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S.F. Opera’s ‘Two Women’ a keeper

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From left, Dimitri Pittas, Sarah Shafer (kneeling) and Anna Caterina Antonacci appear in San Francisco Opera’s premiere of “Two Women.” COURTESY CORY WEAVER/SAN FRANCISCO OPERA

Typically, the problem with a new opera is that the music is complex, modern and incomprehensible. That’s not the case with San Francisco Opera’s world premiere of Marco Tutino’s “Two Women,” which opened in the War Memorial Opera House on Saturday.

Tutino’s music is both old-timey melodic and modern, with mild dissonance. It is instantly accessible, eminently pleasant, not unlike scores by the great Italian film composer Nino Rota, with shades of early Richard Strauss and Erich Korngold.

Tutino’s vocal and orchestral writing underline well the drama of a mother and daughter caught up in the chaos and brutality of World War II Italy.
Conducted with great enthusiasm by S.F. Opera Music Director Nicola Luisotti (who urged general director David Gockley to commission the opera), the orchestra was amazingly energetic. (Listeners never would know the musicians had just played two performances of Berlioz’s five-hour “Les Troyens,” a task that would try the stamina of any instrumentalist.)

Directed by Francesca Zambello and designed impressively (sets by Peter Davison, projections by S. Katy Tucker), the opera, featuring a libretto by Tutino and Fabio Ceresa, is based on Alberto Moravia’s 1958 novel and Vittorio de Sica’s 1960 film starring Sophia Loren about a woman and her daughter who escape from Rome to the countryside during World War II.

The opera adds a nasty character, who exemplifies Tutino’s statement, “You cannot have a tenor and soprano in love without a baritone as the villain.” The bad guy Giovanni – a fascist, traitor and rapist – is sung by Mark Delavan, who played the deeply flawed god Wotan in S.F. Opera’s Wagner “Ring” Cycle in 2011. On opening night, he was in terrific voice, and his acting made the most of the predictable role.

The two women of the title are Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cesira, and Sarah Shafer as her daughter, Rosetta. On Saturday, Antonacci wasn’t at her best vocally, but she impressively portrayed the opera’s central character. Shafer, whose acting was excellent, sang with a surprisingly large projection.

Tenor Dimitri Pittas, as the hero, Michele, displayed a beautiful voice that strained at the high notes or when it went from lyric to heroic music.
The opera’s first act – which follows the pair from war-torn Rome to Cesira’s mountainous home district of Ciociaria – unfolds with dramatic compulsion, punctuated by gripping, informative videos and projections displaying historical background.

Yet in the second act, as the music is at its best (especially during interludes), drama yields to melodrama, and the action slows down and loses focus.

An overlong, awkwardly semi-comical dinner-table encounter with a Nazi officer (Christian Van Horn) is followed by a pivotal scene that just doesn’t work: While the execution of the hero happens on one side of the stage, soldiers are committing a gang-rape on the other.

Although opinion varied widely among a record number of critics and writers (more than 90) attending the opening – some reviewers called the music “Puccini lite” – “Two Women” may well be a keeper. It has a good chance to enter the repertory rather than suffer the fate of most new operas, which disappear after being introduced with fanfare.

Two Women
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. June 19, June 23 and June 30; 2 p.m. June 28
Tickets: $32 to $370
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com

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