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


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)