June 30 SF Opera: Two Women

Anna Caterina Antonacci (Cesira) sits with Allied troops in the San Francisco Opera world premiere production of "Two Women" (photo: Cory Weaver)

Anna Caterina Antonacci (Cesira) sits with Allied troops in the San Francisco Opera world premiere production of “Two Women” (photo: Cory Weaver)

‘Two Women’ a powerful story full of operatic potential — and music that doesn’t quite match

Marco Tutino’s accessible musical score, steeped in pleasant tunes and harmonies, is largely too tame to confront the violence and grittiness of the story

By James Sohre
Contributing writer

With an intentional nod to verismo opera, its lush melodies and orchestral effects, San Francisco Opera successfully presented the world premiere of composer Marco Tutino’s Two Women.

Tutino collaborated on the Italian libretto with Fabio Ceresa, adapting the story from a script by Luca Rossi based on the novel La Ciociara, by Albert Moravia. The two women of the title are the central characters Cesira and her 14-year old daughter, Rosetta. When World War II brings allied bombs and soldiers to Italy the pair flee Rome — but not before a business colleague (the evil Giovanni) rapes Cesira during an air raid. Cesira and Rosetta end up in the Ciociaria region, where the two refugees are befriended by the young intellectual Michele, who soon comes to love Cesira. Doggedly pursued by the malevolent Giovanni, threatened by Nazis and raped by Moroccan soldiers, the women survive — but at what cost? And what lessons may we learn from their journey?

There’s a good deal of grand operatic potential in this story, and the performance had much to recommend: an intriguing tragic narrative, a lavish physical production, accessible tunes and harmonies and a highly accomplished cast of A-list singers. With so many elements in favor of its taking flight, why then does Two Women remain so resolutely earthbound?

Well, for all the violence and grittiness of the story the musical palette seems somewhat afraid to embrace it — unwilling to conjure unpleasant aural effects. There’s also a lack of specificity in the characterizations that results in a generic blandness, even within the most deeply introspective moments. Key moments are misjudged, as well. During the brutal rape at the hands of Giovanni, an act that initiates the opera’s theme and spurs the dramatic action, the composer’s wispy underscoring — while pretty enough — is hardly potent enough to underscore such a horrifying moment.

To be sure, there are stretches of great beauty — such as when the lush banks of strings are unleashed to ravish the ear and faithfully serve the drama. The Interlude before the final act was arguably the finest musical accomplishment of the evening. Much is written about Mr. Tutino’s having channeled Puccini and Mascagni for his inspiration, but I was reminded more of Zandonai’s more modest compositional gifts. There are hints of Janáček, too, and even Previn — but mostly my ear was detecting a large debt to epic film composers Rózsa, Jarre, and yes, John Williams.

Tutino was not helped much by a rather bare bones libretto (partly his own doing) that occasionally borders on Hallmark Card sentimentality and self-conscious symbolism such as the beautiful flower Cesira “discovers” growing amidst the ruins, near opera’s end. That said, the creative team seems to have produced an accessible work that was warmly received by the large audience in attendance on June 30.

At the podium, Music Director Nicola Luisotti drew assured playing from the pit and maintained an admirable forward motion and arc to the score. He wisely resisted the temptation to descend into bathos, and kept the proceedings pulsing along. There were some minor balance problems in the first scene — which may better be attributed to over-scoring than to Maestro Luisotti’s keen attention to detail. The stellar cast was more than up to its assignments.

Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cesira (photo: Cory Weaver)

Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cesira (photo: Cory Weaver)

Anna Caterina Antonacci is a marvelous Cesira — glamorous, strong and determined. Her pliable soprano has just the right glint of steel to make the most of the dramatic dialogue, while her lyrical singing strikes all the right balances with its limpid tone and superb control. Antonacci offered a wonderful account of the opera’s most Puccinian aria in Act One, and commanded our sympathies in her extended final scene. She brings more to the part than is written, and invests her full arsenal of seasoned professionalism as the tragic heroine.

Sarah Shafer as Cesira's daughter, Rosetta (photo: Cory Weaver)

Sarah Shafer as Cesira’s daughter, Rosetta (photo: Cory Weaver)

Sarah Shafer offered such appealing singing as Rosetta that it seemed a shame she was not given more to do in this work. Her crystalline soprano shimmered and shined, and she was wholly believable as a teenager. Would that her transition to promiscuity (and the gifts that can be “earned” from it) been better (and further) developed. Still, Shafer made a fine impression.

