Furlanetto, Luisotti triumph over mixed production in San Francisco Opera’s “Attila”

June 21, 2012

Ferruccio Furlanetto stars in the title role of Verdi's Attila at San Francisco Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver

Verdi’s Attila is the Italian entry in San Francisco Opera’s summer season this year. With Ferruccio Furlanetto in the title role leading a fine cast along with Nicola Luisotti’s blazing and idiomatic conducting, this rousing production of Verdi’s dramma lirico made for a mostly resounding success Wednesday night at the War Memorial Opera House.

Attila has the virtues and debits of early Verdi—dramatic immediacy and musical variety allied to mostly pasteboard characters, dubious motivations and an over-reliance on rhythmic rum-ti-tum. Still, with a stellar performance by Furlanetto and Luisotti’s idiomatic hand in the pit, the opera’s weak moments were deftly covered by the vocal gleam and impassioned conviction of the performances.

Verdi’s Attila is less the merciless, marauding “scourage of mankind” than a decent, noble-hearted leader more sinned against than sinning, whose child-like naïveté in trusting his enemies leads to his demise.

Furlanetto made his SFO debut in 1979 in a celebrated outdoor concert performance of La Giaconda with Luciano Pavarotti and Renata Scotto. Back in San Francisco after a 14-season absence, the veteran Italian bass provided a vivid and beautifully sung portrayal.

Furlanetto’s instrument is not huge but he wielded his voice throughout with firm dramatic impact and tonal elegance. The Italian bass brought a startling dramatic frisson to Attila’s dream and both refinement and faultless musicianship to his arias and the large ensembles.

In his long hair and animal-skin coats (wonderful costuming by Andrea Viotti) Furlanetto made a charismatic and visually cool antihero. The singer was imposing in moments of fury and entered into the swordplay with relish yet also offered a subtle and rounded Attila without ever resorting to bluster or standard opera-acting tropes.

Quinn Kelsey is developing into one of our finest young baritones and it’s no exaggeration to say his powerful performance as the duplicitous Roman general Ezio was equal to that of his older Italian colleague. Kelsey’s voice may not be inherently Italianate, but the American baritone sang with passion, a sense of the long line and nuanced expression throughout. His exquisitely rendered Dagli immortali vertici showed the stuff of great artistry and received the most prolonged ovation of the evening.

Lucrecia Garcia is making her company debut in the role of Odabella, the daughter of the slain Lord of Aquileia who pretends loyalty to Attila while secretly plotting her revenge. The Venezuelan soprano displayed a bright high voice and daunting agility, able to surmount the considerable coloratura vocal challenges of this role. Dramatically Garcia proved inconsistent, vehement at times but too often indulging in stand-and-deliver vocalism without illuminating her character.

Likewise as her lover Foresto, Diego Torre was a mixed bag in his house debut, intermittently showing vibrant vocalism, mitigated by cloudy diction and a narrow range of color and expression.

It was a nice gesture to have Samuel Ramey—a celebrated Attila who sang the role in San Francisco’s last production of Verdi’s opera in 1991—appear in a cameo, though the veteran American bass made a jarringly wobbly Pope Leo. Nathanial Peake was a serviceable Uldino.

The mostly traditional production by designer Alessandro Camera and director Gabriele Lavia offered some astounding visuals as with the opening tableau depicting the vast towering ruins of a Roman coliseum, with Attila’s deceased victims impaled on poles.

The one grievous lapse in the otherwise striking staging came in Act 3. Continuing the scenic motif of gutted theaters, Lavia here makes a leaden commentary on what the director calls the current “barbaric” trend in Italy of demolishing or renovating majestic old Roman theaters into cookie-cutter movie houses. To reflect this, he runs a silent loop of old Hollywood movies depicting Attila—notably the 1954 programmer Sign of the Pagan—on a large screen behind the singers throughout the entirety of Act 3.

It may be a worthy cause in the creative team’s homeland but the current Italian government’s policy on historic preservation is hardly a cutting-edge issue in San Francisco, and proved a high-concept disaster. This conceit elicited audience laughter and only succeeded in dwarfing the action of the opera and pushing these fine singers into the background. The film was jarringly incongruent with the music, as with the galloping horses and an attack on a village during the lovely trio, Te sol, te sol quest’anima. The huge images of Jack Palance as Attila and assorted B-movie mayhem did a great disservice to Verdi’s opera, distracting the viewer with unwonted and irrelevant thoughts (“Is that Jeff Chandler?” “Who’s the girl?”).

Now in his third season as music director, it’s clear that Nicola Luisotti has won great favor with the discerning San Francisco opera audience by the thunderous ovations he was accorded Wednesday night. The Italian conductor’s mastery in this repertoire was manifest from the hushed opening bars to the dramatic closing scene. Luisotti’s whipcrack conducting drew combustible playing from the orchestra with a nervy volatility that made for thrilling ensembles. After a somewhat ragged start, the chorus sang with bracing power and impact.

There are three more performances of Attila, at 8 p.m. Saturday, 7:30 p.m. June 28 and 2 p.m. July 1. sfopera.com; 415-864-3330.

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