Why has it taken Verdi’s Attila so long to reappear in our fair city? Initially produced here in 1859, it disappeared until San Francisco Opera mounted it in 1991 as a showcase for bass Samuel Ramey. If that sounds as if we’re behind the times, contemplate this: the Metropolitan Opera, which produces far more operas per season than SFO, first produced the opera in 2010, a mere 164 years after its Venice premiere.
It’s not as if Attila is devoid of great music. On the contrary, it has one powerhouse aria, chorus, and ensemble after the other. None may be a hummable as Rigoletto ’s "La donna e mobile," but they collectively make for an opera filled with wonderful music. And if the plot is a bit predictable, and the characterization of two of the principals rather stock, the curious irony of a Hun with a heart who is vanquished by duplicitous, vengeful citizens of a country purportedly far less barbaric than his own makes for a story worth pondering.
No, I would suggest, the real reason for Attila ’s neglect is not that it shares in the so-called collective shortcomings of "early Verdi," but that it calls for four powerhouse leads of an order and magnitude seldom found on today’s stages. All of the principals, even the sole female lead in this sea of men, are warriors who will stop at nothing to get the job done. They’re bold, defiant, and fearless in the face of death. You can’t convey such feelings convincingly and either stab at notes or husband your resources until the final act. You either have what it takes, or, given the fact that much of the opera is staged as a series of tableaux, you reduce what could be great to an exercise in park and bark.
Which leads us to SFO’s current production, directed by Gabriele Lavia. At its head is a vocal giant of an artist, bass Ferruccio Furlanetto. Now 63, Furlanetto sings with the command, steadiness, and vocal beauty of a singer half his age. Hulking about less as a victorious barbarian than as a compassionate warrior unwittingly poised at the edge of the abyss, he sings with the authority that has made Attila such a prized role for the relatively few who can do it justice. His triumphant performance is reason enough to see the opera.
The other singers, alas, are "less so"s. Lucrezia Garcia scored a huge triumph at La Scala last year when, under the baton of Nicola Luisotti, SFO’s Music Director and our production’s conductor, she replaced the soprano scheduled to sing Odabella in the first cast. Here, on opening night, she seemed somewhat over-parted. Garcia’s lower range is a bit mousy and little-girlish, hardly what you’d expect from a woman who, instead of fleeing to a nunnery as do far too many of Verdi’s abused heroines, shoves a sword into Attila’s gut. While she hurled out her high notes quite well in her stunning first-act aria and cabaletta, there were signs later on that she may have stretched her voice beyond its lyric limits. It’s unfair to judge a singer by a single performance, but fears for her future seem in order.
Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey (Ezio) sounded somewhat throaty in his opening scenes, but opened up handsomely as the opera progressed. His sneer telegraphed defiance, but the voice, so beautiful as Marcello in La Boheme here a few seasons back, lacked dark menace. In his SFO debut, Mexican tenor Diego Torre (Foresto) must have been nervous at the start, because only later on did the beauty and power of his ringing instrument emerge. Though he lacked the thrust of a great Foresto, the still young artist has great potential. Let us hope that more is to come.
Merola graduate and San Francisco Opera debut tenor Nathaniel Peake (Uldino) sang with a sweetness that bodes well for his Tamino in Magic Flute. B.A.R. readers who get tickets to the final two performances of SFO’s joy-filled production may be in for a big treat. In the small role of Pope Leo I, the great Samuel Ramey returned to San Francisco Opera, perhaps for the last time, in the opera that he championed. Although his voice remains strong, the 70-year old’s pronounced wobble proclaims the time has come.
Luisotti conducted magnificently. Although we have heard him overpower his singers, here he was everywhere a servant to their efforts to do Verdi justice. When he had no need to hold back, as in the storm scene, he and the orchestra were eloquent.
At the opera’s conclusion, General Director David Gockley honored Chorus Master Ian Robertson’s 25 years of service with San Francisco Opera’s coveted Gold Medal. Need I say that the chorus sang superbly?