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What not to wear

The Met’s premiere production of Verdi’s Attila is terrible. Are you surprised?

attila_squirrel

Attila is like a self-conscious stroll down Rodeo Drive – or even worse, to the Mall of America – reducing an opera about ruthless tyranny brought down by ruthless vengeance to a quaint and insipid fashion show.

Directed by Pierre Audi and with costumes and sets by Miuccia Prada and Herzog and de Meuron, the Met’s first-ever production of Attila is a disheartening flop for the company at a time of transition in their approach to Opera as Theater. Virtually every detail of this production could be gleaned from the production stills reproduced in the mainstream media — indeed, this production is like a Powerpoint™ presentation of Attila that could accompany a radio broadcast. And in spite of Riccardo Muti‘s inspired conducting, there’s little justification for mounting this dog of an opera on the Met stage in the first place.

And what happens on the stage? Practically nothing. An obscure, violent opera with a dodgy plot and relatively unmemorable music can be an opportunity for a director to let loose with a big, entertaining concept. But this production team is a committee of star egos, and director Pierre Audi’s hands seem to be tied by designers run amok, too self absorbed to contribute meaningfully to Attila’s theatrical possibilities.   Thus Audi’s direction has no teeth, leaving his haplessly awkward cast with park-and-bark “Verdi opera poses” of a classic Met vintage.

The dream team was very likely assembled under the strong hand of Muti, who has recently been coddled in New York like he’s the Second Coming of Christ. (His concerts with the New York Philharmonic this week have been headed off with text messages and emails announcing there will be no late seating and imploring us to “please arrive on time!”)*

Musically, Attila fares fine.  Many will be intrigued to hear choral writing that looks forward to Aida, especially in the grand choruses, and the Priestesses’ harp-accompanied scene upon which Aida’s Sacerdotesse are modeled. The Act Three orchestral introduction is cut from the same mould as the beautiful prelude before the third act of Rigoletto, and is equally magical in effect.  Yes, Attila has nice moments, but they are the same moments found in Verdi’s other, more enduring, works.

The singing has been mostly competent, with no revelatory performances but also little cause for protest. The conducting: genius, of course: Riccardo Muti has been received with an almost irrational fervor.  He is certainly a great conductor, especially in the Verdi repertoire, and he shapes this score into something resembling a musical event. The short, elegiac prelude bloomed with a rich legato rarely heard here, even under the exacting and often inspired baton of James Levine. The numerous indistinguishable arias and cabalettas were accompanied with uncommonly energetic polish and precision, and dramatic choral scenes moved with a grace and power for which Muti is now recognizable.

But while Muti’s judgment on musical matters is mostly beyond reproach, it is hard to imagine what he was thinking when he assembled this team including set designers Herzon and De Meuron. Their sets, while visually striking, reveal the cerebral, myopic vision of professional star-chitects. The post-apocalyptic concrete rubble of the Prologue, with its angular, rugged neatness, is a vague visual cliché of contemporary urbanism much like the lush, green terrarium seen in the rest of the opera is a conceit of leafy city parks.

The set is the dubious star of the opera, so large and cumbersome that the cast is forced to perform on a narrow catwalk, swallowed by the dimensions of their surroundings. Breaking the Met’s stage into horizontally paneled partitions (using the Met’s hydraulic lift,) it is effective in showing Venice’s origins from the depths of ruin in the second part of the Prologue. But throughout Acts 1-3, they take one of the tallest and deepest stages in New York and reduce it to a crowded, two-dimensional scaffold.

Under these conditions, Audi has little room to work. Poor Samuel Ramey, in his walk-on as the Bishop, who was given no instructions except to literally walk on, stand in a waiting spotlight, and wave the cross. Then in the final scene, in one of the only glimpses of Personenregie, Odabella and her co-conspirators play an extended game of hide-the-sword from a suspicious – yet remarkably unguarded – Attila, who is handily stabbed to death. Except for the set, this inept Attila could be the Sonia Frisell Aida from 1988.

