Two Women — San Francisco Opera Performance — Review
By Marco Tutino
San Francisco Opera Performance
June 13, 2015
This was one of the best opera performances I have seen. It was a modern opera — if you call World War 2 modern. It was imaginatively staged, using modern video and lighting techniques, and the music was suited to the story line and worked.
It was set in Italy in the midst of the Second World War right at the moment of the Allied invasion and the subsequent fall of Mussolini. But the war and politics serve as a backdrop. The opera is about the universal miseries of war visited upon a civilian population: displacements, deprivations, disruptions, separations, deaths, rapes, duplicities, betrayals, constant fear, and the eternal struggle to develop and maintain personal relationships and pursue love in the midst of upheaval and turmoil. It was a well told story that held my interest all the way through from beginning to end.
I studied the synopsis provided by the San Francisco Opera beforehand. I went through it three times. The synopsis sounded confusing and complex. I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to follow the opera because there are a lot of characters, they are on the move all the time, settings are changing, and even revisiting previous locations, as well as relationships that keep changing and evolving. But the performance told the story very clearly and logically. Video and visual displays were used very effectively to set each scene in its temporal and geographical context. It was straightforward and clearly presented. I was surprised. It was really good. The sets were imaginative and visually pleasing. The lighting and special effects were just right and powerfully enhancing. It was all together a top quality production.
Before the performance and during intermission repeating video sequences were shown that provided visual footage of the war in Italy at the time and the military operations that were going on. I found this very helpful for setting the background of the performance and was very glad they did it.
The story was based on a novel by the name of La Ciociara, by Alberto Moravia. I haven’t read the novel and there doesn’t seem to be a recently published English translation of it. I happened to sit next to a gentleman who had read the novel a number of times and loved it, and he said it was the reason he wanted to see the opera. He felt that the opera was a faithful representation of the novel, although he said the ending was different, which I had suspected.
The ending did not make any sense and was the only part of this opera that really failed — which to me, is pretty good for an opera. I regard opera as the most conservative of all the art forms, and therefore do not expect to agree with the philosophical viewpoints expressed. In this case it is an enigmatic finish that makes nonsense out of the character of Rosetta. After the gang rape of the two women by the Moroccan soldiers an estrangement seems to appear between the mother and the daughter that is not adequately explored. It seems to have to do with differing reactions of the two to the rape. The daughter, Rosetta, seems to find it liberating in a sexual sense, and she begins asserting this new found independence from her mother through some rather casual sexual adventures, to which her mother strongly objected. Rosetta reappears at the very end and derides the naivete and foolishness of Michele to her mother, but then, informed of his death, she is devastated and falls prostrate to the ground in a depressed stupor as the curtain falls — the news of Michele’s death apparently suffocating the sexual rebellion and affording a kind of reconciliation between the two women.
But it’s crazy. One moment Rosetta is telling her mother what a naive fool she considers Michele to be, and as soon as she finds out he is dead, she practically dies herself. Rosetta was never that attached to Michele. He was her mother’s obsession, not hers. Of course she liked him and bore some attachment to him, but the reaction depicted in the performance is far out of proportion to the emotional temperature of that relationship. I don’t know how the book ends. If I ever read it, I’ll revise this, but trying to turn Michele into some sort of Christ-like Savior, a model of goodness and hope, just doesn’t fit with the rest of the story, with the characters of the women, or with the character of Michele. It’s like the director of the performance didn’t know what to do about the ending. He didn’t understand the characters and how events had changed them internally, and so he couldn’t see a way for them to go forward. So he invented this foolish reconciliation through the death of goodness and innocence and put that on the stage. It was a big mistake.
I think a different director could do something more interesting with the ending of this story. In fact, the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that this story is about the death of innocence, pacificism, and simpleminded goodness, and nothing illustrates that better than the atrocities of war and the gang rape of women by conquering soldiers. It is a somewhat negative commentary on human nature and the darkness within the human heart. Michele, the romantic dreamer, is killed off by the conniving, insecure, duplicitous Giovanni. The gang rape of the two women by the soldiers serves as a sexual awakening for the young daughter and she begins to assert her independence from the sexual conservatism of her mother. The director does not seem to be comfortable with this outcome and tried to turn it into a morality play that would sit better with his conservative American audience by bringing Michele back from the dead to beat down the rebellious Rosetta, turning the dead Michele into a kind of Christ-like Savior of the young girl from sin. No. No. No. Sorry. It doesn’t work. That’s not what happened here.
But aside from this confusing, ill thought out, bizarre ending, the opera is pretty good. It is a well presented, interesting story, a timely topic, visually engaging, and musically satisfying. If the ending were more coherent and consistent with the rest of the import of the opera, it could be one of the greatest operas.