The character Michele is given the best and most character-specific music, and Dimitri Pittas takes full advantage of the opportunity — his meaty tenor ringing out heroically one moment and regaling us with melting lyricism the next. Pittas possesses an uncommonly appealing stage persona and he effortlessly compels us to root for the one “good man” in the story.

Mark Delavan as the evil Giovanni (photo: Cory Weaver)

Mark Delavan as the evil Giovanni (photo: Cory Weaver)

As Giovanni, Mark Delavan reveals greater subtlety in his stylish delivery than his character’s unrelenting Snidely Whiplash persona. Delevan has a sizable baritone, capable of weighted statements of great import. On this occasion, he also seized on selected phrases to vary the delivery — producing some welcomed nuances. In the key role of American Lieutenant John Buckley, Edward Nelson gifted the part with a warm and secure baritone. The role of Feldmarshall Fedor von Bock allowed Christian Van Horn to impress with his solid, stentorian bass. Zanda Švēde made a fine impression in the opera’s opening measures as the Country Woman — singing with a pleasant, quasi folk-song quality that set the mood nicely. She fleshed out the character of the village girl Lena with her vibrant, distinctive mezzo.

As the Nazi sympathizer Pasquale Sciortino, Joel Sorensen put his intense, edgy tenor to good purpose. Playing his oblivious mother Maria, Buffy Baggott provided good contrast with her plummy mezzo, creating a memorably befuddled comic character. Three members of the SFO Chorus made notable contributions as the marauding Moroccan Soldiers: Chester Pidduck, Torlef Borsting and William O’Neill. By the time Pasquale Esposito (as the Italian Singer) offered yet another folk song in the final act, I was tapped-out on non-essential “local color,” though he sang it well enough, in a pop-style kind of way. As always, Ian Robertson’s fine chorus was meticulously well prepared.

Set designer Peter Davison devised a marvel of an environment with each scene, employing a ruined wall as a unifying device. The effects of destruction are menacing and well-managed, and the playing spaces appear suitably atmospheric and evocative. I was somewhat confused by the upstage ramp behind a scrim and the various ways it was accessed. (The traffic patterns and structural access to that ramp appeared inconsistent.) Davison’s scenery is exceptionally well lit by Mark McCullough, who finds a wide variety of ways to convey menace and gloom, all the while seeking every opportunity to brighten up the stage whenever possible.

Jess Goldstein’s historically accurate costumes are spot-on and make a significant contribution to the characterizations. I especially admire the military uniforms, which are meticulously crafted. The masterful projections created by S. Katy Tucker are a key part of the design concept and serve to convey much important information. She showed unerring taste in the actual newsreel footage used in the production — which is critical to the audience’s understanding of the story’s historical background.

The peripatetic Francesca Zambello once again exerted a strong directorial hand to shape an evening that drew our focus to detailed character interactions. Especially effective is the manner in which she skillfully manages the large crowd scenes. When it comes to telling a clear story against a large backdrop, Zambello is second to none. There were a few moments of blocking here and there that seemed curious — such as having Cesira seated far upstage center late in the game as Rosetta stumbles far down right, fresh from her latest “customer.” Not only was Cesira obscured from my vantage point, but the mother’s desperate attempt to reconnect with her daughter lacked visualization. Still, that is fine-tuning, and the director certainly succeeded in giving this new work legs.

Two Women is a co-production with Torino’s Teatro Regio, where it is scheduled for a production run in 2018. That’s plenty of time for the creators to flesh out the piece with more detailed and incisive writing in order to capitalize on what is, at present, a good start.

James Sohre recently completed a 40-year career with US Army Entertainment, much of it spent in Germany as the Command-level Entertainment Chief. He continues to travel extensively and write about opera and musical events. He is production coordinator for Opera Las Vegas and heads the Young Artists program for which he just directed “A Passion for Puccini,” an evening of staged arias and scenes from all of Puccini’s works.

Details Box:
What: Marco Tutino’s Two Women (world premiere)
Who: San Francisco Opera
Director: Francesca Zambello
Libretto: Marco Tutino and Fabio Ceresa
Performance reviewed: June 30, 2015

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