Seattle Opera’s Attila is a Mixed Success

United StatesUnited States  Verdi, Attila: Seattle Opera, Soloists, Carlo Montanaro (conductor). McCaw Hall, Seattle, 14.1.2012 (BJ)

Director: Bernard Uzan
Sets: Charles Edwards
Costumes: Melanie Taylor Burgess
Lighting: Connie Yun
Hair and Makeup Design: Joyce Degenfelder
Chorus Master: Beth Kirchhoff
Musical Preparation: Philip A. Kelsey, David McDade, and Jay Rozendaal

Attila: John Relyea
Uldino: Jason Slayden
Odabella: Ana Lucrecia Garcia
Ezio: Marco Vratogna
Foresto: Antonello Palombi
Leone: Michael Devlin

The rewards of Attila, the early Verdi work that had its Seattle Opera premiere on 14 January, are in the nature of visceral thrills rather than the profound musical inspiration or psychological insight of the composer’s then maturity. There was enough in Bernard Uzan’s new production, presented on an imposing set originally designed by Charles Edwards for the Opéra National du Rhin in eastern France, to realize many of those thrills. The orchestral playing under Carlo Montanaro’s baton was especially impressive: the strings were sumptuous in tone, and the young composer’s brash cabalettas sprang into action with an élan calculated to set the listener’s pulse racing.

On the face of it, the singing of the principals was comparably thrilling. The outstanding bass-baritone John Relyea in the title role, Marco Vratogna as the Roman general Ezio, Ana Lucrecia Garcia as Odabella, and Antonello Palombi as Foresto all unfurled voices of stellar quality. Vratogna and Palombi, however, unfurled them all too generously. Palombi’s singing in particular, abandoning the sensitivity he showed here in recent productions of Aida and Pagliacci, might not unfairly be described on this occasion as one unrelieved shout.

It was revealing, moreover, to compare his and Vratogna’s insistent fortissimo with Relyea’s performance: whereas those two gentlemen sounded vocally one dimensional, even when Relyea was singing just as loudly there was always a sense of light and shade about his tone. And Ms Garcia’s Odabella, though understandably a touch squally at the top of the range put in play by Verdi’s unrestrained soprano writing, had the wit and understanding to shade her tone effectively at the story’s relatively few intimate moments.

Unfortunately, quite aside from the absurdity of some of the costumes, the visual side of the production was even more problematic than its musical aspect. Uzan is usually good at marshaling his characters in a manner that brings to life the relations among them. This time, however, at least one scene – a long, gradually evolving argument between Odabella and Foresto – was robbed of its dramatic intensity by the way the two strolled around the stage hardly ever sparing a glance for each other.

More damaging still was the fundamental interpretative thrust of the production. Before the music began, we were treated to the sight of three prisoners being shot to death. Without this, we would of course not have understood that Attila was engaged in some pretty nasty warfare.

You think I jest. But what I want to suggest is that almost all such directorial additions and up-datings stem from disrespect for the public’s intelligence. Just as, musically, I would have given anything at many points for just ten seconds of pianissimo, so, dramatically, I would have welcomed some recognition from Uzan that his audience might be able to understand the story’s relevance for today’s war-torn world without the importation of guns and modern uniforms to spell it out with mind-numbing literalness. Taken to its logical extreme, moreover, the kind of thinking implicit in such methods might well prompt the conclusion that this production was still irrelevant, because at least one feature of modern conflict – the practice of suicide bombing – was unrepresented in it.

Bernard Jacobson

A shorter version of this review appeared in the Seattle Times.