Review

San Francisco Opera looks backward with the World War II-set 'Two Women'

Mark Swed
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Music Critic

On a day in which this city ecstatically celebrated the Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage, "Two Women," you might think, could mean only one thing Sunday afternoon.

But not at San Francisco Opera, which offered a new opera of that name just as the gleefully outlandish Pride Parade was spilling onto Civic Center Plaza across the street from the War Memorial Opera House.

In fact, Marco Tutino's "Two Women," which is based on an Italian novel by Alberto Moravia and more than a little influenced by Vittorio De Sica's classic film based on the novel starring Sophia Loren, concerns a mother and her teenage daughter. They are victims of war and rape in Italy during the chaotic end of World War II. In at least a broader sense, human rights and dignity are at the center of the drama.

But in another sense, "Two Women" represents SFO's curious cultural stance for a city that prides itself on being at the forefront of social and political progress as well as technological innovation. This leading American opera company has staked out the position that the art form's future is in remaking its past, the way other cities restore their old towns or Disneyland hangs on to Main Street.

Maybe the company is correct. Despite the draw of a fabulous street party outside, the audience for "Two Women" on Sunday afternoon included many more young people than I saw at a similar matinee of Berlioz's "Les Troyens" here three weeks earlier. The crowd for "Two Women," moreover, became invested in the characters the way one might in a Broadway play, even booing the villains at their curtain call.

Since San Francisco is a high-tech town, "Two Women" might best be thought of as "Tosca 2.0," a marginal update and major repackaging of Puccini's original. The new work re-creates the musical atmosphere of the earlier composer's Rome well enough that I walked out of the opera house with "Tosca," not Tutino, in my ear.

Most of all, Tutino has produced a Tosca-like central character, Cesira. A beautiful shopkeeper, she flees the war-ravaged Rome of 1943 with her daughter, Rosetta. It is a time and place when two women traveling to a village south of the city inevitably suffer war's indignities. Cesira becomes the target of Giovanni, a Fascist who lusts after her and kills Michele, her lover (not unlike Scarpia's victimization of Tosca). The climactic scene of the opera intercuts Michele's execution with the gang rape of Cesira and Rosetta by Moroccan troops.

What worked in Puccini works in "Two Women." Bad guys get immediately recognizable villainous music. Cesira telegraphs outsize emotion in swelling musical lines. An American Army Air Forces lieutenant gallantly saves the day, an opportunity for Tutino to Italianize "The Star Spangled Banner" just as Puccini had in "Madama Butterfly." There is a bit of domestic "La Bohème"-style comic relief. All is done with skillful ease.

The main thing is that Tutino wrote the part of Cesira for Anna Caterina Antonacci, who is as close to the Sophia Loren of opera as we might hope. A dramatically commanding soprano, she is an exceptional stage presence. I was sitting close enough to see her facial expressions, and they registered the cinematic realism of a great actress.

Francesca Zambello's production, moreover, plays strongly to Antonacci's strengths, telling a story with convincing immediacy, although one might not need bomb explosions punctuating a sex scene to get the point. Documentary wartime film clips on the scrim during scene changes effectively set the scene Peter J. Davison's realistic set and Jess Goldstein's period costumes are not too far removed from De Sica.

The entire cast does little wrong. Mark Delavan's arms move like those of an American, but his Giovanni embodies a Fascist's dark passions. Tenor Dimitri Pittas does a capable job of not letting character complexity get in the way of Michele's operatic ardor, unlike the nuance De Sica permitted Jean-Paul Belmondo's Michele in the movie. Care has been taken with the smaller roles. For the fourth of the opera's five-performance run, the company's music director, Nicola Luisotti, did an excellent job of revealing orchestral color and letting big voices swell.

But however effective "Two Women" may be in proving that opera can be popular entertainment and that a star like Antonacci can always stir an audience, nothing new is gained in the work. De Sica and Moravia tell us more about war and Italy. Puccini trod the same territory with his women. More to the point, these predecessors were of and about their times.

Italian opera can do better. La Scala in Milan has just premiered the kind of modernist work that SFO adamantly rejects with Giorgio Battistelli's climate-change opera, "CO2," fancifully based on Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth." In doing so, the company where the verismo opera (which "Two Women" hopes to resuscitate) was born reminds us of the inconvenient truth that Puccini is long dead.

But we all knew that the second we walked out of the War Memorial Opera House and into a San Francisco reveling in the pandemonium of the present.

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