World Premiere Becomes a Weak Throwback

United StatesUnited States  Marco Tutino, Two Women (La Ciociara): Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus, San Francisco Opera, Nicola Luisotti (conductor), War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. 19.6.2015 (HS)

Act II, Scene II  Sarah Shafer as Rosetta and Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cesira with Moroccan soldiers. ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Act II, Scene II
Sarah Shafer as Rosetta and Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cesira with Moroccan soldiers. ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Cesira: Anna Caterina Antonacci
Rosetta: Sarah Shafer
Michele: Dimitri Pittas
Giovanni: Mark Delavan
John Buckley: Eddie Nelson
Pasquale Sciortino: Joel Sorensen
Fedor Von Bock: Christian Van Horn
Maria, Sciortino’s Mother: Buffy Baggott
Italian Singer: Pasquale Esposito
A Country Woman, Lena: Zanda Svede

Music And Libretto: Marco Tutino
Libretto: Fabio Ceresa
Conductor: Nicola Luisotti
Director: Francesca Zambello
Set Designer: Peter Davison
Costume Designer: Jess Goldstein
Lighting Designer: Mark McCullough
Projection Designer: S. Katy Tucker

Marco Tutino has made a career out of applying the style of Italian verismo to his contemporary operas. The latest, Two Women, is having its world premiere at San Francisco Opera. It’s not exactly a dud. Audiences have responded with enthusiastic ovations at the first performance last week and at the second, seen and heard Friday at the War Memorial Opera House. But anyone familiar with actual verismo, from the works of Mascagni, Leoncavallo and Puccini can’t help but cringe at the lack of depth and originality in this adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s novel. The book personalized the waning days of World War II in Italy, centering on the travails of a woman and her daughter. A film adaptation mounted by Vittorio de Sica starred Sophia Loren in her first dramatic role. It won her an Oscar.

San Francisco Opera music director Nicola Luisotti, besotted by Tutino’s grand, sweeping style, convinced general director David Gockley to commission the idea. Snippets of the music in preview videos made it sound promising. But when the completed work appeared, its six scenes—over 2 hours and 45 minutes—felt like one long, dense, unrelenting, wearying stretch of melodrama. There’s little musical contrast within the scenes, which  build into easily telegraphed muscular climaxes, seldom earned dramatically or musically. Arias and ensembles meander musically, something that can’t be said of Puccini or Leoncavallo, who knew how to make them register the point clearly.

There is borrowed music, all of it more appealing than Tutino’s own tunes. Several traditional Roman songs percolate through the first scene, and in the final scene, a popular 1943 song, “La strada nel bosco,” introduces an Italian Singer character at the village celebration after the Allies have won the day. These help leaven the music’s incessant density. Tutino’s music borrows from Mascagni and Puccini unashamedly, but reaches mainly for those composers’ big moments rather than their more intimate creations. The last of four intermezzos, which separate each act’s three scenes, finally introduces some extended transparency to the musical texture and orchestration. More of that, scattered throughout the score, would go a long toward making it more effective.

All of the above conspires to undercut Italian soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci, who has not been on the San Francisco Opera stage since a riveting Adalgisa in a 1998 Norma. Tutino wrote the role of Cesira for Antonacci, who plays a widowed shopkeeper who flees Rome with her 16-year-old daughter when their shop is bombed in an Allied air raid. She’s in virtually every scene. She works mightily to overcome the shallowness of the writing. But it just doesn’t click.

As the daughter Rosetta, soprano Sarah Shafer made a stronger impression. Her progression from innocent piety to wayward rebel teenager culminated in the opera’s most dramatic and fully realized scenes. Shafer, who starred in the company’s most recent world premiere, The Secret Garden, used her creamy voice and ingratiating presence to great effect.

Mother and daughter cannot escape the fallout from the war, mostly because of Giovanni (Mark Delavan), a black market roughneck who rapes Cesira during the bombing and shows up repeatedly to bully and betray them. They find little solace in Cesira’s home village in Ciociaria, a mountainous region where the residents live in fear of the Nazi troops, who are caught in a standoff with American soldiers for four months.

In the village they befriend a displaced teacher, Michele, who helps patch up a wounded American airman, John Buckley, an act of grace that Giovanni eventually uses against Cisera and Michele. In skilled hands this could have led to emotional musical explorations and real drama. Instead Giovanni generally become a cartoon villain, a poor man’s Scarpia. Or maybe the Scarpia parallel better fits Von Bock (bass Christian Van Horn), the German officer who has his own version of Tosca Act II to suavely trap Michele (but without any obvious designs on Cesira).

The libretto compresses this story, seldom allowing the characters a moment to reveal any depth. The climactic plot points, however, result from random events. In the deserted village, Cisera and Rosetta are raped by a group of Moroccan soldiers looting the church, a moment set up by absolutely nothing in the libretto. (A caption for a series of historical photos projected on the curtain between acts does mention that these sorts of things happened.) Even worse, Buckley shows up out of nowhere to point the finger at Giovanni.

As Giovanni, Delavan used his burly frame and resonant bass-baritone to make a menacing character, though utterly lacking in nuance. Tenor Dimitri Pittas, who has sung Rodolfo in La Bohème at Metropolitan Opera, used his lyric tenor to suggest the passion underlying his bookish exterior. Van Horn’s turn as the Nazi major was  chilling. Other smaller roles were ably handled by members of the company’s young artists program, particularly tenor Eddie Nelson as Buckley and mezzo-soprano Zanda Svede as a villager who sings one of the Roman songs. Tenor Pasquale Esposito, who specializes in Italian popular songs, delivered the “Strada” song with appropriate style.

Sets by Peter Davidson evoked bomb-damaged walls. Projections designed by Mark McCullough filled out the gaps in the walls from the rear to suggest city streets or village vistas. Director Francesca Zambello did her best to make some dramatic sense out of all this, but in the end the clumsiness of the plot foiled even her formidable talents.

Teatro Regio di Torino co-commissioned this work, and plans to present it in 2018. That gives a talented writer time to sharpen the libretto and Tutino time to make much-needed revisions to the score. It would go a long way if he could create more ebb and flow instead of relentless density and climaxes, perhaps adding better musical definition for the characters.

Harvey Steiman

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