I hate to give Prada’s inept costumes any undue scrutiny, but they serve as a wonderful metaphor for this image-conscious yet ultimately lifeless production. The best bit, Odabella’s Bride-of-Frankenstein beehive, almost seems like an attempt at high-camp expressionism (an approach which would have made for an entertaining evening!) But she doesn’t manage to carry this idea. Instead, we get soldiers in tshirts with the sleeves rolled up, skinny pants and boots, industrial trench coats, distressed cotton, and double-breasted fur waistcoats.

And what of those models? We learned a few months ago that Prada, frustrated with her zaftig supernumeraries (“I cannot clothe them!”), insisted on actual models for the mute parts of the imprisoned Italian slave girls. In the Sacerdotesse scene in Act Two, she clothes the fat, embarrassing chorus in denim and dim lighting (as though they were her frumpy family members we’ve not yet met) who sing the part while wispy models in couture mime the scene above. It is a tacit admission that she has neither the interest nor the skill to work as a theater costumier, and that she views this project merely as an advertisement for her next overpriced dress.

Some will say that calling Attila a failure for the Met is unfair. They will say that bringing Muti to the Met was a triumph, and if his idiosyncrasies guided this production more than Peter Gelb’s vision for the house, it is a reasonable trade-off.

But Attila is one of only a handful so far in Gelb’s tenure featuring a prominent and respected European director at the helm. Patrice Chéreau’s From the House of the Dead, a resounding success, was created elsewhere and unpacked virtually ready-made. Luc Bondy’s ugly but innocuous Tosca opened the season by breaking all the rules while seeming oddly watered-down.

Perhaps this Attila could have revealed the innately theatrical qualities in haute couture — or brought an architect’s sense of trompe l’oeil to draw the spectator into something magical. A one-dimensional tyrant like Attila is particularly in need of a strong creative team to lend him complexity or — barring that — raw power. Neither happened. Sometimes when things don’t look very good on paper, it’s for a reason. So don’t be surprised when this Hun hits the clearance rack faster than last year’s military-inspired utility vest.

*Never mind that this is an ordinary concert, presumably with an intermission between Brahms’s First Piano Concerto and Hindemith’s Symphony in E Flat. If you ever wanted to know what it was like to be chastised by Gustav Mahler for entering the Vienna Opera after the overture has begun, now’s your chance!

(Photo: Ken Howard, Metropolitan Opera)

203 comments

  • Harry says:

    Bluesweet: If only the Philadephia Orchestra had another Eugene Ormandy to follow, after his demise rather than that slick-glitz Muti. I treasure the Ormandy recordings made with the Philadelphia but not those made with Muti. In comparision, Muti is . and always has been a promoted up- start.

    If people want start to putting Muti on a pedestal; think first of not only Ormandy, but Reiner, Monteux, Walter, Abbado, Guilini or even Levine etc. Muti is not fit to even tie up any of their shoes. What is HIS built legacy so far , at this point of time?. Other than being notorious at trumpeting on -- about his own strict set of music tempo -- agendas.
    What number of truly exceptional moments has he actually contributed to Music? I would be interested to know.

  • Harry says:

    I now get that depicted set as dispayed in the photo at the top of the page. Hoq dumb of me not to decode ot earlier. (1) Leafy forest: Attila’s encampment…(2)Large blue plastic crinkled car tarpaulin……..representing shelter ( and paying lip service to the mod cool of the stage design freaks)

    • Jack Jikes says:

      (3) … like a self-conscious stroll down Rodeo Drive -- in the ‘stylishly written review’ [Cocky @ 43] WTF!

  • Cocky Kurwenal says:

    My goodness. While I felt Squirrel’s review was a touch extreme in terms of its condemnation of the opera itself, I mostly read it with a feeling of intimidation, so well written did it seem to me. I would have been interested in a bit more of a discussion of the actual singing, (particularly in the case of Urmana who was taking on an extremely difficult role, never mind the fact that I’m still unsure as to whether the move up to soprano was wise) but I don’t see why he was obliged to provide further detail as this has no doubt been done to death elsewhere. Bravo, Squirrel, for a very absorbing and stylishly written review.

