was the vocal equivalent of a tattered flag waving limply in the wind. Nevertheless, he still possesses the kind of big voice that indicates what Attila can and should be.