Arts & Events
On Saturday evening June 13, San Francisco Opera presented the World Première of a new opera commissioned by General Director David Gockley – Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara (Two Women). Based on the 1958 novel of the same title by Alberto Moravia, this opera, with a libretto by Luca Rossi, Marco Tutino, and Fabio Ceresa, recounts the trials and tribulations of a widowed World War II mother and her teenage daughter who flee Rome because of allied bom-bardments but find no haven from the war in the mountain villages of the region known as La Ciociara. From this same novel a 1960 film starring Sophia Loren was directed by Vittorio De Sica with a screenplay by Cesare Zavattini. (Sophia Loren won the Academy’s Best Actress Award in 1962 for her performance in the film known in English as Two Women, thereby becoming the first artist to win an American Oscar for a foreign-language film.)
Starring Italian soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cesira and young American soprano Sarah Shafer as Cesira’s daughter, Rosetta, Tutino’s Two Women is composed in a somewhat syrupy ‘neo-verismo’ style. Verismo opera, of course, is associated with the highly ‘realistic’ operas about ordinary people’s lives by com-posers Pietro Mascagni and Ruggiero Leoncavallo. Tutino’s Two Women, however, lacks both the sharp lyricism of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and the bitter musical poignancy of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. The story of Tutino’s Two Woman may be brutally realistic, and rendered more so by the effective use of actual newsreel footage from World War II. Musically, however, a thick veneer of sentimentality washes over nearly every moment of this opera. From start to finish, Tutino’s Two Women is a real tear-jerker.
As staged by Francesca Zambello, Two Women opens on a street in the work-ing class district of Trastevere in Rome where Cesira, sung by Anna Caterina Antonacci, runs a small produce shop. Giovanni, a dealer in black market goods robustly sung by baritone Mark Delevan, enters and tries to seduce Cesira. She rebuffs his advance but asks him to help her flee war-torn Rome. When air-raid sirens wail, Cesira sends her teenage daughter Rosetta down into the cellar. Bombs fall nearby, and damage occurs at Cesira’s shop, where shelves fall and the roll-up door collapses. In the midst of the bombing, Giovanni forces himself on Cesira in what amounts to a rape. In a moment of denial, meant both for herself and to demean Giovanni, Cesira tells her rapist that, as far as she’s concerned, “nothing happened.” This is our first glimpse of Cesira’s fierce survival mode. Giovanni, well delineated as a smarmy character by baritone Mark Delevan, agrees to help Cesira flee Rome to the nearby mountains.
In Act I, Scene 2, Cesira and Rosetta arrive, tired and dusty, in the main square of the mountain village of Sant’Eufemia, where they discreetly wash them-selves in a public fountain. A local pacifist, Michele, sung by tenor Dimitri Pittas, introduces himself. When Cesira asks the locals if a room is available, they initially say no. However, when Cesira pulls out a wad of money and bargains for a room, the locals are quick to provide one in return for cash. As allied planes bomb a town
in the valley below, young Rosetta kneels in prayer. Sweetly sung by soprano Sarah Shafer, this prayer strikes me as a saccharine plot contrivance tilting this opera early on into a sentimental tearjerker.
Now a wounded American soldier, Lieutenant John Buckley, appears in the town square of Sant’Eufremia. Villagers are reluctant to come to his aid, fearing retribution from the Germans. However, Michele, Cesira, and Rosetta quickly agree to tend his minor wounds and help him. The American mistakes his benefactors for a nuclear family – husband, wife and daughter --and finds inspiration in their solidarity and support. This both amuses and titillates Michele and Cesira, who secretly find themselves attracted to one another. When the American departs, Michele and Cesira kiss. This kiss, however, is observed by Giovanni, who has followed Cesira into the mountains. He has now joined the Fascists , and he angrily vows to track Cesira to Hell. Giovanni finds a knapsack of Michele’s containing a letter and watch given him by the American soldier, thus implicating Michele in treason to the occupying Germans.
After intermission, Act II, Scene 1 takes place in the bourgeois home in the provincial town of Fondi of a lawyer, Sciortino, a friend of Michele’s father. Michele, Cesira, and Rosetta have taken temporary refuge there. However, a German officer, Von Bock, robustly sung by bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, is billeted there. Alerted by Giovanni, who produces the knapsack, letter and watch, Von Bock accuses Michele of treason, and soldiers take Michele away.
In Act II, Scene 2, Cesira and Rosetta have returned to the almost deserted village of Sant’Eufremia. Authentic newsreel footage reports the mass rapes enacted by Moroccan troops under French officers in this region. Cesira and Rosetta are
confronted by these mountain Berber troops, dragged into a nearby church, and gang-raped. Meanwhile, Michele is executed by Giovanni. When Cesira and Rosetta stagger out of the church where they were brutally raped, Cesira sings a traditional Italian lullaby, with the familiar words set to newly composed music by Tutino, in a vain effort to comfort her daughter, who wants none of her mother’s solace.
In the final scene of Tutino’s Two Women, we are once again in the main square of Sant-Eufremia, where the locals are now celebrating that the war is over, thanks to the American invasion that chased out the Germans. American jeeps arrive, with none other than Giovanni now acting as a friend of the conquering Americans. Seeing Cesira, he brags of his ability to always end up on the right side. He also informs Cesira that Michele is dead.
As a local, sung by tenor Pasquale Esposito, sings a Neapolitian song, “La strada nel bosco,” Cesira tries to intervene between herself and her daughter, who, having been brutalized, now seems ready and willing to go with any man who wants her. Cesira denounces Giovanni as a Fascist, and the locals turn on him. Desperate to prove himself, Giovanni produces Lt. Buckley’s letter and watch, and he claims that he was the one who saved the American. However, in a wildly implausible plot contrivance, Lt. John Buckley now drives into the village in a jeep and declares that Giovanni is an imposter, and that his true saviors were Michele, Cesira, and Rosetta. The locals now set upon Giovanni and would no doubt beat him to death if it were not for a plea for peace by Cesira. Young children rush into the square, playing at war, as Cesira and Rosetta are reunited in a final, tear-jerking embrace.
Look. The performance by Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cesira was absolutely riveting and vocally wonderful. Antonacci is a singing actress of the first order, as she also proved here a few day earlier in the role of Cassandra in Berlioz’s Les Troyens. Nonetheless, it must be acknowledged that, in my opinion, Tutino’s Two Women, while providing a vehicle for a great singing actress such as Antonacci, is far too slight and saccharine a work of musical theatre to elicit rave reviews for the opera as a whole. To me, it is a mediocre work of very modest musical merit, while offering a sobering if syrupy portrait of what transpired in Italy during the final months of World War II. If you really want to gain a more telling insight into what transpired in Italy in those days, go see Roberto Rossellini’s films Roma, città aperta, (Rome, Open City,) and Paisà. Or, for that matter, go see Vittorio De Sica’s film Two Women.