The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

“Two Women” shows down side of new opera

“Two Women:” Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cesira and Sarah Shafer as Rosetta, her daughter, in one of many moments of heightened drama in Marco Tutino’s new opera at the San Francisco Opera. (Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)

SAN FRANCISCO — Over a 40-year career David Gockley, the general director of the San Francisco Opera, has been the single leading force in commissioning new American work. He had more than 30 world premieres to his credit as general director of the Houston Grand Opera. In his nine years in San Francisco, he’s racked up seven more, the latest being “Two Women” by Marco Tutino, which had its world premiere here on Saturday night. The eighth, Bright Sheng’s “Dream of the Red Chamber,” will have its premiere in the fall of 2016, shortly after he retires. Gockley’s commissions have ranged across the stylistic map and included a lot of the more familiar American operas of the last decades: John Adams’s “Nixon in China,” Philip Glass’s “Akhnaten” (an American premiere), Mark Adamo’s “Little Women,” Rachel Portman’s “The Little Prince,” Daniel Catán’s “Florencia en el Amazonas.” He hasn’t shied away from more experimental fare — like Meredith Monk’s “Atlas” — but he’s not afraid of populism, either. “I have encouraged people to write tunes,” he said the day before the “Two Women” premiere, sitting in his office at the War Memorial Opera House.

“Two Women” has tunes a-plenty. The signal difference between it and virtually all of Gockley’s other commissions is that it isn’t American: Tutino is Italian, and models himself openly on Puccini, with lush complex surging music from the orchestra and themes that sound suspiciously like quotes from “Tosca.” There hasn’t been an Italian opera premiered in the United States, Gockley averred at a press event earlier in the week, since Puccini’s “Il Trittico” at the Metropolitan Opera in 1918; and to listen to Tutino’s score,  lovingly conducted by the opera’s Italian music director, Nicola Luisotti, you might think not all that much time has passed. This is, of course, a big plus for some members of the opera audience: the opening night crowd whooped and hollered as soon as the curtain came down.

It doesn’t matter greatly to me if an opera is Italian or American or Mongolian; indeed, I sometimes think too much effort is given to splitting hairs about the definition of “American” opera. Nor do I care a priori whether the music is traditional or avant-garde. I do care, however, whether an opera manages to tell a story and bring characters to life through music. And I fail to grasp how all of the many, many people involved in getting one of these things on stage could overlook the fact that an opera, however filled with dramatic events and wonderful singers, is missing its emotional core.

“Two Women” maintains a near-constant level of melodramatic musical intensity. Tutino and his collaborators took the novel by Alberto Moravia about the travails of a woman and her daughter in Italy during during World War II (later turned into a famous Vittorio De Sica film starring Sophia Loren) and twisted its plot and characters to make it a kind of modern-day “Tosca,” with an admixture of Brecht’s Mother Courage. As the impossibly put-upon heroine, Cesira, tries to be pragmatic and guide her daughter, Rosetta, through the travails of war, she falls in love with the schoolteacher Michele, flees  from the Nazis, and is persecuted by the impossibly evil Giovanni, who rapes her, betrays her, and surfaces menacingly at every event in her life, like an evil Forrest Gump. But the opera neglects to flesh out any of these characters, and this robs the surging score of much of the effect it’s trying so earnestly to convey. When the figures are one-dimensional, it’s hard to get involved.

The singers certainly tried. Anna Caterina Antonacci is something of a cult star, known as a brilliant singing actress, and Tutino wrote the role of Cesira with her in mind. Unfortunately this opera, although it features her almost non-stop from beginning to end, wasn’t actually a very good showcase. Since the character spends the whole evening at emotional extremes, the role doesn’t offer a lot of nuance or development; surprisingly, Antonacci didn’t actually project much dramatic stature on stage, and the emphatic singing emphasized her pronounced vibrato. As her daugher, Sarah Shafer was sweet of voice and no less effective on stage, and her character’s breakdown at the end, inappropriately coming on to every man in sight in the wake of her rape, was one of the more moving and credible scenes of the night.

Mark Delavan got to channel all of his bad-guy energies into the impossibly evil role of Giovanni. There was also a second villain, the Nazi major von Bock, sung with effective menace by Christian van Horn in a scene that was so strongly reminiscent of Act II of “Tosca” that it even included some similar language in the libretto. Against them was the good-guy tenor, Dimitri Pittas, who did his ardent best, singing lyrically as the idealistic Michele.

Francesca Zambello, the artistic director of the Washington National Opera, offered a literal production, with lots of newsreel footage. But in solving individual problems she sometimes lost sight of the bigger picture, in spite of the story’s all-too-obvious lines (why on earth did the two women strip down in the village square to bathe in the fountain? and why was it impossible to tell which of them was Michele’s love interest?).
It’ s important not to lose sight of the bigger picture in the case of “Two Women,” as well. This opera may be a dud, but it is much better to try new opera than stick to the overly familiar. Zambello, too, is a champion of the new, and she’s bringing at least one of Gockley’s commissions, Philip Glass’s “Appomattox,” to Washington in the coming season. Indeed, it was long rumored that she was in line to succeed Gockley in San Francisco, but the recent announcement of her WNO contract extension seems to indicate that she is no longer in the running. One hopes, however, that the San Francisco Opera’s next leader will continue Gockley’s commitment to living composers — even if it sometimes results in turkeys like “Two Women.”

Two Women” has four more performances, through June 30th.