Verdi’s Attila finally rumbled into the Metropolitan Opera on Tuesday, emblazoned with more brand names than a NASCAR jumpsuit: Prada, Herzog & de Meuron, and Audi—not the car, but the opera director Pierre, who shares his automotive namesake’s reputation for advanced design. As it happened, these masters of dazzle contributed little more than their fame. The name that mattered was Riccardo Muti, who made his decades-late Met debut with a performance of such refined musicality that it sweetened the visual disappointments.
There were plenty of those. The architects and the fashion queen shared the credit for sets and costumes, but I don’t imagine that it was Miuccia Prada who came up with the extravagant rubble of the opening scene. Mountains of blasted concrete and twisted rebar hint heavily at Attila’s thoroughness as a pillager, and at how hard the Roman Empire falls. Herzog & de Meuron, the designers of Beijing’s “bird’s nest” Olympic Stadium, relish a heavy-handed metaphor, and here they follow their Mound o’ Destruction with a Forest o’ Regeneration, a towering wall of verdure so profuse it becomes oppressive.
Prada did presumably dream up the collection of costumes that, except for a pair of sulfurous yellow wedding outfits and one papal red miter, spans a palette from coal to mud. The clothes are chromatically dull, but inventively tacky: Amazons with boots and topknots sport little deerskin dresses, choristers wear fatigues, and the Hun leader stomps around with an I’m-a-Thug mullet and a glossy black leather trench coat thrown over his barbarian shoulders. One particularly lovely item is Attila’s salad-bowl helmet strung with glittering LEDs, which looks less like fearsome armor than like a party favor at a particularly ostentatious bar mitzvah.
The Met’s new aesthetic has taught us that we have less to fear from a director’s lofty concept than from a director without a concept, and Audi seems to have dropped off his cast in the décor and fled. Perhaps he was scared off by Muti, who brings such overweening clarity of intention to an opera he adores that he leaves little room for anyone else’s interventions. Then again, because so many of the singers lacked clear visions of their characters, Muti was able to shape the ensemble to his specifications. On opening night, the usually squishy tenor Ramón Vargas vaulted to a new level. That’s not to say he plumbed the role of Foresto for anything deeper than the usual stock affects, but he did discover some unsuspected subtleties, especially in plaintive, half-voice passages and in his Act III curtain-raiser, “Che non avrebbe il misero.” Violeta Urmana brought her spiked weapon of a voice to the regicidal warrior Odabella, who was far more fearsome than the Ildar Abdrazakov’s politely fuzzy Attila. The one jolt of individuality came from a last-minute sub, the baritone Giovanni Meoni, who stepped in for Carlos Álvarez in the role of the Roman general Ezio and delivered it with the sinew and panache of a genuine Verdi baritone.
Verdi is Muti’s native language, and in Attila he brings out the drama of a young composer learning to control his explosive imagination. In each cantering cabaletta, Muti marries the springy boom-chuck accompaniment with a melody that coils, plays out, and snaps back into place like a lariat. His rhythmic sense is a miracle of flexibility and control, and right from the mercurial prologue, the Met orchestra responds in shades of minor-key ferocity and watercolor delicacy. The best way to experience this opera’s cinematic vividness is with eyes wide shut.