Verdi’s Attila at the San Francisco Opera
Music by Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto by Temistocle Solera
San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House: June 15, 2012
Attila – Ferruccio Furlanetto
Odabella – Lucrecia Garcia
Foresto – Diego Torre
Ezio – Quinn Kelsey
Uldino – Nathaniel Peak
Pope Leo I – Samuel Ramey
Conductor – Nicola Luisotti
Director – Gabriele Lava
Set Designer – Alessandro Camera
Costume Designer – Andrea Viotti
Lighting Designer – Christopher Maravich
Chorus Director – Ian Robertson
The pleasures to be had from a performance of Verdi’s Attila are a unique blend: one third Macbeth, one third Nabucco, and one third summer-camp hayride. The staging of San Francisco Opera’s ultimately satisfying revival occasionally reaches ill-advisedly towards something more sophisticated. When it does (i.e. all of Act III), um…er… one must close one’s eyes and think of Italy, because the visual results are mind-bogglingly annoying and meaningless. Happily, the exhilaration of this early Verdian work — led with commitment and panache by SFO music director Nicola Luisotti — transcends the needless awkwardness of the staging. Attila isn’t the most memorable score in the world, but it is pure, if unrefined, Italian opera. It allows singers to strut their stuff, to sing and emote with extravagance, and it makes for a great “coming attractions” reel for the masterpieces Verdi had yet to compose.
Attila premiered 17 March 1846, almost one year to the day before Macbeth (plausible), four years to the month after Nabucco (credible), and two years to the month after Ernani (harder to believe). Based on a German play, the libretto was created with Verdi’s active participation by the accomplished librettists Temistocle Solera and Francesco Maria Piave, both of whom authored much better scripts for Verdi in other works. Typical of lesser libretti from this era, this one derives huge dramatic consequences from narrative events that happen offstage or before the curtain rises. The audience is left to take the psychological significance for granted, because the text is two-dimensional. Attila’s killing of Odabella’s father is a prime example. Compare the emotional weight of the Commendatore’s murder in Mozart and Da Ponte’s Don Giovannior Aida’s lonely yearnings for father and fatherland in Verdi’s later masterwork with its poignant libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni. The killing of Odabella’s father (pre-show) motivates Odabella’s quest for vengeance (achieved on the last page of the score), but we neither care about her father nor empathize with her bereavement. We only want her to pour on more voice and navigate some of the most punitive vocal lines Verdi ever bequeathed to a soprano.
By comparison Ernani — which has major narrative absurdities of its own to account for, but has Victor Hugo’s emotional insight to ground it — inspired Verdi to compose better Verdi and to create a vastly more moving and coherent work. In contrast, Verdi found in Attila an assortment of opportunities to experiment with the musical styles and narrative dynamics that would eventually become central to the later works we know better. (Readers interested in the historical Attila and in the connection between Verdi’s opera and the Risorgimento movement should seek out William Berger’s excellent program article “Leave Italy for Me!: A look at the politics and patriotism in Verdi’s Attila” (found here on the SFO website). The brief encounter between Pope Leone and Attila prefigures Phillip and the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlo. One can imagine Verdi ‘bookmarking’ this conflict for a later expansion. The offstage voices of the Pope’s religious entourage prefigure moments in Trovatore, Forza, and Vespri. Each of these moments of familiar Verdian sound or relationship lasts for only a few bars in Attila, rarely even for an entire aria or ensemble.
Verdi grants the gathered forces of Huns and Romans neither a magical tune like Va, pensiero (Nabucco) or a heart-wrencher like Patria oppressa (Macbeth). An important presence in this bel canto extravaganza nonetheless, the SFO chorus sang with admirable strength. Even stronger, the excellent orchestral playing in this revival allowed one to hear Verdi’s masterful layering of string, wind, and brass voices for atmospheric and emotional effect. Comparatively, the duet writing for the vocal soloists is (may God forgive me for saying this) uninspired, as if Verdi felt no taste for it this time around and turned his attention to other challenges.
