Review: Reveling in Early Verdi: Relyea, Garcia, Vratogna, Palombi in Montanaro’s Uncut “Attila” – Seattle Opera, January 14, 2012

One year ago the Seattle Opera teamed Italian Conductor Carlo Montanaro with basso John Relyea in a new production of a relative rarity – Massenet’s “Don Quichotte” [See Masterful Massenet: John Relyea’s Don Quixote at Seattle Opera – February 26, 2011.] Montanaro has returned to Seattle as Relyea’s conductor as the young basso adds yet another relative rarity to his repertory – the title role of Verdi’s “Attila”.

The Seattle Opera assembled a strong international cast for the work’s Seattle premiere. The treacherous role of Odabella was impressively sung by the Venezuelan soprano Ana Lucrecia Garcia, whose meteoric rise internationally is one of the current operatic phenomena.

The Italian baritone Marco Vratogna, in his Seattle debut as the Roman general Ezio and the  big-voiced tenor Antonello Palombi, rounded out an accomplished Verdian quartet that would be welcomed on any operatic stage in the world.

[Below: John Relyea as Attila; edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

Notes on the Production

The physical production incorporates the concept and basic set created by Bernard Uzan for the France’s Opera National du Rhin in Strasbourg, and has most recently been seen at the Israeli Opera Tel Aviv. However, Seattle Opera hs extensively revised both the concept and the production, creating new costumes (including often stylish new military dress for the principals) and creating a series of visual projections that are often the dominant image of a scene.

The opera’s central theme is warfare, and all four of the story’s principal characters are battle-scarred. Two of the characters – Attila and Ezio (Aetius) – are historical personages and there are fragments of historical fact at least alluded to in the opera’s libretto.

However, the actual 5th century ravages of the historical Attila in France, Germany and Italy have had a millenium and a half to become encrusted with myth and legend. The opera’s libretto and the Napoleonic era German play on which it is based are steeped in fictional elements, the “scourge of God”, as this leader of the Huns came to be identified, mythologized to serve the geopolitical viewpoints of the German dramatist and of Verdi himself.

[Below: Ana Lucrecia Garcia as Odabella; edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

This Seattle remake of the Strasbourg production has remythologized Attila yet again for the  21st century audience. Attila and his “barbarians” are bedecked in desert camouflage, and perform the precision strikes of special operation forces. Those more or less on the “Roman” side (Odabella, Ezio and Foresto) regale us in the brighty colored uniforms of some sort of fascist potentate (perhaps German imperialists or the machismo  forces of some Central or South American dictator).

Since no character in “Attila” can be regarded as either especially virtuous or evil, the remythologizing is hardly controversial. The themes in “Attila” are just as much about war and cultural conflict as those of the Theofanidis’ 2011 opera “Heart of a Soldier”.

Therefore, 20th and 21st century military costumes and images are nowhere at odds with the story line (whose deficiencies have always been evident) and certainly do not get in the way of the performance of Verdi’s incessantly melodious score.

[Below: Ezio (Marco Vratogna, left) offers to concede all the rest of Europe to Attila (John Relyea, right) if he can retain control of the Italian peninsula; edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

 The Donizetti-Early Verdi Matrix

I have suggested elsewhere that the contemporary opera goer should think of the Donizetti operas from 1830 on and the Verdi operas up until 1850 as a stylistic continuum. During the two decade period the two composers perfected an approach to opera that adapted the sensuous, dramatically exciting stories of the Romantic era poetry and literature to the traditions of early 19th century Italian opera.

Along the way the two Italian composers transformed those traditions. Donizetti was a major force in the creation of the modern tenor sound, writing for those artists who perfected a new style of singing, most famously the high C belted from the tenor’s chest.

Both composers during this period glorified the agility and power of the soprano voice. Both were adept at creating female characters whose vocal pyrotechnics signified the woman of power, such as those of the title roles in Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena”, “Maria Stuarda”, “Lucrezia Borgia”, Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco (Joan of Arc) and Abigaille in Verdi’s “Nabucco”; or Verdi’s women of determined purpose such as “Attila’s” Odabella, Giselda in “I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata”, Elvira in “Ernani” or the Lady in “Macbeth”. Both composers also exploited the lyrical potential of the baritone and basso voices.

During those two decades Donizetti and Verdi effectively utilized such conventions of the early 19th century Italian opera as the dual arias – the cavatina followed by the fireworks of the cabaletta, giving them the dramatic thrust to move the action forward. Both composers also sought opportunities for the concertato, when major characters would assemble for a concerted number.

However, by the time Donizetti was age 47 (1844), he was too ill to write anything more, and Verdi was to abandon such conventions as the repeat of the cabaletta melody only a few years after “Attila”. Most of the Donizetti and early Verdi operas fell out of favor and many were unperformed for over a century. When they were performed (and we are in a period of where virtually all of the Donizetti and Verdi operas of the 20 year period have been revived) it is quite usual for cuts to be made, particularly shedding the stretta that separates the two verses of the cabaletta and limiting the cabaletta to a single verse.

