Music by Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto by Temistocle Solera and Francesco Maria Piave
Directed by Gabriele Lavia
Conducted by Nicola Luisotti
San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House
June 12-July 1, 2012
In many ways Verdi’s “Attila” is your stereotypical opera: complicated plot, thwarted lovers, plotting and revenge. Nevertheless, it has much to recommend it, not the least of which is some beautiful music that presages Verdi’s later masterpieces, “Traviata,” “Trovatore,” “Rigoletto” and “Aida.” First performed in San Francisco in 1859, 13 years after its premiere, it was not seen here again until the San Francisco Opera production of 1991. Considering that this is the beginning of worldwide celebration of the Verdi bicentennial, perhaps it’s about time for a revival.
The current one, a co-production with Milan’s La Scala, is beautifully executed by a fine cast, but there are some peculiar touches — particularly a distracting movie, “Sign of the Pagan” starring Jack Palance, that plays on a sheet as background to the final act – that might make the Italian master turn over in his grave. Costuming, by Andrea Viotti, runs the gamut from appropriately primitive furs and skins for the Huns and fittingly Roman armor for the Romans to the occasionally glimpsed tuxedo and modern evening gowns in the chorus. Pope Leo I (played in a brief cameo by the great Samuel Ramey, who starred in the piece last time around) is dressed much as the Pope would be today. Anachronistic details abound, evidently in an attempt to bring the piece into the 21st century.
The most blatant meddling with the historical record, however, must be laid at Verdi’s door. His Attila, pretty well accepted as a bloodthirsty monster almost on a par with Hitler, is kind of a nice guy here. Beautifully sung by Ferruccio Furlanetto, he is lovesick, fear-ridden, superstitious and, on occasion, generous — even to his enemies. One suspects that the history Verdi and his librettists were more interested in was the history being made in Italy in the mid-19th century around their own time. It was the era of the Risorgimento, the movement for the unification of Italy’s city states, and Verdi’s name actually became an acronym for the revolution. Especially in his early operas, “Ernani,” “Nabucco” and “Attila,” the words “libertà” (freedom), “patria” (country) and “guerra” (war) abound, echoing down through his works as late as “Aida.”
And, as “Attila” opens, Italy has been overrun once more, this time by the Huns who have conquered the territory that eventually will become Venice, to hammer at the gates of Rome itself. Odabella (Lucrecia Garcia, possessed of a clarion soprano that can be both dramatic and hit the bel canto high notes), her father killed by Attila, is a kind of warrior maiden along the lines of Wagner’s Brünnhilde. She catches the eye of the invader who keeps her for himself, incurring the wrath of her true love Foresto (Diego Torre), an Italian patriot. Foresto plots with the most noble character (and possibly the best singer) of the bunch, Ezio, a Roman general, wonderfully sung by Quinn Kelsey, to take Attila down. But, after many misunderstandings, an assassination attempt, aborted wedding plans, a visit from Pope Leo, dancing girls and part of a Jack Palance movie, the avenging sword ends up in the hands of Odabella, the woman warrior.
It’s a lot to digest in less than two hours (not counting an overlong intermission) but the music: lots of choruses, ensembles, arias and a wonderful final quartet sung against a scene of butchery on the movie screen at the rear carry you through. Nicola Luisotti and the orchestra move it along smartly (if a little loud at points) and, while it may be very early Verdi before he came into full possession of his gifts, it is worth a shot. Or a stab or whatever poison you choose. It’s that kind of show.