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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

DVD Review: The Killer Wore Furs

Verdi's Attila from the Mariinsky Theater.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Barbarian beefcake: Ildar Abdrazakov in the title role of Verdi's Attila.
Photo © 2010 The Mariinsky Theater.
For more than a century, Verdi's eighth opera Attila was sneered at, considered to be one the weakest products of his "galley years". But in the 20th century,  the opera gained new life as a vehicle for a star bass who looks smashing with his shirt off. The latest to take up that tradition is Ildar Abdrazakov. This DVD from the Mariinsky Theater (filmed in December of 2010) preserves Mr. Abdrazakov's barbarian leader for posterity. It is also the first DVD release on the Russian opera house's own label.

This is one of the shortest and most brutal Verdi operas, clocking in at less than two hours when played without intermission. The libretto, by Verdi's old collaborator Temosticleo Solera, somehow connects the (fictionalized) murder of Attila with the (real) founding of Venice (the opera premiered at La Fenice in 1846) by Roman refugees. Along the way, there is a killer soprano part (the revenge-driven Odabella) some impressive arias for tenor and baritone, and of course ol' Attila himself one of Verdi's most impressive early creations.

Ildar Abdrazakov makes his entrance carried by loyal Hunnish troops. But from the moment his foot touches the Mariinsky stage, he's ready to burn it down. He matches the larger-than-life role with a big, flexible instrument that captures the cunning would-be politician hiding behind the barbarian mask. He is genuinely having a good time here, digging into the big ensemble scenes and expressing terror in the ghostly Act II encounter with Pope Leo X (Timur Abdikeyev.) The only thing that rings slightly false is his fatal attraction for the Roman princess Odabella. The onstage chemistry never quite happens, but that might be the fault of the libretto.

Odabella is a one-note character, almost a caricature of the revenge-driven opera heroine. However, Solera's cardboard writing doesn't stop Anna Markarova from delivering a performance that matches and even exceeds Mr. Abdrazakov in sheer ferocity. This is murderous stuff, requiring a death-defying drop in her very first line, followed by a long, lyric aria and a quick-footed cabaletta.However, Ms. Markarova dives right in, delivering soaring high notes and an edge of dramatic hysteria that perfectly suits the role.

Valery Gergiev charges into Verdi's rum-ti-tum rhythms and big choral climaxes with energy and drive. The big choral set pieces are a particular joy here, with the crack Mariinsky choristers lining up as spear-waving barbarian hordes in one scene and then switching costumes to depict the Roman citizens quaking with fear. But unlike some conductors, Mr. Gergiev knows when to ease the tempo in the pit and allow Verdi's natural gift for melody to take over. He creates some beautiful accompanying textures for Ms. Markarova's big cavatina and an unearthly quality for Attila's dream sequence in Act II.

It's not easy being the second and third male leads in this opera. Foresto (Sergei Skorokhodov) sings with clear, noble tone, but he's essentially a backstabbing coward. Ezio (Vladislav Suliminsky) is even worse, a Roman general content to sacrifice his empire for Attila as long as he gets to keep Italy. (The patriotic audiences of Verdi's day seized on the line "Resti l'Italia a me" scarce realizing its true meaning.) Still, both singers acquit themselves in their respective solo arias, with Mr. Suliminsky at his most impressive in the first scene of the fourth act.

The climax is brutal. Odabella  betrays Foresto, who has tried to poison Attila at a banquet. (She wants the honor of killing the barbarian chief herself.) Attila, thrilled, proposes marriage, setting his bear-fur cloak around her shoulders. At that point, Ms. Markarova takes  over the opera, dominating the final quartet and delivering her bloody vengeance in style. The four principals are magnificent here, perfectly accompanied as the opera rockets through its last pages. This may not be Verdi at his prettiest, but this DVD captures the composer at his most energetic.

Watch a trailer for Attila (with some nice choral singing) above.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.