Carlo Montanero, Seattle Opera’s conductor,  made a felicitous decision that should cause Verdi aficionados from afar to book a flight to Seattle to see this set of performances. He is presenting the opera uncut, so that each principal, the chorus and the orchestra perform all the music in Verdi’s original score.

[Conductor Carlo Montanaro; promotional photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

The results are revelatory. Experienced opera goers have been taught to dismiss the earlier works as less worthy than Verdi’s later efforts, because Verdi changed elements of his style in the decades after “Attila” and was quoted at different times with slightly pejorative comments about his old approaches to composing. However, if one surrenders to the music, one can grasp how masterful it is and why “Attila” was such a successful opera in the generation in which it premiered.

The Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni argued (in what I acknowledge is my substantive paraphrasing of his thoughts) that  it is impossible to consider opera as veristic simply because people in real life don’t communicate by singing to each other. Therefore, he concluded, operas should be based on surreal themes, with Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” being Busoni’s operatic ideal.

From the time of its composition, there has been a degree of intellectual angst about the obscurity of the motivations of characters in “Attila”.  Its original librettist, Solera, resisted Verdi’s request for him to write the words for a concertato in which the soprano, tenor, baritone and basso come together to sing a concerted number. Verdi’s great biographer Julian Budden, almost a century and a half later, was immensely bothered by Verdi’s request, more or less defending Solera’s position. Why would the tenor (Foresto) who is the sworn enemy of the basso (Attila) be permitted to come and go freely around Attila’s camp, so he can be ready when needed to take part in Verdi’s glorious ensembles?

I believe that Busoni and Montenaro have given us the answer to Solera and Budden. One can concede that every aria and every ensemble in “Attila” is glorious Verdi, at the apex of his early style. I don’t think that any attempt to strengthen the dramatic motivations of Foresto’s actions throughout the opera would add anything to our evening’s pleasure. But Verdi knew exactly how he wished to intermesh the vocal lines of the four principals in their great number together. No harm is done by considering the drama as a bit surreal, because the music is surreally beautiful.

[Below: Foresto (Antonello Palombi, right) is assured of the faithfulness of Odabella (Ana Lucrecia Garcia, left); edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

 The Vocal Performance

In my past interviews with John Relyea [See Rising Stars: An Interview With John Relyea, Part 1 and Rising Stars: An Interview with John Relyea Part 2] he expressed his strong interest in performing roles that match his actual age (he is now in his early 40s). This role provided the opportunity to portray a virile warrior, whose range of emotions include dream-induced moments of terror.

Attila’s vocal line is lyrical, appropriate to a basso cantante, and Relyea proved himself an exemplar of the beautifully sounding high bass voice. His musical and dramatic performance was enhanced by effective use of his body, particularly his hands, in conveying the character’s thoughts and fears.

The most famous incident in Attila’s life is his encounter with Pope Leo III, who persuaded Attila to leave Rome untouched. The historical evidence suggests that such a meeting likely really happened but, if it did not, it is a legend of persuasive verisimilitude.

One can observe an emerging tradition, at least in the United States,  in which the tiny role of Leone, as he is called in the opera, is sung by a famous basso whose principal career is associated with the previous operatic generation. At the Seattle Opera, Michael Devlin, who sang many of the roles in the 1970s and beyond that Relyea is performing today, sings the role. I saw Devlin, for instance, as the four villains in Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffman” that Relyea first sang at Seattle Opera. Devlin’s appearance, even with only a few lines to sing, was appropriately nostalgic, evoking memories of stellar performances over a great operatic career.

(As another example of the new “tradition” of casting Leone with lustrous stars of the past, the most famous American Attila, Samuel Ramey, is scheduled to sing Leone at the San Francisco Opera in June 2012, 21 years after he performed Attila on the San Francisco stage.)

[Below: The appearance of Pope Leo III (Michael Devlin, right) causes Attila (John Relyea, front center) to change his course; edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

Seattle Opera was fortunate to have baritone Marco Vratogna making his Seattle Opera debut as Ezio. An accomplished Verdi baritone, his exemplary work is associated with Conductor Nicola Luisotti, establishing him as a favorite with San Francisco Opera audiences [See Ovations for ‘Otello’ – San Francisco Opera, November 8, 2009 and Brilliant Cast, Colorful Production, Luisotti’s Masterful Conducting Enliven San Francisco “Aida” – September 19, 2010.]

Finally, Antonello Palombi, the Foresto, whose Seattle Manrico two years ago had impressed me [Seattle’s “Trovatore”: Standing Ovations for Antonello Palombi, Lisa Daltirus – January 16, 2010], once again demonstrated  the vocal weight appropriate to a Verdian role written for a spinto voice.

Charles Edwards created the original sets for Strasbourg. They were significantly enhanced and updated through the use of digital media created by the Seattle Opera. The costumes were the work of Melanie Taylor Burgess with lighting design by Connie Yun.

I recommend Seattle’s “Attila” without reservation.