    • Jay says:

      Yes, Squirrel was too dismissive of “Attila” as an opera. But otherwise, his reporting was wry and insightful, at least based on what I’ve read about this apparent cur of a production. Others in this thread have been dissing “Falstaff” (which many of us regard as one of opera’s masterworks) and I don’t see any vituperation being directed their way.

      Performed with a good cast, “Attila” is one of Verdi’s best earlier works. I hope those who haven’t seen a well-cast, workable production of “Attila” have a chance to do so because it has some good tunes, stirring action, etc.

      I concur with those who say if you’re going to review, then you should be forthright about who you are. However, nom-de-plumes have long existed, from Elia (and earlier in British literature), to Mark Twain, to Opera Chic.

      A digression re: Mark Twain (the centennary of whose death is on April 21). I guess Britten didn’t read “Huckleberry Finn” or he might have been all over it (“come back to the raft a’gin, Huck, honey”). Or maybe Britten wasn’t one to write in the American venacular. (Hall Overton’s “Huckleberry Finn” opera quickly sank.)

      In any case, Squirrel’s writeup was a report, not a review, replete with witty, pithy observations, and in this instance his alias was not inappropriate.

  • Ruxton says:

    There’s nothing more entertaining than reading a thread where a whole lotta queens get precious. I’m on Squirrel’s side. Clearly the singing wasn’t that spectacular (or awful)- and I got the gist of what he was saying. Far better his review than some of the other pretentious crap that passes for “reviews” that don’t mean a thing….and what’s with this tripe about anonymity on Parterre? What a hoot!
    Seems a few posters have had a slow week this week and their brains are going “Avatar”.
    Good God…does this mean I agree with Harry? …and speaking of Harry- one can only wonder -- what part of Harry’s meanderings did some unfortunate reviewer plageurise? One can only wonder if he was sacked afterwards for abusing someone or using unfathomable foul diatribes.
    Lighten up guys and gals- the weekend is coming and I can’t wait to read another one of Squirrels reviews :)

  • Ruxton says:

    Ps Am so relieved to see there are plenty of others who just don’t get “Falstaff.” And I thought I was the only gay in the Village.

    • Harry says:

      Firsly treat Falstaff as a symphony with voices and when it may come to pass that ‘it actually clicks’ , then change and call it an opera!

      I am always fascinated here when I sense people approaching an opera in some strict way of getting to know it. By getting the recording, sitting down with the libretto, and religiously reading each line as it progresses. I can only surmise it is seen ‘as a musical appreciation task they feel they must do’ with something unfamiliar- to be a better opera lover.
      I always preferred to firstly ‘fly blind’, reading just a synopsis as the guide, then throwing the ‘strange’ work in the player and letting it play repeatedly as background music. If it has any intrinstic worth, some phrase, section or moment will burn into one’s brain. There usually is at least one noted striking moment. Next time, we will naturally be ‘looking out for it’ while connecting other parts. Before long when the picture is complete, now pick up the libretto if one has to. Motto: ‘Start with that interesting ear catching pebble to start and keep the ripples moving, keep dropping it in as it gets bigger and you can start waves of interest’.

  • Harry says:

    Ruxton: Almost all those cross relating musical meanderings of mine you refer to- Ruxton, it would have to be said: takes some sort of life long dedicated investigating effort to collect them along the way.. Just as some many others here, have had to do the same. I will give examples of ‘why’ I have the attitudes I have formed about parts of the ‘critic’s profession’ at times.
    I will give examples of ‘some critics’ I have come across.

    (1)One, that had to have to use his extremely well educated wife ‘beat his opinions’ into some form of jouralistic shape, before they were even worthy of being presented. In person: always name dropping, claiming self expertise and yes, even previous fame….yet being virtually the ‘tea boy’ on one or two ‘drawing room’ stage shows, many decades ago!

    (2)Another hack who always goes to things ususally based on the strength of what sort of ‘free feed ‘ he will get after some first night performance. He ‘this guts’ -has been witnessed scoffing down his third full plate of food at such events… it is assumed he is a tight fish-arsed miser at home. Then he always signs off his ‘reviews’ something along the lines: with either “Well it was well received” or “The audience was full of applause for the peformers efforts”.

