Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The War Must Go On

John Relyea (L) as Attila. Photo © Elise Bakketun
The nanny-state eejits are out in force tonight, saying that Seattle Opera should have canceled Wednesday's performance of Attila. (Read the comments!)

Got news for you: opera's a limited-run medium. Six shows in this case, five of them with the high-priced, imported cast. These guys are scheduled two-three years in advance, can't shift even if they wanted to. Opera houses all over the world, unbreakable contracts. General directors can't pick up the phone to a dozen colleagues in Italy, Spain, France, Japan, Detroit, Cleveland, & say, "Sorry, we had a snowstorm so Johnny can't be there next week; he's got to do a makeup performance in Seattle."

Season ticket-holders can switch to another show if they can't come tonight; that's one of the perks of subscribing. But because of the unusual circumstances, the Opera is allowing even single-performance ticket-holders to switch if they can't make. More than fair, I say.

Thing is, an opera company is a multimillion-dollar business with a very limited product line. Five or six shows a year, 6 to 10 performances, so something between 30 and 60 actual events. An auditorium that seats perhaps 3,000. A payroll of artists and artisans numbering well over 100, plus the local musicians, not to mention the international singers.

Nobody's forcing anyone to drive to tonight's show. But it's at Seattle Center, walking distance for lots of people. Earlier today, they announced $40 "rush" seats. What more do you want?

Cry all you want about Seattle "losing" the Sonics, the prestige of Seattle Opera more than makes up for it.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Attila invades Seattle Opera

Giuseppe Verdi was only 33 when Attila had its premiere (in Venice, in 1846), and he had already written the wildly popular Nabucco, an opera whose "Va, Pensiero" (the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) would become the anthem for a united Italy in 1861. He would write another 19 operas after Attila, almost all of them grander and more mature works, most with similar themes; Verdi's particular gift was music that intertwined the power of politics and the drama of human emotions.

Opera in the 19th century was accessible to virtually everyone serving as an influential means of civic communications, not unlike rock concerts today, and Attila (pronounced, in the Italian idiom, AH-till-uh) celebrates nationalistic resolve against a foreign invader.

In the title role, John Relyea struts around the stage in camouflage fatigues and a fur-lined Mongolian greatcoat, his menacing bass notes booming like cannon fire. Fresh from La Scala, baritone Marco Vratogna reprises the part of Ezio, the Roman ambassador who tries to appease the bloodthirsty Huns. Barrel-chested Antonello Palombi has the full-throttled tenor role of Foresto, leader of the rebels, and it is the Venezuelan soprano Ana Lucrecia Garcia who outshines them all, vocally and dramatically, as the daughter of a slain rebel who avenges her father at the final curtain.

Garcia & Palombi.jpgBudget cuts may mean there's no longer a complete "second cast," and only one Sunday matinee of Attila, yet, even if the production looks a bit drab, Seattle Opera hasn't skimped on singers or music. The remarkable chorus, directed by the admirable Beth Kirchhoff, is divided here into Huns, slave women and refugees, and Verdi gives them several rousing ensembles. Carlo Montanaro, who conducted Don Quixote in Seattle last season, returns to lead the orchestra with impressive respect for Verdi's score.

Alas, the French stage director, Bernard Uzan, can do no more than shuffle the singers around the imported set, enhanced for the occasion with digital rearscreen projections that successfully disguise urban rubble as a forest glen, but are otherwise irrelevant (a map of Italy, a stencilled eagle, a symbolic A for Attila). Melanie Taylor Burgess's costumes are the most puzzling aspect of this production: the Huns wear standard-issue guerilla denim, but refugees wear what look like royal blue silks and satins, Foresto gets an elegant, full-length leather coat; the Roman ambassador wears a silly, gold-braided, bright-red soldier-suit; a priest (the Pope?) wears dazzling white vestments. Ms. Garcia suffers the indignity of a costume that's a cross between Mao suit and a stewardess uniform.

Ezio's first-act offer to Attila, "Avrai tu l'universo, resti l'Italia a me!" ("You can have the universe, but leave Italy to me!") may sound like treasonous Realpolitik today but resonated as patriotism to Italian audiences of the day. By removing all traces of historical context and dressing Attila in a rag-tag mash-up of contemporary freedom-fighters, Seattle Opera has done itself no artistic favors. In the end, however, it is the magnificent singing that raises this Attlia above the level of guerilla theater.

Seattle Opera presents Attila by Giuseppe Verdi, at McCaw Hall through January 28th. Tickets $25 to $213 online or by calling 800-426-1619

Seattle Opera photos of John Relyea in the title role, top, and Ana Lucrecia Garcia with Antonello Palombi, above © Elise Bakketun