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'Nixon' headlines SF Opera's summer season

Associated Press Modified: June 15, 2012 at 4:02 pm •  Published: June 15, 2012

After a sluggish first act (partly the fault of conductor Rory Macdonald), things picked up considerably in Act 2. Soprano Heidi Stober blossomed into a radiant Pamina, while coloratura Albina Shagimuratova dazzled with her high notes in the Queen of the Night's vengeance aria (which Adams took as inspiration for Madame Mao's big scene.).

The men were less impressive. Bass Kristinn Sigmundsson's sound evaporated whenever he had to dip into his lowest register; baritone Nathan Gunn was an amiable but light-voiced Papageno, and tenor Alek Shrader, announced as suffering from a cold, sang cautiously as Tamino.

The opera was given in a new English translation by Gockley himself. It had a nicely colloquial feel but too often resorted to cheap jokes, as when Tamino, hearing Papageno mention the "Star-flaming queen," responds: "Sounds like something out of a drag show!"

The rewards of "Attila," which opened on Tuesday, were all on the musical side. The head-scratching production, a joint project with La Scala, begins evocatively, with bodies impaled on spikes next to the ruins of a Roman amphitheater. But director Gabriele Lavia tries to make the case for Verdi's early opera as a case study in oppression and rebellion through the ages by placing each act in a different historical period. This concept reaches absurdity in Act 3, set in the wreckage of a modern movie theater, which happens to be playing a film about Attila.

Still, "Attila" crackles with irresistible raw energy and passion — and music director Nicola Luisotti brought out these qualities in his conducting.

As the barbaric Hun (more sinned against than sinning in this piece), bass Ferruccio Furlanetto dominated the stage with his dark, rich voice and brooding charisma. Baritone Quinn Kelsey was his equal as the Italian warrior Ezio, his warm, resonant sound at times reminiscent of the great Leonard Warren.

As Odabella, soprano Lucrecia Garcia began promisingly, tearing through her opening aria "Santo di patria" with aplomb. Subsequently, however, her tone tended to sound thin on her high notes.

Tenor Diego Torre, as the knight Foresto, has a voice too small for the role and frequently showed signs of strain. One had to feel sorry for him when, during his third-act aria, he was forced to compete for our attention with a flickering image of Jack Palance rampaging through the 1954 Hollywood production "Sign of the Pagan."

It was no contest.