Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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A Second Look: “Attila”, Verdi and Italian Opera in the Luisotti Era – San Francisco Opera, July 2, 2012

July 9th, 2012

In Fall 2005, in the last year of the controversial San Francisco Opera general directorship of Pamela Rosenberg, a 43 year old Italian conductor, Nicola Luisotti, made his debut at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House. It had been only three year’s prior that Luisotti’s international debut had taken place, at Germany’s Stuttgart Opera (Rosenberg’s previous administrative assignment).

According to Luisotti’s website in fall 2005, his San Francisco debut was to be in Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West”, an expectation confirmed by the website of a baritone who was to have sung the role of Jack Rance. No such production took place during the Rosenberg era, although five years later Luisotti led a new production of “Fanciulla” that coincided with the opera’s centennial celebrations.

Instead, a quite daffy new production of Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” was mounted, memorable for Luisotti’s superb conducting, and, of all things, the debut of then twentysomething Lucas Meachem, an artist who has since sung lead roles in Luisotti-led performances, directed to play Fra Melitone as if he were some sort of cool college kid. [For my further observations, see Zurich and San Francisco: A Tale of Two “Forzas”.]

[Below: Ferruccio Furlanetto as Attila; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Once David Gockley replaced Rosenberg as General Director, one of his truly spectacular decisions was to appoint Luisotti to become the third San Francisco Opera music director, beginning in 2009, with the special charge of restoring the former prestige of the San Francisco Opera in presenting the Italian operatic repertory.

Since his appointment with its attendant mission, Luisotti has conducted operas by both Puccini (“La Boheme”, 2008; “La Fanciulla del West”, 2010; “Madama Butterfly”, 2010 and “Turandot”, 2011) and Verdi (“Il Trovatore”, 2009, “Otello”, 2009 and “Aida”, 2010). Each of these productions took the opera seriously, and, even when a non-traditional presentation, was intelligently conceived and respectful of the work.

[Below: Foresto (Diego Torre, sitting on rock in right foreground) has brought refugees from the sacking of Aquilea, to a seacoast populated by religious hermits, which will become the city of Venice; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

However the “Attila” production, like that of the Centennial “Fanciulla”, might be regarded as a personal Luisotti project. Both were new productions that are joint ventures between an Italian opera company and the San Francisco Opera. The “Attila” was a San Francisco co-production with Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, whose premieres in both cities Luisotti conducted. It may be the best indication of all the Luisotti-conducted operas seen so far, of Luisotti’s vision of the future of Italian opera performance.

Finding New Meanings in “Attila”

In my initial comments on this production [see  “Attila” in Italy with a Phenomenal Ferruccio Furlanetto – San Francisco Opera, June 12, 2012] I spoke to the metaphorical structure of the production in which the three acts represent respectively Attila’s time, the time of Attila’s premiere (at the height of the movement to reunify Italy), and the 20th century, circa 1954, when Danish director Douglas Sirk’s “Sign of the Pagan” was shown in movie theaters.

[Below: the guests arrive at Attila’s banquet, which occurs in a stage setting designed to evoke the ruins of a mid-century 19th century Italian opera house; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

I indicated in my previous review that I don’t think that Gabriele Lavia and his the production team really are making a statement about Italy in the mid-1950s (the theater could have shown culturally significant movies by Fellini and Antonioni), but regard the run-down cinema as a proxy for the “barbarians” who threaten Italian culture at the present time. Of course, among those who accept the metaphor, there likely would be differences as to whom to identify as the “barbarians”.

Since this is a large and attractive production of an opera for which new productions are relatively rare, it will likely endure for some considerable time. This will provide the opportunity for other culprits offensive to Italian culture to become the object of this production’s scorn.

However, one obvious candidate are productions like the Rosenberg-era  “Trovatore” and “Forza” which “trash” Verdi’s operas.

Attila’s Reawakening

Investing in a massive new production (so large that the several feet on either side of the unit sets could not be seen by the War Memorial audience) goes far beyond any messages that the production designers might hope the audiences will take to heart.

“Attila” had been very popular in the mid-19th century. The production is a bet on the future of the opera, assuming increasing popularity over the next decade or so.

The opera abounds in melody. Verdi biographer Julian Budden refers to its “bow-shaped” melodies. I always wondered what that meant until I started noticing the up and down patterns that so many of the melodies make in the opera’s piano-vocal score.

In fact, one could imagine that much of its audience would probably enjoy singing these melodies, as if one were in a British music hall, in the way that Director Thaddeus Strassberger earlier this year coaxed the Kennedy Center opera audience to sing Va pensiero during the curtain calls in Washington National Opera’s recent new production of Verdi’s “Nabucco” [See Strassberger’s Verdi-Year “Nabucco” – Leo An, Csilla Boross Are Magnificent in Inventive Production – Washington National Opera, May 15, 2012.]

[Below: the Dancers at Attila’s banquet; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The four major roles are magnificently constructed, each with great arias and a combination of duets, trios and concertato opportunities.

Even the plot has more dramatic interest than one might suspect on reading the program synopsis. First of all, even though this is hardly a historical documentary, the characters of Attila, Ezio, and Pope Leo, and possibly Foresto, all existed in the mid-fifth century.

Ezio (General Aetius) and Attila were allies in the battle with King Gunther of the Burgundians – so that at that point of time there were good Barbarians (Attila) and bad Barbarians (Gunther).

The Verdi-Wagner Connection

Since 2013 is the bicentennial years of the births of both Verdi and Wagner, it is worth considering that Attila has a direct connection to the Nibelunglied from which Wagner derived his ideas for The Ring of the Nibelungs (and from which some of the source material for Verdi’s “Attila” was derived). The Burgundian Gunther (who ultimately becomes the Gunther of Goetterdaemmerung) is the associate of Siegfried and Bruennhilde and is the brother of Gutrune. (I’ve used Wagner’s version of the names, which can vary depending on the language in which the Nibelung stories are being told.)

[Below: Ezio (Quinn Kelsey, front, far right) is determined he will resist the pact that the Roman emperor has signed with the Huns; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

There are many impressions that this production, conceived by Gabriele Lavia and the team that created the La Scala-San Francisco Opera mounting of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”, evokes. The return of basso Ferruccio Furlanetto, an imposing Attila, to the War Memorial Opera stage after a three decade absence was most welcome, as was the opportunity to hear again this masterpiece of melodic construction in the surroudings of a great opera house (it was performed, with Samuel Ramey, at the War Memorial 21 years previously).

But, most of all it was the vibrant conducting of Luisotti and his obvious relish at introducing a work with which most of his American home company audience was unfamiliar, which assures us that the Italian repertory in San Francisco is in good hands.


For my review of a different production of “Attila”, see: Reveling in Early Verdi: Relyea, Garcia, Vratogna, Palombi in Montanaro’s Uncut “Attila” – Seattle Opera, January 14, 2012.

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