San Francisco Opera’s “Two Women” offers Puccini Lite score, melodramatic cliches in world premiere

June 14, 2015
By David Wright
Anna Caterina Antonacci and Sarah Shafer in Marco Tutino's "Two Women," which had its world premiere Saturday night at San Francisco Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver

Anna Caterina Antonacci and Sarah Shafer in Marco Tutino’s “Two Women,” which had its world premiere Saturday night at San Francisco Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver

San Francisco Opera became Hollywood by the Bay as the company unveiled the war opera Two Women (La Ciociara), composed and co-written by Marco Tutino, Saturday night at the War Memorial Opera House.

Two Women was a co-commission of the SFO and the Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy.  If its title sounds familiar, that’s because Two Women has earned a sentence or two in cinema history as the American title of La Ciociara (The Woman from Ciociaria), a 1960 film by director Vittorio De Sica, now remembered mainly for an Oscar-winning performance by Sophia Loren as the mother Cesira.

The film was an adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s 1958 novel La Ciociara, and the opera’s creators claim descent from the novel, not the film. But the film’s English title (and whatever fame still clings to it) no doubt proved irresistible to SFO management, which has a stated (and quite defensible) policy of reaching out to an American audience with operas written in English and using English titles to promote operas in other languages. (“The Marriage of Figaro” and “The Trojans” are also on offer here this weekend.)

But a listener would do well to forget Moravia’s textured tale of a mother and daughter navigating the crosscurrents of war-ravaged Italy in 1943-44, and its somewhat simplified film version, because Tutino’s piece was hunting other game entirely.

Cast, chorus, and orchestra gave a solid effort in the world premiere of Tutino’s noisy, melodramatic score that seemed to leave no Puccinian cliché unexploited and no wartime emotion untrivialized.

One sensed the composer and his scriptwriting colleagues Luca Rossi and Fabio Ceresa rummaging through an old trunk for a game of “Let’s make an opera.” The team has interpolated a mustache-twirling villain whose sole purpose in life seemed to be repeatedly showing up and making Cesira’s life miserable. Added in are other cliched devices such as an arrogant Nazi officer and a little song about a wildflower that was reprised whenever a dose of pathos was needed.

In the end, the plot was so loaded up with violently sadistic scenes that the original story’s shocking turn—the rape of mother and daughter by the Moroccan troops that “liberated” their town—seemed rather bland by comparison.

The text was set with through-composed dialogue by Tutino in an unabashedly tonal idiom, and ripe scoring that recalled the mid-century Hollywood sound of Korngold, Steiner, and Tiomkin.  Aria-like writing was rare, but the score was punctuated with snatches of overheard folksong and recurrent melodies that recalled earlier action.

Tutino wielded the large orchestra with considerable skill, if not much subtlety. The excessive orchestral whomps and thuds that punctuated every turn in the plot only served to point up the weaknesses of the drama itself, as presented. None of this was the fault of conductor Nicola Luisotti and his players, who expertly rendered the score’s Puccinian colors of chattering strings, plaintive oboe, romantic horns, and ominous trombones.

As Cesira, soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci had few moments to shine in a role that required her mostly to be buffeted by circumstance. When at last, in the final scene, her character rose up and denounced the townspeople for their cowardice and hard-heartedness, neither the score nor her vocal powers rose to the occasion.

In fact, Antonacci’s delivery sounded somewhat reedy and dry by comparison to the fresh, full-bodied soprano tone of Sarah Shafer as Rosetta, Cesira’s teenage daughter.   Perhaps it was a sign that this is an opera about women written by men that Rosetta didn’t start acting like a real teenager—defiant of her mom, flirtatious with men—until after she was ravished by a troop of Moroccan mountaineers.

The unlikely love interest and war hero, the bespectacled bookworm Michele, was winningly sung by tenor Dimitri Pittas in his SFO debut. Pittas’s smooth, full, ringing voice was in a way too splendid for his nerdy character, but who cared?

Also strong was baritone Mark Delavan as the unredeemable Giovanni, the bully who seemed to show up and dominate every scene before receiving his overdue comeuppance at the end. As written by Tutino and his partners, Giovanni wasn’t even a fun-to-watch villain, just a boor and a bore, and Delavan deserved combat pay and a hot shower for playing him.

Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn cut an imposing figure as von Bock, the stock Nazi officer whose veneer of good manners barely hides the raging psychopath beneath. Solid of voice, Van Horn managed not to overplay the role.

