Thursday, November 22, 2007

Well Sung and Well Hun

When the curtain rose on the San Francisco Opera's new production of Verdi's Attila, the audience was greeted by a front drop which was a reproduction of Raphael's famous fresco "The Encounter Between Attila The Hun and St. Leo The Great' (which can be seen in the Vatican's Stanza di Eliodoro.

One doesn't encounter a stunned Hun very often.

Yet the final production of the 1991 fall season recreated this moment with a touching dramatic flair. First, there was the bare-chested Samuel Ramey as Attila, writhing in bed during a nightmare until he awoke and confessed his prophetic dream to a fellow barbarian. In the Hun's nightmare, an old man would tell the feared conqueror that he was doomed to be remembered as the scourge of mankind and was forever forbidden entry into Rome. In Act II, the audience witnessed a tidy re-enactment of Attila's dream, as a confused chorus of Huns watched their fearless leader quake in front of a cross. These two moments of intense theatricality were communicated to the audience with rare effectiveness thanks to Supertitles. And it's important to understand why.

The production of Attila which finally arrived on the stage of San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House has had a rather curious history. Originally created as a joint venture between the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the New York City Opera and the San Diego Opera, this Attila was first seen in Chicago in 1980 -- when Supertitles had not yet been introduced to the opera world. In its initial outing,the opera was abominably misdirected by Ernest Poettgen. The bass singing the lead role (Nicolai Ghiaurov) was laid low with ten days of hiccups and the Odabella (Gilda Cruz-Romo) was hardly in the best of voice. To get through the evening, the principals focused their attention entirely on the prompter's box, In my first encounter with the opera, Attila struck me as an evening of well-intentioned, but phenomenally boring theater.

My mind changed in 1981, when the New York City Opera performed Attila in Lincoln Center and Los Angeles, This time around, Sam Ramey and Justino Diaz shared the title role with Marilyn Zschau screaming up a storm as Odabella and tenor Enrico di Giuseppe making an impressive comeback as Foresto. With Sergiu Commissiona on the podium and Lotfi Mansouri directing, the opera looked and sounded one helluva lot better than it had in Chicago.

At that time, I wrote that "the opera itself boasts some of Verdi's strongest foot-thumping patriotic rhythms, offering a fine vehicle to signers who wish to lay the audience out in the aisles with star turns." That impression was much more on the mark.

A lot has happened since then. In 1983, Lotfi Mansouri (then acting as General Director of the Canadian Opera Company) ran a landmark experiment on Toronto audiences by using Supertitles on COC's production of Elektra. The rest, as they say, is history. Supertitles have since transformed the operatic landscape and brought new life to many a production, including this Attila.

As a result, ten years down the pike, a return visit to Attila was almost as invigorating as a burst of fresh poppers. What I have always loved about Verdi's early works is the emotional intensity and the nearly primitive honesty of his music. While operas like Nabucco, Macbeth, I Lombardi alla Prima Crocciata and Attila may suffer from sloppy construction, convoluted plots and a lack of sophistication, there can be no denying that their scores pack the kind of dramatic wallop that can make an audience come alive with excitement. When the more militaristic passages of music start coming from the pit, there are moments in each of these operas when the sheer power of the music is strong enough to make a group of pacifists rush off to war.

The performance of Attila that I attended at the San Francisco Opera last week had a rather curious effect on me. After one has roamed the operatic turf, attending hundreds of productions, one's memory can, and often begin to blur. There were many moments during this performance when the production seemed remarkably different than I recalled from previous viewings. The physical sets were basically the same. Sam Ramey's costumes were basically the same. Yet the opera had a completely different feel to it.

As it turns out, some changes had been made. The sets had been significantly refurbished, many costumes rebuilt for the San Francisco performances and I'd bet that Joan Arhelger spruced up the lighting plots. With Laura Alley recreating much of Lotfi Mansouri's original stage direction (from the New York City Opera's performances) many important moments were framed with much more theatrical clarity. The presence of Supertitles added immensely to that sense of dramatic urgency.

Most important, however, was the fact that the lead singers were keenly focused on what the music was trying to say and the style in which emotions were meant to be communicated through the score. Over the years, Attila has become one of Sam Ramey's many signature roles and the character, both physically and vocally, fits him like a glove. While some critics complain about the fact that opera companies rush to bare Ramey's chest at every given opportunity, has anyone asked how many bass-baritones nearing 50 are worth looking at? Or listening to in that condition? Ramey pretty much stands alone.

While the Hun was countered by Luis Giron May's rather stalwart Ezio and Antonio Ordonez's somewhat pallidly sung Foresto, the fiercest threat to Attila's strength came from Elizabeth Connell's Odabella, which lusted for vengeance yet knew how to caress a sword with cunning, guile, and a fierce display of fiorituri. Connell's performance was a full-throated delight, capturing the spirit of Verdi's vengeful females with the kind of lusty, character-driven coloratura which has all but disappeared from the operatic stage. Her musical moments were not just well-sung -- they were great fun for devout opera queens and a fitting finale to the 1991 season.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on December 5, 1991.

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