In an attempt to persuade Attila the Hun to spare Italy from the scorch and burn policy, the corrupt Roman general Ezio says, "Avrai tu l'universo, resti l'Italia a me," ("You can have the universe, but leave Italy for me"). The two warlords were not the only ones who stood to profit handsomely when Verdi’s Attila returned to San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House on Tuesday night in Gabriele Lavia’s new staging (a co-production with Milan's La Scala). An excellent cast and the indelible leadership of the company's music director all contributed to Verdi’s under-performed work emerging triumphant like a conquering hero.

After an initial smash success, Verdi’s 1847 work subsequently languished in semi-obscurity for over a century. Dismissed by twentieth century critics as a formulaic, immature work, Attila, along with most of the composer’s pre-Rigoletto operas, have only in recent times begun to enjoy reappraisal. It took the staunch advocacy of Riccardo Muti and a few unforgettable Attilas, most notably Sam Ramey who returned for this season’s production in a walk-on role, to bring the opera back before the public. The work's themes of destruction and rebirth, couched in some of Verdi's most rousing betrayal and vengeance numbers, makes the many decades of neglect seem a pitiable loss for music lovers.

SFO’s new staging is by Italian actor/director Gabriele Lavia with sets by Alessandro Camera and costumes by Andrea Viotti, the same creative team who introduced a new production of Don Giovanni in San Francisco last fall. Their staging of Attila depicts the constancy of barbarism in human history by focusing on the degradation of a theatrical space over thousands of years. The curtain rises on the ruins of a demolished sixth century Roman amphitheater, which is joined by the shell of a bombed-out opera house in Act II. The final act has the wreckage shabbily converted into a movie theater. The stilted drama of Attila benefits from a strong visual rationale and Lavia's, for the most part, succeeded in situating the characters within an engaging framework of architectural innovation and deterioration. One serious and invasive flaw was allowing the projected film, a 1954 relic starring Jack Palance, to continue playing throughout Act III. Against the distraction of a cinematic battle scene, shown on a thirty-foot screen, some of the evening's best singing struggled to be noticed; Verdi didn’t stand a chance.

Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto sang the evening’s titular character brilliantly. In what is already a long, distinguished career, this singer seems to have found a new stride and his Attila can be safely added to his resume of memorable creations, which includes recent extraordinary turns as Philip II and Boris Godunov. Furlanetto brought the normally two-dimensional character to life as a conflicted anti-hero, capable of fearsome violence and moments of vulnerability. His Act I dream aria, already the dramatic fulcrum of the piece, was a clinic in Verdean style. Venezuelan soprano Lucrecia Garcia made her SFO debut as Odabella, the warrior maid who spends most of the opera finding the perfect moment to slay Attila with his own sword. Odabella's music is notoriously difficult and Garcia was mostly equal to the task. Effective in the florid lines of her Act I duet with the Foresto of tenor Diego Torre, she seemed less secure in declamatory and high-lying phrases. Torre, also making his SFO debut, seemed to gain strength throughout the performance. The magnificent chorus overshadowed his efforts in the prologue, but the tenor’s impassioned singing in the last act made a powerful case for ignoring Jack Palance. As Ezio, Quinn Kelsey had a great night. Singing with beautiful tone and noble line, Ezio's treachery, decked out in seductive trappings, seemed far more dangerous than the straightforward brutality of Attila. Tenor Nathaniel Peake was effective as the turncoat servant Uldino and Sam Ramey made a strong impression as the Pope in the closing tableau of Act I.

Bringing his emphatic gestures and characteristic enthusiasm to the work, Nicola Luisotti showed why the Italian repertory has become his uncontested property at SFO. The maestro elicited spirited playing when the score called for it and maintained a tight dramatic arc with his choice of tempi. The caballetas, of which Attila is flush with great ones, had martial drive and instrumental clarity to stimulate both the adrenaline glands and musical ear.

Immediately following the bows, chorus master Ian Robertson was honored onstage for his 25 years of distinguished service at SFO. Robertson accepted his award and admirably deflected the attention, saying the night belonged to the Attila cast. With all due respect to Robertson's service—and also because of it—he was right.