Thursday, June 25, 2015

Opera Review: In San Francisco, a world premiere examines a little-known World War II horror

Act I prayer scene
©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Who: San Francisco Opera
What: Two Women by Marco Tutino
Where: The War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
When: through June 30, 2015

New operas can be a crapshoot, but San Francisco Opera has pretty much rolled up a winner with "Two Women" ("La Ciociara"), running through the end of June. Based on the 1958 novel "La Ciociara" by Alberto Moravia (and "informed by" Luca Rossi's screenplay for De Sica's famous 1960 film, "Two Women"), the libretto by Fabio Ceresa and composer Marco Tutino could use a bit of fine-tuning, but the lush neo-romantic score is filled with wonderful stuff.

"Two Women" is the story of Cesira, a strong-willed widow and Roman shopkeeper, and her daughter Rosetta and their attempt to flee the increasing violence of the campaign to liberate Italy. After her shop is nearly destroyed by Allied bombing, Cesira prevails upon Giovanni, her supplier of semi-legal goods, to take her and Rosetta to Cesira's birthplace in the mountainous Ciociaria region outside Rome. The thuggish Giovanni agrees, but extracts payment in the form of a sexual assault during the bombing.

Cesira, Rosetta, and Lt. Buckley
©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
In the mountains, Cesira encounters and falls in love with Michele, a young pacifist, and together they save the life of John Buckley, a downed American pilot. The intervention eventually costs Michele his life, thanks to betrayal by Giovanni, who opportunistically swears loyalty to the Fascists.

Cesira and Rosetta hit rock bottom at the end of the second act when, seeking refuge in the bomb-damaged church in the village of Sant'Eufemia, they are raped by Moroccan troops fighting for the Allies under French command. The assault badly traumatizes Rosetta and nearly destroys her relationship with Cesira. In the end the two women reconcile and find strength in their love for each other, but it's a hard road for both.

The rape, it should be noted, is an event drawn from historical fact. The Moroccan Goumiers, colonial troops of the French Expeditionary Corps, were, in fact, given carte blanche to loot, pillage, and rape by French General Alfonse Juin as a "reward" for their fierce fighting against the Nazis. By one estimate, as many as 7,000 women were raped and as many as 800 family members killed by the Moroccans for attempting to defend the women.

Cesira, Rosetta, and Goumiers
©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
This is pretty strong stuff—verismo on steroids—and Mr. Tutino gives it the widescreen treatment with an unabashedly romantic and very dramatically effective score. Mr. Tutino has gotten some criticism for writing in an overly conservative style, but as someone who has heard far too much music in which the notion of melody has been ruthlessly suppressed, I found it refreshing.

You can hear Puccini's musical fingerprints here, but even more prominent, to my ears, was the work of the great Italian cinema composers of the late 20th and early 21st century. Nino Rota comes immediately to mind, but so do Riz Ortolani (best known for his "Mondo Cane" score) and Ennio Morricone.

There is, in fact, a strongly cinematic cast to the entire production. Video projections by S. Katy Tucker (whose innovative work has been featured at several St. Louis Symphony concerts recently) are used to create virtual sets as well as special effects like the Allied bombing of Rome in Act I, while excerpts from World War II documentaries serve as a stark reminder of the cost of occupation. Extended video sequences, accompanied by long musical interludes, are used for some of the scene changes. Not surprisingly, director Francesca Zambello, whose sure hand keeps everything flowing smoothly, describes herself in her program note as a great fan of the "Golden Age of Italian Cinema."

Mark Delavan as Giovanni
©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
The cast for this opera is a strong one all the way around. Soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci is a force of nature as the formidable Cesira—a vocal powerhouse and deeply committed actress. As Rosetta, soprano Sarah Shafer radiates vulnerability and backs it up with a wonderfully expressive voice.

Baritone Mark Delavan has the unenviable task of giving life to the appalling Giovanni, a character that is part Iago, part Scarpia, and all sociopath. Giovanni is, according to Mr. Tutino, intended to be the personification of what he sees as the real villain of the piece: the institution of war. Playing a symbol is not the easiest of tasks, but Mr. Delavan manages to suggest that there may actually a human being in there somewhere, repellent as he may be. And his voice is impressive, with great low notes.

Tenor Dimitri Pittas's Michele is appealing and sympathetic, while tenor Joel Sorenson and mezzo Buffy Baggott provide some rare comic relief as the spineless lawyer Sciortino, who helps betray Michele to the Nazis, and his clueless mother Maria, who doesn't understand why her dinner guests keep disappearing. Other performers of note include baritone Edward Nelson as Lt. Buckley, baritone Christian Van Horn as an oily Nazi officer, and singer-songwriter Pasquale Esposito as a local lad who entertains the village during its liberation party with the popular Italian song "La strada nel bosco" ("The Path in the Wood")—bits of which are threaded throughout the opera's score.

Cesira and Allied soldiers
©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
San Francisco Opera music director Nicola Luisotti conducts the seventy-piece orchestra with great authority and an obvious love for the music, and the musicians play exquisitely.

"Two Women" is certainly not without its issues. The misfortunes heaped upon Cesira and Rosetta feel, at times, so overwhelming that numbness begins to set it. And the character of Giovanni is almost devoid of any real psychology—the hazard, I suppose, of being more symbol than human. Still, it's one of the more potent and theatrically satisfying new operas I have seen lately, and the San Francisco Opera is to be commended for producing it.

"Two Women" has two more performances on Sunday and Tuesday, June 28 and 30, at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. It was interesting to see it immediately after Berlioz's "Les Troyens" which, even in SFO's somewhat anti-war staging, still tends to treat war as a mostly heroic undertaking. "Two Women" is a reminder of just how little heroism there can actually be in armed conflict.

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