An odd glance back in S. F.

Fa­mil­iar ground is trod in troupe’s new spin on ‘ Two Women.’ Call it ‘ Tosca 2.0.’


SAN FRAN­CISCO — 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,” based on an Ital­ian novel by Al­berto Mo­ravia and more than a lit­tle inf lu­enced 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 U. S. 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 party out­side, the au­di­ence for “Two Women” 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 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 f lees war- rav­aged Rome with her daugh­ter, Rosetta. It is a time and place when two women trav­el­ing to a vil­lage 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 But­terf ly.” 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. Wartime f ilm 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 let- ting 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 f ive- 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 here. De Sica and Mo­ravia tell us more about war and Italy. Puc­cini trod the same ter­ri­tory. 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 cli­mat­e­change 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.

Cory Weaver San Fran­cisco Opera

ANNA Ca­te­rina An­tonacci as Ce­sira in S. F. Opera’s “Two Women.”

Cory Weaver San Fran­cisco Opera

“TWO WOMEN,” set in World War II Italy, fea­tures Sarah Shafer, left, and Anna Ca­te­rina An­tonacci.

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