San Francisco Opera's summer season is on a roll. Last weekend, the company unveiled its first-ever "Nixon in China," John Adams' 1987 masterpiece in a vibrantly staged production. Tuesday evening at War Memorial Opera House, Verdi's "Attila" opened in a powerhouse revival.
Effectively staged, with an energized cast and a dynamic orchestral performance led by music director Nicola Luisotti, this "Attila" -- the company's first since 1991 -- is a must-see for Verdi aficionados.
The composer's ninth of 28 operas, "Attila" is rarely cited among his masterpieces, such as "Aida," "Rigoletto" (which San Francisco will produce in the fall) or "La Traviata." But it's a fascinating example of the composer's developing genius.
With a libretto by Temistocle Solera, the 1846 opera tells the story of the king of the Huns and his brutal invasion of Italy during the fifth century. Yet the title character is more than the murderous criminal whose legend has come down to us through the ages. The opera makes him a multi-dimensional, even sympathetic character, with much of the work's running time (2 hours, 20 minutes) devoted to the love triangle involving Attila, the warrior princess Odabella and Foresto, the knight of Aquileia whom Odabella loves.
Tuesday's performance, which repeats through July 1, introduced a new production by Italian film and theater director Gabriele Lavia. Co-produced by San Francisco and Italy's Teatro alla Scala, where it premiered last year, Lavia's staging presents the opera in classic Italian dramatic terms, with a few contemporary touches.
Lavia and his designers -- Alessandro Camera (sets), Christopher Maravich (lighting) and Andrea Viotti (costumes) -- suggest the fifth century in the opening prologue, as Attila makes his first appearance in a dark city strewn with broken stone steps and bodies on pikes. Subsequent scenes, such as one near Attila's camp, add layers of dark foliage. The Act II banquet brings a ballet by dreadlocked priestesses. Lavia sets the fateful third act in an old Italian movie house showing "Sign of the Pagan," a 1954 Hollywood epic starring Jack Palace as Attila.
There are moments of blunt dramaturgy in this production Some scenes proceed at a creaky pace, and the opera simply lacks the subtle brilliance of Verdi's later works. But lesser Verdi is still Verdi, and Luisotti, conducting with vigor and insight, made the most of the score on opening night. From the heartfelt arias and cabalettas to the turbulent orchestral interludes and big ensembles, Luisotti elicited a gripping, propulsive performance from the orchestra.
The last time San Francisco Opera produced "Attila," bass Samuel Ramey sang the title role. This year, Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto has inherited the Attila mantle, and he inhabited it with tremendous verve. The voice is big, firm-toned and resonant, and Furlanetto deployed it with clarity and fervor. Ramey -- a San Francisco favorite -- returned in the short but essential role of Pope Leo I, and his scene with Furlanetto, which brings Act I to a dramatic close, was both touching and eminently theatrical.
The rest of the cast, featuring several San Francisco Opera debuts, performed handsomely. Venezuelan soprano Lucrecia Garcia, in her company debut, was a penetrating, bright-toned Odabella. Tenor Nathaniel Peake, in his first appearance with the company, impressed as Uldino, Attila's Berton slave. Baritone Quinn Kelsey gave a warm, expressive performance as the Roman general Ezio. Tenor Diego Torre, after an unsteady start, was an impassioned Foresto. As warriors and monks, the San Francisco Opera Chorus sang with robust power.
Tuesday's performance concluded with a ceremony honoring chorus director Ian Robertson, who is currently marking his 25th anniversary with the company. General director David Gockley presented Robertson with the San Francisco Opera Medal, the company's highest honor, noting that Robertson had prepared the chorus in more than 300 operas, in languages "from Armenian to Sanskrit." Robertson's work is on thrilling display, both in "Nixon" and now "Attila."
Contact Georgia Rowe at email@example.com.
By Giuseppe Verdi, presented by San Francisco Opera
Through: July 1
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Tickets: $26-$330, 415-864-3330, www.sfopera.com