Monday, June 18, 2012

San Francisco Opera: Verdi’s Attila
June 15 2012

The appearance of a famed composer’s less-than-famous work is likely to reveal two things: a number of hidden treasures in the score, and a big, glaring reason that the opera isn’t performed more often. SFO’s lavish co-production with Teatro alla Scala brings out both.

Just to begin with the negative, the libretto by Temistocle Solera and Franciesco Maria Piave is a mess, a war opera with no battles and an overgrasping, ill-focused central narrative. (Perhaps this is no surprise; Verdi fired Piave, hired Solera, then returned to Piave for Act 3.)

It’s almost as if they started with too much raw material: a devastating raid that leads to the founding of Venice, Pope Leo I convincing Attila not to attack Rome, and an Italian girl, Odabella, who marries the Hun general in hopes of killing him.

Surprisingly, much of this turns out to be close to the truth. Odabella is a conflation of the Roman Emperor’s sister, Honoria, who offered her hand to Attila in hopes of avoiding an arranged match with a Roman senator, and Attila’s actual wife, Gudrun, suspected of stabbing the general to death much after the action in the opera. Focus more tightly on this intriguing relationship, and you’d have an effective story. (In later years, of course, Verdi demonstrated a ready ability to handle small-world romance and big-world politics simultaneously.)

Musically, the opera is a showcase for rousing choruses and fight songs, plus a few jewels of longing and grief. As the opera opens, the Huns have lain waste to the northeast Italian city of Aquilea . Alessandro Camera’s set paints a morbid picture: a dozen bodies on pikes, the remains of an amphitheatre and a brooding storm in the distance. Add a squadron of Huns in black leather fighting gear, and you’ve got a scene more butch than a Texas rodeo.

Ian Robertson’s chorus provides a magnificent presence, especially in the opening act and in the banquet scene, where they create an eerie effect of mass whisperings. The principal voices, meanwhile, are forces of nature, beginning with the face-off between the Roman general Ezio (Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey) and Attila (Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto) in “Avrai tu l’universo, Resti l’Italia a me” (“You may have the universe, but let Italy remain mine.”).

The opera portrays Attila in a surprisingly sympathetic light, as the only straight shooter in a world of deceivers. Furlanetto exploits this aspect well, especially in “Mentre gonfiarsi l’anima parea,” in which he relates an unsettling dream about the dangers of attacking Rome.

Playing the Aquilean warrior Foresto, Mexican tenor Diego Torre moves a bit stiffly but deploys a powerful spinto voice, particularly in his call to build the new city of Venice, “Cara patria già madre reina.” As Odabella, Venezuelan soprano Lucrecia Garcia is downright awkward, but her singing makes up for a lot, ranging from her thunderous response to Attila, “Allor che I forti corrono,” to a tender elegy for her slain father, “Oh! Nel fuggente nuvolo.” In the latter, Garcia floats a sustained piano that drops into a descending phrase, gaining power as it falls. It’s a beautiful demonstration of vocal control, and announces a young soprano that we should keep our eyes (and ears) on. Another beautiful moment arrives at the end of Act 1, as Samuel Ramey, who sang Attila in SFO’s 1991 production, appears as Pope Leo I. Considering his stature as a singer, it’s not much of a stretch for Ramey to play royalty.

Camera’s sets take an intriguing journey from ruined amphitheatre to ruined 19th century theatre to dilapidated 20th century moviehouse (complete with a screening of the movie “Sign of the Pagan,” with Jack Palance as Attila). The historical parallels would be more apparent to an Italian audience, but it certainly carries weight on more general terms as a comment on the mythologizing process. Christopher Maravich’s lighting design is (forgive the pun) brilliant, notably the shimmering radiance accompanying the pope and his entourage. Nicola Luisotti and orchestra deliver a muscular, assured performance, especially in the horn passages of the first act.

Through July 1, War Memorial Opera House, 401 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $21-$389, 415/864-3330,

Image: Ferruccio Furlanetto (Attila). Photo by Cory Weaver.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of the novel “Operaville,” available at His poem, “How to Sing,” is forthcoming in the literary magazine “Confrontation.”

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