Von Bock’s reluctant dinner hosts were the Sciortinos, friends of the scholar Michele, ably sung by tenor Joel Sorensen and mezzo-soprano Buffy Baggott.  Their fussy dinner-prep pantomime to a jokey accompaniment did not lighten the mood as much as intended.

Two young singers, members of the company’s Adler Fellow program, gave worthy accounts of themselves: mezzo-soprano Zanda Švēde as Lena, a village woman with babe in arms, eventually driven mad by the bombing; and baritone Edward Nelson as John Buckley, the wounded American airman who inadvertently brings accusations of “aiding the enemy” on Cerina and Michele. (When Buckley tells Rosetta she reminded him of his 16-year-old daughter back home, the effect was comical since Nelson looked not much more than 16 himself.)

Chester Pidduck, Torlef Borsting, and William O’Neill were authentically robed and convincing as Moroccan soldiers, although the cigarettes jutting from their mouths made them look like escapees from a pack of Zig-Zag papers. (To be historically accurate, most of the cast of the opera would have been smokers as well.) During the peace celebration at the end, tenor Pasquale Esposito, a popular Italian crooner in real life, hopped atop a box, sang a song, and made his effective SFO debut.

Ian Robertson’s well-prepared chorus was frequently onstage in the roles of villagers, refugees, and soldiers from various sides in the conflict, providing a social context to the drama’s personal interactions.

A premiere is such a mutable, collaborative effort that it’s hard to assign specific responsibility to the stage director in the final result. Certainly Francesca Zambello presided over a visual conception that consistently evoked a time and place that are distant but still in living memory, and the movements of a large cast, chorus, and supernumeraries were fluidly handled.

The production’s design team provided solid support. Peter J. Davison’s sets evoked the bleak atmosphere of cities and countryside in wartime. Mark McCullough lit exterior and interior scenes naturalistically, but worked artfully with scrims to demarcate foreground and background action.  Jess Goldstein designed the multitude of peasant and refugee costumes, and had clearly researched the military uniforms of several nations.

S. Katy Tucker designed scene-enhancing rear projections, working with sound designer Tod Nixon to bring Allied bombs closer and closer to Cesira’s shop in Rome, a spectacular effect.

Tucker was presumably also responsible for the history slide shows that filled the proscenium arch before the show and during intermission, providing factual information, maps and newsreel footage on the events of 1943-44, the Allied campaign to take Rome that brought first misery, then liberation, to so many.

In fact, the scenes of destruction and the faces of the actual people who endured it proved far more affecting then anything that took place onstage or in the orchestra pit that evening—with one notable exception. During the closing moments of Act I, Scene 2, following a rather perfunctory treatment of the destruction of the entire village by American bombers, the refugees were led by Rosetta in a stirring Dona nobis pacem chorus, the one musical moment that lingers in the memory from this problematic premiere.

Two Women (La Ciociara) will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday, 7:30 p.m. June 23 and 30, and 2 p.m.June 28.; (415) 864-3330.

12 Responses to “San Francisco Opera’s “Two Women” offers Puccini Lite score, melodramatic cliches in world premiere”

  1. Posted Jun 14, 2015 at 1:17 pm by Larry

    Were you the only one sitting during the 10 minute standing ovation? This drivel is of no use and does a disservice to your readers.

  2. Posted Jun 14, 2015 at 2:34 pm by Matthew

    Your write-off of his music as “unabashedly tonal” and “Puccini Lite” isn’t so much an oversimplification as it is objectively incorrect clickbait. Tutino’s musical style offers a variety of interesting tonalities and colors and employs a captivating manner of roving tonality not too dissimilar from the likes of Sergei Prokofiev. His melodic profiles are faithful to those of his Italian predecessors, but blend in novel sounds in an accessible and engaging way. Please direct me to a Puccini opera that includes whole-tone ornamentation on traditional tunes, Stravinsky-esque rhythms, dissonant neotonality, or subtle use of the roto-tom.

  3. Posted Jun 14, 2015 at 3:55 pm by Renee mell

    we and the audience loved it Tired of these snooty opera buffs

  4. Posted Jun 14, 2015 at 6:13 pm by Rita Horiguchi

    Everyone in the audience around me absolutely loved this riveting work, which was an honest reflection of the brutality of war. I reiterate a previous comment– were you the only one sitting during the standing ovation and long curtain calls at the evening’s end?