    (3) A third critic now dead who was a well known rampart kleptomaniac -- ‘sprung red-handed’ on many occasions, a complete pathological liar, a sly chiseller of charity funds and an alcoholic. Yet appearing seemingly able to slip out of such hairy situations. A person who always falsely told people about appearing with those that did become ‘later famous stars’ in particular productions and even quoting ‘the year’.'World Premiere too’ was the boast in one case. A little research…..That production was world permiered elsewhere some 11 years previous to the date quoted by ‘this monster’.
    So yes, I did get truly pissed off completely with this ‘fraud’by taking off the gloves. By obtaining its resume by round-about means , and since it contained other glaring falsehoods when joined together with copies of old newspaper clippings and reviews -- totally debunked the creditabilty of this creature. I sent ‘examine, compare and read’ command -copies, to where they had the most effect! At least it got that fraud finally off the scene.

    Get any one of those ‘critics’ in conversation where they are under pressure about ‘what they actually know’; and watch all the bland side -tracking diverting platitudes start. Yet they may even have websites to help their thespian networking!!! In short, just fuckwit phonies truly worried about one thing: being found out and the freebies stopping. Would such creatures ever slam a production justifiably needing it…..never! So there you are, Ruxton, it is explained.

    Squirrel: keep swiping when and if, the need arises. The honest critic signpost: ‘no allegiance to anyone’.
    Keep writing what I beleive are your ‘straight from the heart’ reviews. They are most welcome. Look how much buzz they create.

  • Nerva Nelli says:

    Let the damned phonies and gift bag snatchers tremble:

    GIVE ‘EM HELL HARRY is on the job.

  • Ruxton says:

    Harry -- thanks for the expose, but I think you misunderstand me. As far as the critics go- I have the pleasure of knowing a few really good ones- and one of the best ones in this part of the world is a very close friend of mine. As far as “other” critics go, I take them as I find them by their reviews and either enjoy them or I don’t.
    Beyond that, I couldn’t care less whether they are hacks or kleptomaniacs or root ducks or finger hippopotamus’s backsides- my own life is way too busy to stick my nose into other people’s lives.

    What I was referring to- was some of the judgmental vitriol that you pour on not just individuals, but whole groups of people. Over the last few weeks alone, to just mention a few, you have dissed opera fans per se- many singers, a conductors or two, and people who contribute to forums like this, opera administrators, fans of Marlene Dietrich, and today its “critics”.

    When you do go for the jugular, you use such vitriol and “added colour” it frequently runs completely off the rails and enters the realm of non-sensical. When you complained about being plaguerised, having witnessed your “rants” for so long, I meant to just make the point that if anyone copied some of “your material” it would surely have some interesting consequences, for them.
    I won’t ask if there is anyone you do like because now we know there’s one- Squirrel! Good for him! He surely must be a man among men….but boy, Harry, It must be exhausting being you at times- all those moral outrages etc -- quite exhausting.

  • iltenoredigrazia says:

    So much ado about the merits of Attila and all based on one production/interpretation. Not even Verdi claimed Attila to be a masterpiece. It was a work commissioned for a theatre with music and drama likely to prove popular to that audience and catering to the capabilities of specific singers and orchestra.

    Now it has historical value; it illuminates how Verdi’s career progressed; provides a vehicle for some singers; has some enjoyable music; and can be fun under the right circumstances.

    One thing that hit me during the opening performance was how “expected” the aria/cabaletta and first verse/second verse of the cabaletta sequences were. Singing those two verses the same way made no sense to me and I can’t imagine that’s what Verdi or the public expected. This is not the kind of opera to take a literal or “as written” approach with. To me it’s an opera that cries for the interpolated high note here and there; the high note held for a long time; the singers going for a “can you top this” approach in the duets; etc. It needs passion. Hot blooded passion.

    Many cooks can cook using the same recipe but you shouldn’t judge the recipe based on what just one cook did with itor how it was served.

  • Ruxton says:

    “Many cooks can cook using the same recipe but you shouldn’t judge the recipe based on what just one cook did with it or how it was served” -- how wise you are iltenordegrazia and what a great analogy.

    This so aptly applies to artists, operas, productions and our opinions about everything. Vive la difference!