Tuesday night I was at the opening of Attila at the San Francisco Opera. This early Verdi opera, despite its relative rarity, has kind of slipped into the season (rather demurely for a Hun), overshadowed by both the eagerly awaited local stage premiere of Nixon in China and a new production of the ever-popular Magic Flute, which is rapidly replacing La Boheme as the beloved masterpiece I am most tired of seeing revived (nonetheless, I am going; since I’ve never seen Nathan Gunn as Papageno, it seemed a little silly not to).
Attila was first performed here in 1991, which was right before I moved back to this area, so Tuesday was the first time I’ve seen it live. I can’t say I was surprised it hadn’t been revived since; about every twenty years seems about right for this opera. Well, maybe that’s overly harsh – maybe ten years? As with Lucrezia Borgia earlier this season, it kept reminding me of other works (chiefly Nabucco and Macbeth, composed around the same time). The basic material is interesting enough, but it kept threatening to turn into something more gripping and deeper than it was, and though the music is striking and effective it’s just not as memorable as so much of Verdi is – this is one of those works that would probably be valued more highly if the artist hadn’t gone on to write greater works exploring similar themes.
There are some wonderful musical effects, like the sombre gray dawn music that opens the opera; or a rousing soldier chorus that suddenly drops out, leaving an ethereal offstage chorus. The character of Attila is an interesting precursor to Macbeth; both are driven, power-hungry, and ruthless killers who are also plagued by internal doubts and terrors. Attila is also a man of integrity; when the Roman general Ezio suggests they join forces, with Ezio ruling Italy and Attila the rest, he rejects the suggestion because he couldn’t join forces with any man dishonorable enough to betray his country. Ezio has one of those patriotic arias (“take the rest of the world, as long as I have Italy!”), which leave me pretty cold, no matter how beautifully they are sung. I understand why the Risorgimento audience went crazy for them, but I’m just not tribal that way. I was intrigued by the thought of these pitiless killers and their anger at the corrupt, controlling Empire – it occurred to me this might have made a more provocative 9/11 opera than the feeble Heart of a Soldier.
Another interesting feature of the music is that there are very few female voices – in the opening there’s a chorus of Roman women, but they soon drop away and their leader Odabella is the only woman around. No wonder everyone loves her! She and Attila meet cute on the battlefield. He likes her spunk. She also has a boyfriend, Foresto, who joins them later. When he realizes she is in Attila’s camp, he assumes she has betrayed him (during the pause after that scene the elegant woman next to me exclaimed, “I love the jealousy! You can tell they’re Italians!”). The previously martial Odabella responds with surprising meekness – her anger is reserved only for Attila, it seems, though she seems a bit attracted to him (a theme which is not developed as much as it should be; in the second half in particular events move so rapidly that they leave little time for ambiguity or nuance; I know Verdi often liked theatrical moments that flash and strike like lightning and thunder, but I think he misjudged the speed a bit in this one). I was waiting for her to rip the doubting lover, so that was a bit disappointing for me, if not Foresto. (The fault there belongs to Verdi and his librettists, not singer Lucrecia Garcia.)
The first half is climaxed by the appearance of a stately sacerdotal procession, headed by the Pope, telling Attila to turn away from the Church’s holy ground. He does so, having been terrified the night before by a dream-vision of this same old man saying the same words. The Pope (St Leo the Great) is played by Samuel Ramey. This artist's many long-time admirers already know the shaky quality of his current vocal state, so I don’t really want or need to dwell on it. He brings an extremely effective stage presence to the role, along with an ineffable Samuel Rameyness, and he could probably give lessons in appropriate papal deportment to Benedict XVI.
The rest of the cast is, vocally, quite strong and appealing, despite the occasional rough patch (not surprising at a first performance) here and there. Ferruccio Furlanetto is particularly fine in the title role. In addition to the aforementioned Lucrecia Garcia as Odabella, Diego Torre is Foresto, Quinn Kelsey is Ezio, and Nathaniel Peake is Uldino, Attila’s attendant. The chorus is a major element (I was reminded several times of Boris Godunov), and they are suitably strong and vigorous.
After the Pope appears for a smashing Act 1 finale (as my mother says, the Church always knew how to put on a good show), the action switches to the complications, political and amorous, of Odabella, Foresto, Ezio, and Attila – basically, the first three gang up in various ways to kill the fourth. This material all moves so quickly that it seems a bit sketchy. The story-telling really was not helped by the production’s few and mostly ill-advised fancy touches: after a straightforward first act, the second act set is backed by horseshoe-style opera boxes of the sort you rarely see in the United States, with a few supers in the semi-ruined boxes wearing the sort of evening clothes almost no one in the United States wears to the opera (or anywhere else outside of the senior prom). That's such a staging cliche by now that it barely registers. The egregious error is in the third act: while all the plotting and killing is going on, there’s a cheeseball 1960s Italian epic on Attila playing (silently) in the background. It’s very distracting and I think confusing to anyone who hadn’t happened to see the explanation in the program – it turns out this is supposed to represent changing images of Attila or something tangential like that.
The film and the opera boxes were not only irrelevant but odd, because almost every other aspect of the production is completely traditional, stand-and-deliver stuff: The singers may circle the stage, but inevitably, as moth to flame or iron filings to a magnet, they would end up heading out to the lip of the stage, dead center, facing the audience. For duets the singers would again circle but inevitably hit the center, standing side by side, facing not each other but the audience. There was the occasional moment of obviously manufactured stage business, such as Attila picking out a random soldier from his troupe and challenging him to a sword fight, but the singers were actually much more effective when they simply stood there and sang. During the intermission, before the zany cinematics, the woman to my right, the one who loved the jealousy of the Italians, told me that “some of the regulars” were disappointed by such a tame, traditional production. Given her generally elegant demeanor, I gathered that the regulars she referred to were the sort of society types that, according to unchanging stereotype, make up the opera audience. I was amused that the swells were clamoring for regie madness – a sure sign that that style has passed, so traditionalists can take heart. Personally I am all in favor of wild inventive productions, as long as it seems some thought has been put into them. But in this case it was the more staid elements of the production that were most effective, and seemed most in tune with the opera.