At the conclusion of the San Francisco Opera’s opening of Giuseppe Verdi’s 1846 “Attila” Tuesday, general director David Gockley presented chorus director Ian Robertson with the San Francisco Opera Medal.
The timing was excellent. Robertson’s chorus shined just as brightly as it did in last week’s premiere of John Adams’ “Nixon in China” and provided the opera’s highlights.
The big, ambitious — and puzzling — piece is a La Scala-San Francisco co-production, featuring S.F. Opera Music Director Nicola Luisotti conducting here and in Milan, Italy, and Ferruccio Furlanetto singing the title role in both cities.
Gabriele Lavia directed and Alessandro Camera designed the production, which also boasts the late actor Jack Palance’s operatic “debut” — an issue to confound the woebegone who insist that opera make sense.
In Act 1, the setting is the fifth century. Ruins and impaled bodies fill the stage. Act 2 is set in an abandoned opera house, perhaps in the late 19th century. In Act 3, the opera house is used as a run-down movie theater, in which Palance holds forth as Attila in the 1954 film “Sign of the Pagan” on a big, torn screen upstage.
The puzzle: During time travel of a millennium, the setting changes, but the characters, costumes and the Solera-Piave libretto don’t. How can that be? Well, it’s “only an opera,” isn’t it?
The story in brief: Attila the Hun, barbarian conqueror of much of fifth-century Europe, is about to sack Rome . He is betrayed by Odabella, a woman warrior he had captured and married.
The melodious and lovely music from the composer, who was 33 when he wrote it, doesn’t have the impact of his later works, sounding more Verdi-esque than Verdi. On Tuesday, it benefited from Luisotti’s passionate conducting, Robertson’s chorus and outstanding performances by Furlanetto and Quinn Kelsey as Ezio, the Roman general.
In the opera’s most memorable scene, featuring the entire cast of 135 spread across the stage, Pope Leo (Samuel Ramey) led a huge church procession into a confrontation with a phalanx of uniformed barbarians.
Furlanetto (whose cape nearly tripped him up several times) and Kelsey were wonderful, separately and together. The big, warm and heroic Verdi bass-baritones — Furlanetto more bass, Kelsey more baritone — exemplified vocal splendor.
Nathaniel Peake’s Uldino and Diego Torre’s Foresto were fine, while Lucrecia Garcia’s Odabella had more power than beauty; she seemed to be getting used to the new environment in her local debut.
More notable was the floor-length — was it influenced by barbarians or “The Matrix”? — leather coat she wore over her wedding dress, designed by Andrea Viotti.
“Attila” has been seen in The City just twice before, in a 1991 San Francisco Opera production and in 1859 — yes, 1859 — presented by a traveling Italian company. Tuesday’s performance marked an equally extraordinary occasion, as, after 25 years on the job and leading the chorus in more than 300 productions, Robertson stood onstage to receive his accolades.
Presented by the San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. June 23; 7:30 p.m. June 20, June 28; 2 p.m. July 1
Tickets: $21 to $330
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com