Viva verismo! “Two Women” stirs up history and tragedy

Wielding authentic newsreels, a taught score, a top-tier cast, and an agile orchestra, San Francisco Opera created a stirring performance of “Two Women” (“La Ciociara”) at the War Memorial Opera House on Saturday (June 13). Composed by Marco Tutino and directed by Francesca Zambello, the production harkened back to the verismo era with realistic action and music that touched at times on a lyric landscape but never lacked for hard-hitting, dramatic punches.

The opera was inspired by Alberto Moravia’s novel “La Ciociara,” (1958) which also was the basis of the film “Two Women” that starred Sophia Loren in an Oscar-award-winning role. The novel was firmly rooted in tragic events that happened during World War II when Moroccan fighters, serving under the Allied French forces, broke through the impenetrable German lines near Monte Cassino. To reward the Moroccans, the commanding French general, Alfonse Juin, allowed them to rape and pillage the surrounding countryside with impunity for a period of fifty hours. It has been estimated that at least 7,000 women were raped and 800 men murdered while trying to protect their wives and daughters.

Act I, Scene III of "Two Women"  Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cesira, Edward Nelson as U.S. airman John Buckley and Sarah Shafer as Rosetta. ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Act I, Scene III of “Two Women” Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cesira, Edward Nelson as U.S. airman John Buckley and Sarah Shafer as Rosetta. ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

The opera’s story revolves around a shop keeper, Cesira who flees war-torn Rome and Giovanni, a loathsome letch. After she arrives in a mountain village with her teenage daughter, Rosetta, she is caught up in the next series of bombing raids by the Allied forces, and, with a local intellectual and pacifist, Michele, aids an American lieutenant. Yet, since the area is still under German control, it is forbidden to help the enemy. Things get more complicated after Giovanni appears on the scene, and a series of tragic events unfolds.

With deft acting and an intensely expressive voice, Anna Caterina Antonacci created a mesmerizing Cesira. Sarah Shafer’s Rosetta believably oozed innocence and became totally unhinged after the rape scene. Her prayer for peace was one of the high points of the evening. Mark Delavan threatened with conviction as evil Giovanni.

Dimitri Pittas combined wistfulness and ethical veracity in the role of Michele. Joel Sorensen’s nervousness was palpable as the weak and compromised lawyer Pasquale Sciortino. Buffy Baggott, as Sciortino’s mother, Maria, countered high stakes at the dinner table with comic obliviousness while Christian Van Horn frightened everyone as the domineering Nazi commander, Fedor von Bock.

Lawyer's house in Fondi  Dimitri Pittas as Michele, tenor Joel Sorensen as Pasquale Sciortino, Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cesira, Sarah Shafer as Rosetta and bass Christian Van Horn as Field Marshal Fedor von Bock. ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Lawyer’s house in Fondi. Dimitri Pittas as Michele, tenor Joel Sorensen as Pasquale Sciortino, Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cesira, Sarah Shafer as Rosetta and bass Christian Van Horn as Field Marshal Fedor von Bock. ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

The music had flashes of lyricism and brief melodies as well as harsh, driving, and agitated passages. It never fell into drippy pathos, and in the end, a sense of solace arrived as Cesira and Rosetta searched together for a new beginning. Nicola Luisotti conducted the orchestra with passion and verve.

Francesca Zambello’s directions were crisp and clear. The circling of the Moroccans like a pack of wolves around the Cesira and Rosetta and the murder of Michele heightened the tension in the hall until it seemed that things would burst.

The sets, designed by Peter J. Davison and built by San Francisco Opera, exposed the crumbling structures of buildings and homes. Costumes by Jess Goldstein seemed perfectly attuned to the WWII era.

After it concludes its run in San Francisco, “Two Women” will travel to the “Teatro Regio di Torino,” which co-commissioned the opera. It should be hit there.