  5. Posted Jun 14, 2015 at 10:38 pm by Claudia Siefer

    For men writing / composing for women: Moravia wrote in Cesira’s voice. . .

  6. Posted Jun 15, 2015 at 7:13 am by J Know

    Thank you for your review. I have long appreciated reviews that give me a framework for experiencing an opera. I will be seeing this opera soon, and part of the fun will be deciding where I agree and where I disagree with you!

  7. Posted Jun 15, 2015 at 11:45 am by Bernard.c

    Merci pour votre critique.
    Musique de Tutano très faible,
    Mise en scène de Zambello ringarde.
    Un mélodrame sans tension.
    Nombreux sièges vides dans le théâtre pour cette première mondiale.

  8. Posted Jun 15, 2015 at 4:17 pm by Pamela Dernham

    The shallow, cheap treatment of heinous events during a horrifying time left me disgusted and angry. And while we are talking about men writing about women, no mother in a war torn, occupied country would think of stripping to her slip in order to bathe in the town fountain, let alone letting her daughter do such a stupid thing. This was one of the many things that exemplified to me that the writers were completely out of their historic, psychological, and emotional depths.

  9. Posted Jun 16, 2015 at 1:36 am by Christine Kradjian

    This opera is well worth seeing. I have seen it in final dress rehearsal and opening night and all of us were moved and entertained and emotional.
    Some of Marco Tuition’s music is beautiful. I am sorry that the critics want modern atonal/or something else!!l. No! This is a new masterpiece based on a tough story and done very well for it’s world premiere.

    Please stop dissing it critics and give the audience a chance to decide. They loved it. Standing O’s! This should a nd will be a success! Give it a chance please. It is great and tough at the same time.

  10. Posted Jun 18, 2015 at 3:18 pm by James D

    Like many opera lovers, I anxiously await the next great opera, the next indelible aria, the arrival of the next Rossini, Verdi or Puccini, as I fear that without a rebirth, my generation will be the last to keep the art form alive.

    Two Women was admirable for its courageous use of a difficult subject, and the impassioned singing of its cast, particularly the mother and daughter duo. But I found the score lacking in anything memorable or endearing: not a passage or an aria that will be remembered by anyone. It is a “sing-through” in which all the libretto is explained in exposition, none of it particularly musical or memorable. The ACT I score is so loud and bombastic it drowned out the singing. There is crashing and banging when unnecessary, and repetitions of vocal phrases that are trite and clumsy metaphors.

    What may have saved the performance – and won the audience, which gave an enthusiastic response – were the photos and film clips of Italy’s painful occupation and heartbreaking salvation. They were marvelously integrated and gave the entire production the mark of authenticity. The story is powerful, indeed: the struggles of mother and daughter to survive the horror of war, including their barbaric treatment by both friends and foe. But the score and libretto are immediately forgettable. This is not Fille du Regiment, this is not Bellini nor Donizetti, nor Bizet or Mascagni. It is interesting and I cheered for it, along with others, much for the visual images and effort. But this is not the opera that will revitalize opera. Sadly.

  11. Posted Jun 20, 2015 at 1:27 am by Lisa

    Excellent spot on review. We walked out and went to City Hall celebration to de-tox with Jello Biafra.

  12. Posted Jun 29, 2015 at 12:41 am by Albert G.

    I just returned from seeing this opera. My wife loved it, I did not. I very much agree with this review and with those of Zachary Woolfe in the New York Times, Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle and Anne Midgette in the Washington Post. The story is, in principle, compelling and tragic, the sets wonderful, the use of the “newsreel” kind of film in scene changes and intermissions between acts contributed much to the emotional context of history (Watching the black and white footage of the bombing of Monte Cassino brought tears to my eyes.) The performers demonstrated outstanding talent. The problem is in the libretto and the music, especially the music. There was simply too much music, if that is possible. Subtlety was lacking and bombast in excess. There were times the orchestra should have fallen into silence. For example the bell should have stopped ringing after one or two rings while Cesira explained to Rosetta that Michele had been killed. There are times when silence lets the voices carry the meaning. The reviews I mentioned very much cover what I experienced.

    Overall, opera experience this time around was “OK.” Not great, but “OK.” If one regards the premiere as a first draft ( or maybe a second or third draft.) then with significant editing of the music and libretto, this opera could be a masterpiece. Especially with this cast and orchestra. As it is, it is a not very good re-creation of earlier operatic forms.