Speaking of challenges, Odabella — descendant in a direct line that starts with Nabucco‘s vengeful, sword-wielding Abagaille and culminates in the murderous but haunting Lady Macbeth — is given music exponentially more difficult than even the guiltiest soprano should ever have to address. Whatever her past sins for which this role atoned, Lucrecia Garcia demonstrated the requisite technical skill and steely fearlessness for Allor che i forti corrono and scaled her voice down with reasonable success for the more poignant Oh! Nel fuggente nuvolo. Garcia’s sound is basically bright, her presence forthright. Variety of vocal color and imaginative handling the text both were lacking, but she more than met the terrifying vocal demands of the role. She earned her check and her ovations.
Tenor Diego Torre (alongside Garcia, another SFO debut artist) gave a more involved performance as Foresto. The role weighs a hair more than his voice, and he opted for a high note at the end of Cara patria già madre e reina that he would have better declined. Torre’s career is currently ramping up — the phase where we often lose the new generation of tenors. Let us hope he’ll be careful in what he takes on; I would be happy to hear him again in a less heroic, more lyric role.
Quinn Kelsey I would be happy to hear in anything he chose to sing. Musically and theatrically, Ezio, the Roman general, is less interesting a figure than Carlo in Ernani (or just about any baritone role Verdi had yet to compose). Using those opportunities he had, Kelsey took the top vocal honors of the evening. He sang with taste, legato, nuance, and a soft-napped beauty of tone that are rare attributes these days. His bio indicates many upcoming performances of di Luna (should be lovely) and Amonasro (should be careful). He’s an artist I hope we hear for a long time to come.
Nathaniel Peake, a Merola alumnus and Metropolitan Opera National Council Audition winner, held his own in the strong company around him, giving the relatively minor role of Uldino personality and presence, almost always a support for Ferruccio Furlanetto in the title role.
Furlanetto, at age 63, triumphed as Attila. He caught every dramatic nuance of the role, showing Attila variously as monstrous, noble, bloodthirsty, or sympathetic as each moment required. Furlanetto’s tone has never been the most individual or ravishing among basses of his generation, but he has always proven a generous and inventive performer. Last night in Attila, his was a dominating and complete portrayal: in every scene he was exciting to watch and to hear. Veteran opera goers found something to cherish in his brief confrontation with Ramey, two major artists of integrity and ability who have encountered each other frequently onstage for 28 years. Ramey, now 70 years old, was SFO’s last Attila in 1991. He remains an authoritative presence but, unsurprisingly, no longer commands his former steadiness of tone.
Attila is a show that is perfectly well served by a primarily stand-and-sing approach. Every soloist except Ramey (whose agent clearly failed to negotiate for his opportunity) got at least one chance to pose downstage center with one foot on the prompter’s box. Director Gabriele Lavia staged his chorus and soloists logically and literately, in synch with the genre and the score, and then unaccountably shmeered his work with a superfluous layer of the inane. When in Act II the jarring ruins of a 19th-century Italian opera house appeared alongside the perfectly adequate ruins of antiquity that Alessandro Camera had designed for Act I, one feared the worst. In Act III, one got the worst. The dreary ruins of a cheesy cinema theatre were planted center-stage, with excerpts of Jack Palance (I am not making this up) playing Attila the Hun in Sign of the Pagan (1954) showing at full speed on the upstage screen. The soloists entered through a slit in the middle of the screen (think Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo), but headed downstage without ever looking back. One hopes they didn’t even know (and please God, no one should ever tell them). The hectic Hollywood action movie flick collided with, but never in the least illuminated, the gentler pace of bel canto opera. Painful.
Luckily, San Francisco Opera gave us Verdi, Luisotti, and Furlanetto, et al., to remind us why we go to the opera to begin with, and it was with the special thrill of Attila that one left the theatre.