San Francisco Opera | Ferruccio Furlanetto and Samuel Ramey on Attila

Ferruccio Furlanetto and Samuel Ramey on Attila

The recent popularity of Verdi’s Attila is due in large part to Samuel Ramey’s assumption of the title role at the New York City opera in 1981. Over the next twenty years, he played Attila in most of the world’s major opera houses, including a searing portrayal with San Francisco Opera in 1991. Now, Ferruccio Furlanetto returns to San Francisco for the first time in fourteen seasons to assume the role of Attila, and Ramey plays Pope Leo I. These two legendary singers spoke recently with San Francisco Opera Magazine.

Attila the Hun is known today to have been a cruel, brutal man whose sole aim seems to have been to conquer or destroy everything in his path. He killed his own brother in order to consolidate his power and eliminate a rival. But, Verdi romanticized his character for the opera…

SR: Attila, the historical figure, is not nearly as sympathetic as the character in the opera. In the opera he comes off sympathetically, because the other characters conspire against him. When I first started studying the opera, I saw that he wasn’t the same character as he was in history, the one we hear all the awful stories about.

FF: Verdi gives Attila dignity, which he did in all of his major bass roles. He is the only one that doesn’t betray someone else. I am living this character on stage following this very specific track, to be honest in what I say to others, and to be honest with myself. If you really live what you are saying through the music and through the text, the audience feels it.

When it comes to historical characters, it’s important to study the actual person and to understand the period historically, politically, and religiously. With Attila we don’t have much, unfortunately. But, for characters like King Philip (in Don Carlo) or Boris Godunov, there is more information. ten days ago I was in Moscow and had the chance to visit Boris Godunov’s grave. It’s very touching to be there, physically close to this amazing man. A few years ago I was in Madrid and went to San Lorenzo de El Escorial, which was built by Philip II. I saw the room where he slept. It was spartan with only one small window, looking out onto the altar of the cathedral underneath. This tells you a lot about the type of man he was and gives you a sense of how he lived.

Friends for years, Ramey and Furlanetto have not only sung many of the same roles, they have appeared together often—notably in Don Giovanni and Don Carlo. They made their San Francisco Opera debuts a year apart (Ramey as Colline in La Bohème in 1978; Furlanetto as Alvise in La Gioconda in 1979). This is their first appearance together here.

SR: I met Ferruccio in 1985. We were contracted by Deutsche Grammophon to record Don Giovanni. then, we did the production together at the Salzburg Festival for several years with Maestro von Karajan. We worked together in La Gazza Ladra at the Rossini Festival in Pesaro, and at the Met several times. We’re good buddies.

FF: We had some marvelous summers together in Salzburg. I learned a lot from him. there was never competition. It was just sincere friendship and appreciation of each other. I have great admiration for him.

Both singers have favorite memories from earlier appearances with San Francisco Opera. One of Ramey’s signature roles was the title character in Boito’s Mefistofele, in which he appeared with the company in the riveting Robert Carsen production.

SR: I had the opportunity to do two wonderful productions of Mefistofele, the first at New York City opera, and the second one, Robert’s production, that we did here twice. That is definitely one of the high points of my career.

FF: The first time I sang in San Francisco was in the famous Gioconda with Renata Scotto and Luciano Pavarotti. It was my second engagement in this country. This was when Kurt Herbert Adler started to do the concerts in the park. It was the beginning of bringing opera to the public, and it was born here in San Francisco. It was amazing to sing in that concert, to see all those thousands of people sitting in Golden Gate Park, listening to Pavarotti. It’s wonderful to be back.

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