Opening Nights: Attila

Swaggering voices pump up a manly-man opera.

Seattle Opera's production of Verdi's Attila is like an Italian opera reimagined by Spike TV. The martial score's heavy on swagger and light on mushy stuff, full of two-fisted arias delivered by red-blooded voices. Even the lone female character's a warrior—bent on avenging her father's murder by the Hun, who plans to conquer Italy—and everyone's in military gear in Bernard Uzan's more-or- less modern-dress staging. There's gunplay, swordplay, and carousing, and scantily clad women get tossed around. It's also tailored for short attention spans, with less than two hours of music (Act 3 lasts roughly 15 minutes) and conductor Carlo Montanaro obligingly speeding up the orchestral closing flourishes of every aria as if impatient to move on.

This is early Verdi, his ninth opera of 30 or so, premiered in 1846 just as the fluid, ornate bel canto style of the previous generation was evolving into something more vigorous and declamatory (dubbed "can belto," as goes the old joke). SO has found four stirring, full-bodied voices to sell this rarely staged work; you'd have to go back to its 2009 Ring, I think, to find a show with this level of sheer vocal oomph. It's never done without a star bass to show off in the title role, and John Relyea, imposing in stature and voice, makes a magnetic Attila, the opera's sole character exhibiting anything approaching two dimensions. As the monomaniacal Odabella, Ana Lucrecia Garcia, if a bit staid as a stage presence, sounds undaunted by Verdi's vocal challenges: the cliff-diving plunges from the top to the bottom of her range, the transparently scored, and therefore treacherous, romanza that's the score's only extended passage of delicate lyricism. Also sounding sonorous and confident is Antonello Palombi, recently SO's go-to tenor for big Italian roles (Radames, Canio, Manrico), as Foresto, supposedly Odabella's bf but more used than loved. Marco Vratogna brings yet another large and virile voice as Ezio, a snakelike ambassador who plots with Attila.

This production makes much use of projected backdrops, sometimes representational (a coastline, a forest, palace interiors) and sometimes fussily abstract (maps consumed by flame, Attila's enormous, graffiti-like monogram). The single set may be an economy measure, but it also helps focus an opera that, with its hard-to-care-about characters and fairly limp story, risks devolving into a park-and-bark revue. The orchestra (the Seattle Symphony) and chorus are faced with nothing like the difficulties the soloists are, but they attack and devour the music just as lustily.

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