Review: “Attila” – San Francisco Opera – 12 June 2012


I fully realize that an eternity has passed between the actual performance and these scribblings – forgive me. I have been trying (successfully, I might add) to have a holiday.

In planning my trip, I could not help noticing that the San Francisco Opera’s June summer season included productions of “Attila”, “The Magic Flute” and “Nixon In China”. Sadly I could only attend the first two.

Verdi’s opera about Attila the Hun premiered in 1846. It is not one of his most famous works, having taken more or less a century to be revived after its initial productions. There might, however, be another reason for that. One has to say that he managed to get away with quite a bit – how the strict censors of the time allowed him to have the opening chorus and other such provocations, so overtly political and designed to fan the flames of the then-growing republican movement in Italy, might be something of a mystery. Perhaps they were just captivated by the tunes.

The production design, from La Scala in Milan, is evocative in its landscapes but with modern touches such as the remnants of theatres of various ages which are destroyed – you see a destroyed Roman amphitheatre, then a 19th century opera house also destroyed followed by a decrepit movie theatre – the idea is to show the effluxion of time. The costumes as well are richly detailed and amazing. NZ Opera take note – if you are looking to do a production of Attila, you will definitely need to get Weta Workshop involved. The amount of armour and weaponry on stage, if unleashed on an unappreciative audience, would have done some serious damage !

One thing though – and it is an acknowledgement that this is not one of Verdi’s subtlest operas – having a central rock on stage is a convenient platform for the main dramatic arias to be safely sung from. This is not a criticism of the cast or the staging, more of the fact that this is early Verdi and the arias are obvious set pieces.

This was a strong cast which showed, particularly in the quartet singing at the end of the opera. Ferrucio Furlanetto as Attila was absolutely superb throughout – he dominated the stage, his voice resounded throughout the whole theatre with elegance and power and drama. Quinn Kelsey as the Roman general Ezio was also very elegant and vocally powerful and a very good foil to Furlanetto. Venezuelan soprano Lucrecia Garcia, making her san Francisco debut, sang the role of Odabella well for the most part but there were issues with the clarity of some notes, particularly in Act I. Fortunately by Act II, these issues appeared to have been ironed out. Tenor Diego Torre as Foresto was energetic and vibrant if perhaps at times a little light vocally. Legendary American Bass Samuel Ramey made a cameo appearance as Pope Pius. Even at 70, Ramey’s voice is in good nick but set against the power from Furlanetto, it did appear a little reedy. It was a nice touch to have them both occupy these roles, Ramey at his own peak was a superb Attila in the San Francisco production twenty years ago.

SF Opera Music Director Nicola Luisotti asked a lot from his orchestra and they delivered handsomely. It’s not Verdi’s most memorable or spectacular score overall, but there are moments such as the chorus at the beginning and the final scenes which are stirring and require all the power you can muster from an orchestra.

A word about the San Francisco War Memorial Opera Theater – this beaux-arts / Doric structure is a lovely building which is 80 years young this year. For students of history, you might like to know that the United Nations held its first conference here in 1945.

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About TI

TI is based in Auckland, New Zealand. TI's somewhat eclectic interests include (but are certainly not limited to) legal humour (the law can be funny), good wine, the search for the best possible chocolate, alcoholic beverages, travel, commercial aircraft, photography, weird news stories and classical music.
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