I Will Rip Your Soul Apart
Verdi's Rarely Seen Attila Is Good Opera
The rule is that if you introduce a gun in the first act, it has to go off before the end of the play. But what if you introduce machine guns and the only things that ever go off are a bunch of stubby handguns? Is that, like, some postmodern, interspecies switchery that thwarts the dramatic cosmos? Ah, I don't care. I walked 3.2 hilly miles in the snow and ice to see Attila at Seattle Opera, and I'd do it again.
Verdi's Attila is almost never performed. It's a total curiosity. Verdi wrote it when he was 33, and it gets grouped among his operas condescendingly referred to as "Verdi minore." This is its first time at Seattle Opera, in a giddily anachronistic production that uses the letter "A" prominently. (Since the Occupy movement began, that "A" has been creeping into all kinds of sites.) Attila's "A" logo has a machine gun for its horizontal slash. The "A" appears as video-projected graffiti on Attila's harem wall. It gets spray-painted right in front of you, on the backs of Attila's female prisoners of war, after their husbands have been handgunned down, execution-style.
The opera premiered in 1846, based on an 1808 play written by a Norse-loving German named Zacharias Werner. It tells the story of the Hun's final adventure in Italy, where he died either of a nosebleed (history seems to prefer this) or at the hand of his new bride. Guess which story the opera prefers?
Verdi's big, loud, fast, beautiful (young) music goes a long way to make up for the libretto's holes. And Seattle's production is solid in the most important way: musically. Led by conductor Carlo Montanaro, the music gallops and shines, displaying Verdi's great intemperance. Bass-baritone John Relyea is the reason for the production. Seattle Opera head Speight Jenkins asked Relyea to do another (unspecified) role that became too expensive in this economy, so Relyea suggested Attila.
Barely 40, Relyea—who has been Mephistopheles and Figaro on the Metropolitan Opera stage in New York—was Don Quixote here last season; in 2009, he was perfectly nightmare-inducing as Bluebeard. As Attila, he's unexpectedly reserved. The role is just right for his mixed voice, but his performance is staid. I wanted more urgency.
Odabella, the feisty Italian woman who steals Attila's heart, is one of the most difficult parts in opera. Her vocal lines are up and down the register, both coloratura (rapid, lithe) and dramatic (big). Ana Lucrecia Garcia, a Venezuelan soprano performing only her second role at Seattle Opera (her first was Aida in 2008), shows astonishing strength across a broad range and a ferocious attack. The (very) occasional imprecision is to be expected.
Verdi was an Italian nationalist; in one of his earliest memories, he hid out with his mother during a French attack on his hometown. The Italians here are divided into opportunistic and noble: There's the rotten general, Ezio (precisely, proudly sung by Marco Vratogna), and Foresto, protector of the people (Antonello Palombi, super-passionate in that Italianate way that makes you adore him).
The action comes to a dramatic standstill when Attila is persuaded not to sack Rome by the appearance of a ghost: the future pope. The brief role is well sung by Michael Devlin. But what the production does particularly well—credit goes to French director Bernard Uzan, costume designer Melanie Taylor Burgess, and lighting designer Connie Yun—is communicate the deathly Skeletor chill of the Catholic Church in contrast to the graffiti-streaked harem of Attila.
This Attila is like Kim Jong-il—he installs portraits of himself everywhere, as big and kitschy as possible. Videos are projected over the scenery, brick-and-mortar ruins that were originally designed for a French opera company. Facades of classical columns stand over piles of discarded oil barrels and truck tires.
Taylor Burgess mashes looks together: Ezio is gaudy-African-dictator on the outside, red-pink-plum-Gucci on the inside; Attila is Platoon meets scarified and animal-pelted Wotan. No one gives a care that, in an Italian summer, these would have been some "hot Huns," as Jenkins writes in the program. Historical accuracy is no fun anyway. Fifth-century refugees can clutch photographs of the ones they've lost; the only question is whether it's good opera.
"I will rip your soul apart!" Attila promises. It's good opera.