‘Two Women’ Melds Cinema, Verismo In SF Opera Debut

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In ‘Two Women,’ Rosetta (Sara Shafer) and Cesira (Anna Caterina Antonacci) are defenseless in the final days of WWII.
(Production photos by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera)
By Susan Brodie

SAN FRANCISCO — Two Women, Marco Tutino’s new opera for San Francisco Opera, is a flashy hybrid of verismo opera and post-war, neorealist cinema. Co-commissioned by the company and the Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy, it’s based on Alberto Moravia’s fictionalized account of war crimes in an Italian village after the fall of Mussolini. A vivid staging and a strong cast helped to elevate a lush, listenable score that left little impression on first hearing.

The inspiration for the new work sprang from general director David Gockley’s desire to commission a big opera in Italian, in the lush, verismo tradition of Puccini. Company music director Nicola Luisotti and Italian neo-romantic composer Tutino (born 1954) hit upon a dramatic war episode that seemed made for operatic treatment. The score took two years to develop from idea to scenario (by Luca Rossi) to libretto (Fabio Ceresa) to music, which Tutino wrote relatively quickly.

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Cesaria (Antonacci) and daughter Rosetta (Shafer) suffer a brutal attack as the war ends.

The story is based on a true incident: after Italy’s surrender to the Allies in September 1943, German fighters continued to occupy the mountains around Monte Cassino outside of Rome. To break the stalemate, the French forces brought in fierce Moroccan mercenaries skilled in mountain warfare. After the Goums overcame the Germans and liberated the area, the French commander gave the Moroccans 50 hours to do whatever they wanted, resulting in a horrific and brutal rampage. The number of victims of Le Marocchinate (the Moroccan treatment) has never been fixed, but at least 7000 women and girls are thought to have been raped, and some 800 men died trying to save them (French accounts report much smaller numbers). The mothers who tried to protect their daughters were known as le Ciociare — the women from the Ciociaria district southeast of Rome.

La Ciocara (1960)Alberto Moravia wrote a novel based on these events that became the basis of Vittorio De Sica’s 1960 movie La Ciociara, starring Sophia Loren and Jean-Paul Belmondo. In Italy, the movie enjoys iconic status as a dramatization of war, much as Gone With the Wind once enjoyed in the U.S. In 1960, a statue was erected in Castro dei Volsci in honor of the victims. It seems likely that this recognition was due largely to the attention generated by the novel and then the film, as well as some 60,000 claims for reparations.

The operatic version centers on Cesira, a Roman widow and shop owner supporting her 16-year-old daughter during World War II. Fearing for Rosetta’s safety, Cesira enlists the help of her admirer, Giovanni, a black marketeer, opportunist, and all-around brute, and flees with the girl to her home district of Ciociaria, where she finds safety and love with Michele, a shy intellectual and pacifist. When Cesira, Rosetta, and Michele help a wounded American soldier who strays into the village, Giovanni, now a Fascist, punishes Cesira for rejecting his advances and denounces her and Michele for treason.

Michele is arrested, and without their protector, Cesira and Rosetta become victims of the Maroccan mercenaries. Ceresa’s libretto minimizes Moravia’s emphasis on sustained hardship to emphasize instead the dynamic relationships; the depiction of Rosetta’s alienation and descent into prostitution is softened, and, as in the film, a mother-daughter reconciliation provides a more uplifting ending than in the book. The opera struggles a bit to overcome the inertia of the book’s sense of sustained struggle and deprivation, but suspenseful tension written into the music helps fill in some of the dramatic gaps.

Nicola Luisotti, Marco Tutino, Francesca Zambello, David Gockley
Creative team: Nicola Luisotti, Marco Tutino, Francesca Zambello, David Gockley.

Francesca Zambello’s production effectively balances the focus between the drama of the narrative and the larger context of the war. Before the opening of each act, period newsreel footage and captions explain what is happening in the war, and drop curtain projections of Monte Cassino shown during orchestral interludes (video design by S. Katy Tucker) show the passage of time and the progressive destruction of the village. Projections at the back of the stage during the action show bombardments as well as offstage action. Peter J. Davidson’s sets provide schematically realistic locations, and Mark McCullogh’s lighting effectively directs the eye during scenes with parallel simultaneous action.

In many ways, Two Women harkens back to the Italian operatic traditions of 100 years ago. Many elements pay homage to classic verismo: the villagers praying for peace recalls the Easter procession and prayer in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. The evil Giovanni is clearly modeled on Tosca’s Scarpia. Cesira’s aching last-act lament recalls Manon Lescaut’s  “Sola, perduta, abbandonata”.

Composer Marco Tutino

But Tutino’s music has more in common with film music than with opera. The vocal writing sets the texts with great sensitivity to language and voices, but arias are nearly non-existent; Antonacci compares the writing to Monteverdi’s arioso style, somewhere between aria and recitative. For color, Tutino incorporates folk songs sung by untrained voices to flesh out the aural landscape, a nod to Italian neo-realistic cinema.

Lushly tonal instrumental passages are peppered with dissonance or percussion to create tension reminiscent of Bernard Hermann’s scores for Alfred Hitchcock thrillers, such as Marnie. Soaring orchestral themes recall Max Steiner’s writing for Gone with the Wind or movies scored by Franz Waxman or Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Tutino’s music lacks the irony of Italian film composers like Nino Rota. For interludes between scenes, the cine-symphonic approach works very well, but as the violins swell, the characters are silenced. The music may be beautiful, but in opera, the emotional payoff should be vocal.

Anna Caterina Antonacci is Cesira
Cesira (Anna Caterina Antonacci) returns to Rome with the Allies.

It’s hard to imagine a better Cesira than the compelling Italian soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci, for whom the role was written. As the widow hardened by circumstance and fiercely protective of her daughter, Cesira is the emotional heart of the drama, sympathetic if not always likable.

Antonacci projects intensity without shouting; her naturalistic delivery of the text was complemented by eloquent body language clearly modeled on Sophia Loren’s film interpretation. As her sixteen-year-old daughter, Rosetta, the young soprano Sarah Shafer brought sweet, gleaming lyricism to her role as she traced the girl’s loss of innocence.

Mark Delevan as Giovanni
Mark Delevan as the brutal Giovanni, is one of Cesaria’s tormentors.

The fierce, robust baritone Mark Delavan infused Cesira’s cartoonishly evil nemesis, Giovanni, with a small but credible measure of humanity. As Michele, the pacifist village schoolteacher who becomes Cesira’s love interest and defender, tenor Dimitri Pittas overcame minimal direction, singing ardently despite some harshness at the top of his range. Smaller roles were vivid and well sung: Christian Van Horn as the German major, Edward Nelson as the wounded American, Joel Sorensen as a sniveling Facist sympathizer, and Zanda Švēde as a suffering village woman. The chorus sounded fine, and Luisotti conducted the premiere as though he’d been leading the score for decades.

Two Women may never join the ranks of verismo’s greatest hits, but the opening-night audience shook the War Memorial with their cheers, booing only the bad guys at curtain call. Gockley may be right about how to fill a big opera house.

Two Women runs through June 30 at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House. Tickets are available here.

Susan Brodie writes about music, the arts and life from New York City and Paris. Follow her at @Susan Brodie (Twitter) and Toi Toi Toi!