Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Il re s'avanza

What do graduate students do with spring break? Why, take advantage of the quiet library during the day, and take advantage of its early closure to go see opera in the evening! There were three of us who planned ahead and bought tickets to make sure we didn't miss Verdi's Attila. As the Met tirelessly reminded us, this was to be an Event: the first time the opera was performed at the Met, Riccardo Muti's Met debut, etc. Being medievalists, we were especially excited at the prospect of tumultuous fifth-century history (plus myth, of course!) on the opera stage.

The stylized, larger-than-life sets certainly supported the sense of the work as a clash between forces of elemental strength. (I thought it was especially effective to have the hymn to Wotan, in the prologue, sung not by a spear-waving army of victorious Huns, but rather by the legion of the slaughtered in Attila's wake. The chorus lay at the foot of the stage, beneath the imposing figure of the conqueror, their splayed limbs uncomfortably reminiscent of photographs of mass graves of the twentieth century.) A distinct advantage, from my point of view, was that this approach to the production allowed for much quicker transitions between scenes than would have been possible with a more literal approach to Huns on the march, hermits on an island, lovers meeting in a forest, etc. The stark approach to lighting also had the effect of focusing attention on the dynamic interactions of the singers. However, and this is a significant qualification, the overall effect, while striking, did nothing to bolster dramatic plausibility. It was a great musical evening, and I don't demand realism. But, despite the slaughtered chorus, I never felt that the sets suggested the "moral ambiguity" which the program note claimed they strove to imply. Ah well.

Appropriately enough, Ildar Abdrazakov's Attila was vocally dominant: powerful, but always too volatile for invulnerability. After his gripping "Mentre gonfiarsi l'anima," no less a figure than Samuel Ramey (in quite fabulous satin papal robes!) could have credibly opposed him. Ramey, to my deep delight, did so with irresistible gravitas. As for the other principals: Meoni warmed up during the prologue to provide a satisfactorily weaselly Ezio (well, he seemed weaselly to me.) I suspect the fact that Ramon Vargas' Foresto seemed dramatically flat, despite vocal verve, was not his fault. He sang sympathetically, but I never quite believed that he and the Amazonian Odabella of Violeta Urmana could be devoted lovers.

Vocally, Urmana's fiery Odabella seemed much better matched to Abdrazakov, understandably intrigued by her fearless fury. Granted, it's unfair to read Verdi backwards through Hollywood cinema. But as demonstrated by Hepburn and Tracy, Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable, and Bogart and Bacall, among others, it is but a short step from heated verbal sparring to impassioned acknowledgment of complementarity. Urmana and Abdrazakov, sensually full-voiced, both absolutely intent on achieving their conflicting goals, had undeniable chemistry, and, from the Act II banquet onwards, coordinating golden garments! Miuccia Prada seemed to be hinting the same thing as the on-stage sparks: really, these two should set aside their differences (without systematic research, I have a hunch that several operatic relationships might be derailed if sopranos always insisted on getting vengeance for murdered fathers) and unite in duets. Alas, Verdi's drama took its predetermined course, and the ravaging Hun was struck down in an arresting tableau backed by an inimitably Verdian climax.

Riccardo Muti's treatment of the (critically edited) score was brilliant enough that I know I didn't appreciate everything he put into it. But there was depth and subtlety, shimmering and ominous sound, precision so perfect it sounded like spontaneity and abandon. And I shouted my "Bravo!" not only for this, but also for the fact that once upon a time in Philadelphia, I was just as carried away by his conducting, while understanding it even less. And when I chanced to see him after that performance, I went up to him, natural timidity overcome by excitement and gratitude, and pulled his coattail to get his attention. And without condescension (to which my 6-year-old self was keenly attuned) he gravely bent, and listened to my thanks, and shook my hand. Even if he doesn't return to the Met (but I hope he will!) I'll have to work on hearing the maestro at intervals shorter than two decades.

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