Not your grandpa’s warlord: 'Attila' at Seattle Opera

Strong musical values and principal performances offset the company's unpersuasive modernization of 'Attila's' political struggles.

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Ana Lucrecia García as Odabella.

Strong musical values and principal performances offset the company's unpersuasive modernization of 'Attila's' political struggles.

The new production playing at Seattle Opera features invocations of Wotan, a warrior-maiden seeking vengeance, and an entire civilization facing its demise. But it's not a sneak preview of Götterdämmerung from next year’s Ring that the company is presenting. Rather Seattle Opera has brought Verdi’s Attila to the stage.

As the Verdi bicentennial year 2013 approaches (an anniversary the composer happens to share with Wagner), we’re likely to see more reassessments of the less-familiar operas from his “galley years”: the frantically busy decade early in his career when Verdi churned out something like a half of his entire oeuvre for the stage. Several of these not only helped establish his fame but — like Attila, with its scenario of patriotic Italians resisting invasion — cemented the public image of Verdi as a champion of the drive toward unification of Italy.

Premiered in 1846, Attila is (loosely) based on a work by an early German Romantic playwright, Zacharias Werner (Beethoven at one point also pondered adapting his play into an opera).  The opera is a historical fantasy set in the 5th century, when the real Attila the Hun laid waste to northern Italy and threatened to invade Rome. Attila shows the proud warlord yielding to the Pope’s entreaties to spare the Eternal City; bands of rebel fighters meanwhile plot to assassinate him. But Attila is ultimately done in by Odabella, a warrior woman dead set on payback for the devastation inflicted by the Huns.

Attila’s political passions lost their charge long ago, once Italy's unification was attained. As directed by Bernard Uzan, this production’s heavy-handed attempt to play up contemporary parallels with guerrilla insurgents and brutal warlords misfires completely. But the opera itself has been attracting attention of late: the Metropolitan staged it for the first time just two years ago, and San Francisco Opera has scheduled Attila as part of its upcoming summer season.

Still, there must be more to justify reviving a neglected opera like Attila than anticipations of the greatness to come. Though Verdi aficionados will certainly find themselves intrigued by the ways in which he tweaks formal conventions here. Otherwise, why not focus resources on undisputed masterpieces of the Verdi canon that have been absent too long from Seattle Opera’s stage — Otello, Don Carlo?

Despite some undeniable weaknesses in its score and even critical flaws in its libretto, Attila can still supply an impressive operatic experience on its own terms — apart from the composer we sense waiting in the wings. But the vibrantly theatrical clash of civilizations Verdi has conjured here flickers only intermittently in the current production, which actually exaggerates the opera’s shortcomings instead of smoothing them over.

Fortunately, Attila’s virtues are persuasively advocated by some key members of the cast — most notably Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea, a welcome presence at Seattle Opera, who brings a fascinating combination of charisma and self-doubt to the hefty title role.

In the opening scene, one of several monumental crowd tableaux that punctuate the opera, he uses his commanding sonority to underscore the public role he has built up as the “scourge of God,” able to instill terror into his enemies. But Relyea also gives voice to the other dimensions of the character explored by Verdi’s music, especially in the secret terrors he owns up to while recounting a dream in which he foresees his encounter at the gates of Rome. His alternating doubt and resolve, too textured to allow for predictable posing as a thuggish tyrant, bring out the sympathetic elements in Verdi’s portrayal.

As Odabella, Venezuelan soprano Ana Lucrezia García is nothing short of stunning in the formidable heroine’s call to action in the Prologue, which elicits even Attila’s admiration. She handles the dramatic leaps of range thrillingly, projecting an immense, organ-like power without downgrading the agility required by Verdi's heavily ornamented passages. With a little more coloring in later scenes, where Odabella’s vulnerability comes to the fore, García would convey a fully satisfying interpretation of this enormously challenging role.

The two also happen to be the opera’s most interesting characters. Foresto, Odabella’s betrothed, who leads a band of rebel fighters, is introduced with music of heroic promise, but his character is never really developed beyond that. Antonello Palombi commands attention with his darkly timbred, powerhouse tenor. But much as was the case when he sang Canio in I Pagliacci several seasons ago, it’s all too monochromatic, a performance of unrelenting loudness.

A rousing duet with Roman general Ezio, sung with matching fervor and a palpable sense of Ezio’s burning ambition by baritone Marco Vratogna, was almost a noise contest. 

In contrast tenor Jason Slayden, as Attila's double-crossing slave Uldino, brings out a number of fine details in his singing. Bass-baritone Michael Devlin appears briefly but imposingly as Leone — a politically correct stand-in for the Pope, who counters Attila’s planned sacking of Rome with oracular authority. (This production features only one date — January 22 — with an alternate cast for Attila, Odabella, and Foresto.)

Attila’s musical virtues are in exceptionally fine hands thanks to the lively contribution by conductor Carlo Montanaro. Montanaro helmed the orchestra last season in a sensitive account of Massenet’s Don Quichotte, which likewise memorably starred John Relyea. This time he makes the most of the score’s most attractive moments of tone painting, with its evocations of storms, dawn, and a marvelous nature montage for Odabella’s solo scene.

Without intrusive mannerisms, Montanaro fires up the rhythmic pulse and keeps the energy exciting, even in cabaletta accompaniments where Verdi goes on auto-pilot. Attilla is replete with wondrous choruses, and the company’s chorus, excellently prepared by Beth Kirchhoff, conveyed the miraculous music of sea-change in the act-one finale set before the gates of Rome.

At several crucial moments, Verdi’s score, which immediately precedes his Macbeth, incorporates references to a supernatural realm. But this gets short shrift in Bernard Uzan’s staging. Instead, Uzan and the design team superimpose an all-too-facile parable taken from the headlines about ruthless dictators and asymmetrical combatants, with a touch of the Arab Spring. Alarm bells go off during the orchestral prelude, as we’re treated to a pantomime of Attila’s hordes committing war atrocities.

The alarm comes not from the concept, but from its clumsiness, literally upstaging the drama Verdi has distilled into his prelude. And this happens over and over. An especially egregious example is in one of the opera’s finest scenes — a climactic banquet in which the partying Attila is saved from assassination by Odabella, who covets the pleasure of killing him herself, even if she has to pretend to be his bride. Instead of the fatal natural omens described throughout the scene, Uzan focuses attention on a charade of sex slaves being humiliated by Attila’s depraved men.

In the final scene, which already suffers from an inherent dramatic weakness by too suddenly shifting focus to the four principals, the presence of Attila’s heavily armed private guard only draws attention to the incongruity. While crowding the stage with these sorts of distractions, Uzan often leaves the main characters to do little more than pose and sing.

There’s no separate credit for the set design: a ruined Roman basilica that becomes a kind of palimpsest, with screen projections to change the scene as needed, from the lagoons of proto-Venice to a moody forest. All of which works nicely enough, except for some ridiculously persistent images that keep cropping up: Saddam-style portraits glorifying the Great Leader and a vast orange “A” underscored with rifles, very Quentin Tarantino in its garishness. Melanie Taylor Burgess’s militantly bright uniforms only exaggerate the silliness of this black-and-white division of Verdi’s drama.

Still, the musical values that do come across here leave an impression, and the chance to see a neglected opera like Attila is not one to miss.

If you go: Seattle Opera’s production of Attila runs through January 28 at McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., 206-389-7676.


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