‘Two Women’ channels Puccini, Hollywood in world premiere 

Italian diva Anna Caterina Antonacci took her cue from Sophia Loren as the character Cesira in "Two Women"
Italian diva Anna Caterina Antonacci took her cue from Sophia Loren as the character Cesira in “Two Women”

Marco Tutino’s new opera “Two Women,” which takes place in war-torn Italy during World War II, has one stirring moment. Near the end of Act I, Rosetta (sung by Sarah Shafer), the 16-year-old daughter of Cesira, lifts her pure-toned soprano in a poignant prayer for peace. It becomes a touching anthem for the whole village, as they join her a lush chorus, singing “Father, do not abandon us,” as battles are growing closer to their village.

To a full War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Opera presented the world premiere on Saturday of the hotly-anticipated opera, “Two Women” (“La Ciociara”) by Tutino, to his libretto with Fabio Ceresa. As the creators told us in a panel discussion on Friday, the opera is based on Alberto Moravia’s novel, but not so much on the 1960 movie from the novel, produced by Carlo Ponti and starring Sophia Loren.

The premiere was conducted by company music director Nicola Luisotti and staged by Francesca Zambello, director of San Francisco’s 2011 Ring Cycle. A total of 95 critics were at the premiere, the first Italian language commission in the United States since Puccini’s “La fanciulla del West”  (“The Girl of the Golden West”).

It’s unfortunate that, despite the stunning cast, attractive set design and a compelling story inspired by true wartime events, the new opera commissioned by San Francisco and Turin’s Teatro Regio (where it will premiere in 2018) did not have an inventive musical score to match. The composer channeled Puccini, Leoncavallo and Mascagni – or all things verismo – and maybe a little Nino Rota (“The Godfather”), too. Screenwriter Luca Rossi had a hand in the project, as well.

The result would play well in Hollywood.

As Cincinnati Opera prepares another world premiere, its first in 50 years, this month, it left me wondering — where is modern opera headed? But more about that in a minute.

Rosetta (sung by Sarah Shafer) sings a deeply moving prayer, with Michale (tenor Dimitri Pittas ) looking on. Photos provided by San Francisco Opera
Rosetta (sung by Sarah Shafer) sings a deeply moving prayer, with Michale (tenor Dimitri Pittas ) looking on. Photos provided by San Francisco Opera

The beautiful Italian diva Anna Caterina Antonacci starred as the central character Cesira, who is fleeing Rome during the Battle for Rome with her daughter for the provincial mountain region of Ciociaria, in search of a safe haven. But the villagers, who have their own problems, refuse to help. First raped by the arch-villain Giovanni (baritone Mark Delavan) during an air raid in Rome, she is later raped (along with her daughter) by a gang of Moroccans who are serving with the Allied French. Historically, it was a shocking and true event; their French general gave the Moroccans free reign to rape and loot in the villages they had conquered for 50 hours. At least 7,000 women were victims.

The production featured actual newsreels, such as a heartbreaking scene of displaced villagers marching barefoot with their possessions, as well as effective projections depicting the hill towns and bombing raids. It was a fascinating topic, but this was not a documentary.

Antonacci, who said in the program notes that her performance was informed by Sophia Loren, also noted that every Italian has seen the movie “La Ciociara” at least three times. The singer, who delivered a riveting performance as Cassandra in the company’s spectacular production of “Les Troyens” just the night before, gave a complete and emotional performance in the role of Cesira, which was created for her. She sang with luminous beauty and her presence was consistently alluring. It’s too bad that her vocal gifts were not fully exploited until the final scene.

The score included lush strings and orchestrations that were right out of the Puccini playbook. The music, led with cinematic sweep by Luisotti, swelled glamorously after each notable scene, and swamped the singers in between. It was attractive, tonal music – all of it vaguely familiar. At times, I heard what seemed to be actual snippets from “Boheme” or “Tosca.” There was predictably sinister music for the Nazis. The verismo imitation was frankly too much when Fascist-turned-American-sympathizer Giovanni, after slapping around Cesira, barked to the townspeople, “The show is over!” – an overt reference to Pagliacci’s “La commedia è finita!”

Note to creators: Please toss out the “comic relief” scene with the doddering, cake-baking mother of Michale’s family friend.

Delavan drew from his experience as one of opera’s finest bad guys (notably Scarpia), displaying a firm baritone, menacing presence and a violent streak. He was a stalker, promising Cesira that he would find her and kill her. Shafer, as the daughter, turned in a remarkable performance, first as the innocent teen, and later as the deeply-hurt victim, who ultimately blames her mother. The horror of what happened to her was palpable.

Tenor Dimitri Pittas impressed as Michale, the kind professor who befriends the women, with an ardent voice and believable acting. And in a notable San Francisco Opera debut, Edward Nelson, a CCM graduate, was excellent as John Buckley, an injured U.S. Air Force lieutenant who is aided by Cesira. After heroically saving the day in the end, he rode off in the back of an actual Army jeep.

Edward Nelson, a CCM grad, is a downed U.S. airman who later saves the day, in "Two Women." Provided: San Francisco Opera
Edward Nelson, a CCM grad, is a downed U.S. airman who later saves the day, in “Two Women.” Provided: San Francisco Opera

The opera is book-ended – like Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” – with horrific events (in this case, the raping of women). But despite the gripping story, its dramatic thread failed to carry from beginning to end.

Yet Zambello’s staging was consistently fine. She effectively handled the second rape scene with a “split screen.” As the women were being attacked by turban-wearing “Gourmiers,” Giovanni was preparing to kill Michale.

There is no doubt that the cast was superb. In the end, the audience gave it a standing ovation.

But back to the future of opera. SF Opera general director David Gockley explained to us that “a 3,200-seat opera house has to be full to be functioning. We are trying to present opera that would appeal to the public. … My feeling is that modernist works of full-length operas in large theaters hasn’t made a footprint.”

You need “big emotions and big palettes” for public tastes, he added. The company is, in fact, about to open a small theater that will appeal to the niche opera lovers, he said.

And maestro Luisotti added that “the language (of opera) has become too complicated.”

That, to me, is a troubling attitude, as if to assume the public will only go for movie music or watered-down Puccini. And there are plenty of modern operas that have successfully navigated this “neo-romantic” trend, which is far from new. One only has to mention San Francisco’s Jake Heggie, whose “Moby Dick” will next appear at LA Opera. The late Daniel Catàn used Puccini as a jumping-off point, rather than as imitation, in his lushly exotic opera “Forencia en el Amazonas.” As for modernism, what about the wildly popular John Adams?

The composer Tutino said to the critics assembled from the Music Critics Association of North America that his score could be used, eventually, for a remake of the movie. Perhaps that will be its future, after all.

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