Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Two Women at SF Opera

The world premiere of a new Italian opera, La Ciociara (Two Women), is taking place this month at the San Francisco Opera, and it was a nice surprise at Wednesday evening's third performance. The critical reaction from its premiere a couple of weeks ago has been mostly savage (click here for a media roundup by Lisa Hirsch) with complaints about the Puccini-derivative musical score by composer Marco Tutino and the inadequate libretto by the composer and Fabio Ceresa. (All production photos are by Cory Weaver. Above are Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cesira and Sarah Shafer as her daughter Rosetta, the two women of the English title.)

The music is bizarrely old fashioned, but sincerely so, and the vocal writing is some of the most grateful for bringing out the beauty in singers' voices that I've heard in a while. Puccini in general and his Tosca in particular is the model for this new opera, but Tutino is obviously aware of all that has come since, and it's very much his own music. The libretto is based on an acerbic 1957 Alberto Moravia novel about the horrific WWII adventures of a mother and daughter fleeing Rome during the Nazi retreat in 1943 for Ciociaria, her poor, rugged mountain region homeland.

Moravia came from a wealthy family with a Jewish father and a Catholic mother. During the 1930s and 1940s, one half of his family were leading anti-fascists while the other side were top Fascist government officials. I'll let you guess which branch was which. Alberto spent 1941 to 1943 with his novelist wife Elsa Morante on the island of Capri, avoiding the Fascist authorities who didn't approve of his writing. When Italy was invaded by the Allies, the couple returned to the mainland in Fondo, a southern mountain town on the border of Ciociaria. In his novel, the author's stand-in is Michele, an intellectual schoolteacher who is loved by both mother and daughter and who dies for continually doing the right thing. Dimitri Pittas above wielded a sensationally beautiful tenor in the role, which is reason enough for anyone to love him.

The staging by Francesca Zambello is one of her better efforts, simple yet filled with extravagant touches like the opening bombing of Rome. Not everything worked. The Evil Nazis were as unconvincing as any stock Hollywood villains, and the Moroccan rapists looked like they had escaped from a regional production of The Abduction from the Seraglio or The Italian Girl in Algiers. They were more risible than horrifying.

The singers all evening were superb, from the smallest to the largest parts, and Music Director Nicola Luisotti was completely in his element, conducting the orchestra with the passion he usually brings to Verdi. (Antonacci and Shafer are rescuing injured American parachuter Edward Nelson above.)

The real reason to see this opera in one of the next two performances is Anna Caterina Antonacci, a fabulous Italian diva in her 50s for whom the composer wrote the lead part. Her final scene where she excoriates the surviving village men for not protecting a mother and her daughter from shameful, degrading rape is electrifying. "And you laugh about it," she sings, digging in the knife. We're lucky to be seeing her in two roles this month at the SF Opera demonstrating her range: Cassandra in Les Troyens in a very stylized Martha Graham style performance, and Cesira acted and sung in a neorealist, neoromantic manner. It will be interesting to see whether La Ciociara takes on its own life in Italy, where it's due for a 2018 premiere in Turin.


Lisa Hirsch said...

And now you are in the media roundup too!

Janos mentioned a while ago that Ciociara refers to Cesira, but the region is Ciociaria. If I'm remembering that correctly.

Michael Strickland said...

Thanks for the correction. I'll throw that extra "i" into the text.

Hattie said...

I read the novel years ago and never forgot it. I'd love to see the opera performed.