For the world première of composer Marco Tutino's Two Women at San Francisco Opera (a co-commission with Teatro Regio di Torino), the context of war, the shocking horror of its destruction, its brutality and its intrusion on life's desirable journey, are presented with rigorous dramatic effect and astute cinematic realism for the stage by director Francesca Zambello. Within it, there is meaningful underlying relevance to be found but with new commissions dripping into the operatic stage in rations, the work feels lacking in musical originality and its out-of-date accompanying taste of re-heated Italian verismo comes a little over-cooked.

Anna Caterina Antonacci (Cesira) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Anna Caterina Antonacci (Cesira)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

The opera is based on the 1958 novel La Ciociara by Alberto Moravia, which was adapted shortly afterwards for the screen, starring Sophia Loren in 1960, to a libretto by Tutoni and Fabio Ceresa. Two Women relates the story of the widowed shopkeeper Cesira who shuts up shop in the midst of World War II Rome, seeking passage to safety in the mountains of the Ciociaria region with her adolescent daughter Rosetta. The decision only plunges their lives further into war's criminally abusive ways, their dignity as women ripped from them by war's weapon of rape.

If the explosive nature of war is stripped away, we find the spirit of survival and the choices made to achieve those outcomes. Survival is not living through the everyday without conscience and consequence being inextricably bound with the human spirit. Tutoni's music in the very least gives Two Women the ability to connect us on this level.

The reason for that may very well live in the strong associations made with Puccini. In Two Women, a triangle of characters appear in close proximity to those found in Tosca. Cesira is as much escaping from war as from the vile clutches of Giovanni, a dealer in the black market, victimised but resolute, with only the outcomes differing, as the doomed heroine Tosca. Soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci blesses Cesira with the raw situational understanding and nerve her character deserves, her determined, full-bodied voice highlighting shades of Cesira's strength and vulnerability. Antonacci's best, however, seemed out of reach on opening night which saw her losing impact in her lowest range.

Giovanni is rendered with a distinct musical signature which pounds like distant thunder. With violent, lustful, single-purpose demands on possessing Cesira to match the evil of Scarpia, Mark Delavan lashes the stage with unrelenting, menacing baritone weight.

Dimitri Pittas (Michele) and Sarah Shafer (Rosetta) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Dimitri Pittas (Michele) and Sarah Shafer (Rosetta)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Dimitri Pittas' warm, smooth, robust and nurturing tenor imbues Michele with earnestness and sensitivity as the young pacifist, in mutual love with Cesira and steadfast in his political beliefs, a Cavaradossi, murdered in a swell of Pucciniesque motif on one side of the stage while the two women are raped by soldiers on the other in a disturbing display of brutality. Within this triangle, Sarah Shafer pours all into the transformative shock and disbelief of Rosetta's lost adolesence with a soprano of glimmering but eerily hovering beauty.

Other characters supplying circumstantial triggers are neatly cast. Christian Van Horn threatens wtih bass-baritone sharpness as Fedor von Bock, field marshal of the Wehrmact, Edward Nelson's warm soulful baritone raises both alarm and hope as John Buckley, lieutenant of the U.S. Air Force and Joel Sorensen with Buffy Baggott bring a cooling, animated interlude as the lawyer Pasqale Sciortino and his mother Maria. Padded out with a chorus of peasants, evacuees, Nazi soldiers and Allied Troops, with the crimes of war reflected in children mimicking in play the atrocities they see, a generous tableau is created to heighten the context.

Visually full of depth and detail, set designer Peter Davison captures war-ridden Rome and the centuries-old mountain village of Sant'Eufemia with a startling presence which enables Zambello great scope to move and block her cast with freedom and interest. Jess Goldstein's costumes add period restraint, Mark McCullough's lighting responds evocatively with every sharp turn of events and the ominous sounds of war ring out effectively by sound designer Tod Nixon.

Anna Caterina Antonacci (Cesira) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Anna Caterina Antonacci (Cesira)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

What particularly confronts the senses, however, are the swath of mixed media images of war footage by projection designer Katy Tucker which drench the stage and proscenium scrim at every gap-filling moment. The images are poignant but approach monumentally propagandist proportions, at odds with many orchestral passages which separate scenes and a detour from the drama being performed on stage. There are moments too when Tutino's music appears to drift perplexedly away from the narrative. Removing the saturating projections however might give Tutoni's music a chance to stand tall, a music which sweeps through an expansive landscape filled with emotional and descriptive shading and painted with hope.

Regardless, Nicola Luisotti allowed the music to breath with intent. On opening night, the sumptuous, truncated sounds, the clear orchestral divisions, the repetitive strings and explosive percussive energy emanated thrillingly from the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

Certainly, issues exist and the large scale multi-media heavy production might rob the work of clarity and direction but there is a to be found a theatrical experience still worth investigating.