MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Liszt Meets Dante

“It is hard to say what the characteristics of Dante’s Hell are. Turmoil, hurry, incessant movement, fire, roaring wind, and utter discomfort are there; but so they are also in a London house when the kitchen chimney is on fire.” — George Bernard Shaw on Liszt’s “Dante” Symphony — an amusing but facile put-down.

Filed under: Franz Liszt, music criticism

Déjà Vu

Two Women by Marco Tutino

Two Women by Marco Tutino

San Francisco Opera’s world premiere last night of Two Women by the Italian composer Marco Tutino raises interesting and important issues about making opera today. I intend to get into this more substantially after dealing with some crushing deadlines….

Joshua Kosman’s extensive review expertly nails the key problems with this opera, as well as its larger aesthetic implications:

But Tutino — along with General Director David Gockley, who commissioned the work from him on the recommendation of Music Director Nicola Luisotti — has also taken this opportunity to mount a rather forceful esthetic argument. In its strongest form, the claim is that the history of 20th century music has been a nightmare that we need to wake up from, and that the path to redemption lies in a wholesale return to the ancient traditions.
Ultimately, such pleasures as “Two Women” can provide are the comfortable pleasures of familiarity. The piece is nominally new, yet it feels like a long-lost and not as successful cousin to “Tosca” or “Cavalleria rusticana.”

Anne Midgette dissects the failings of Two Women in her insightful Washington Post review:

Two Women” maintains a near-constant level of melodramatic musical intensity….But the opera neglects to flesh out any of these characters, and this robs the surging score of much of the effect it’s trying so earnestly to convey. When the figures are one-dimensional, it’s hard to get involved.
It’ s important not to lose sight of the bigger picture in the case of “Two Women,” as well. This opera may be a dud, but it is much better to try new opera than stick to the overly familiar.

UPDATE [19 June 2015]
Some more thoughts on Two Women. Having the opportunity to see SF Opera’s current production of Berlioz’s The Trojans probably intensified my negative reaction to Tutino’s new opera, since the plight of women under the stress of wartime is a theme shared by both. The magnificent Berlioz production, featuring a first-rate cast, a compelling vision from stage director David McVicar, and some of the best work I’ve ever heard from Donald Runnicles and the SFO orchestra, was a genuine privilege to experience.

The multiple rape scenes in Two Women, by contrast, come across essentially as part of “the plot”: moments that crudely intend to push buttons and elicit reactions without the libretto or the music doing the work needed to make them effective. The result is something closer to tabloid journalism.

Much of the attention has been focused on the shortcomings of Tutino’s score, but I think the poorly crafted libretto is even weaker, betraying signs of decision-by-committee. It’s easy to see how the intention was to elicit emotional reactions similar to Puccini’s “E lucevan le stelle” or “Addio fiorito asil.” Yet the libretto treats these like a paint-by-numbers project rather than allow them to emerge organically from the dramatic moment: so much so that, for example, the “flame-flower” image symbolizing the fragile love blossoming in winter between Michele and Cesira becomes risibly manipulative. (At one point I found myself playing the “Let’s spot the Tosca game as if I were watching an operatic a Where’s Waldo.)

There’s even a scene of uneasy humor at the start of the second act — you can imagine the meeting where someone said, “We need some comic relief!” — which draws clumsily on Puccini’s scherzando, satirical moments (think of the Sacristan in Tosca). As the weasely informant Sciortino betrays Michele, his mother scurries nervously about, promising to satisfy her guests with a tasty home-cooked meal. And as with quite a few other passages of the score, the music just vamps away, trying to tell us how we should react to the clumsy dramaturgy.

I’ve only rarely experienced a world premiere where the critical near-consensus seemed so obvious and immediately apparent. Two Women doesn’t express or elucidate the emotions meant to be triggered by the drama: it tells the audience what those emotions should be by mimicking over-familiar parallel moments from Puccini and other verismo classics, with a dash of generalized film score vocabulary and other bits and pieces from the repertoire.

When I was first seriously discovering music as a teenager, I had the temerity to claim I could be a composer because I was able to produce music in the style of composers I admired. Thankfully the scales fell from my eyes pretty soon and I realized the arrogance of this mistake. Which isn’t to say all music should be “original.” I don’t buy into the modernist fallacy of radical originality either. But I believe there is a fundamental difference between shameless imitation to manipulate an audience’s comfort zone and genuine creativity.

I additionally want to make clear that this is NOT about the choice of a “conservative” style. Samuel Barber long since proved that writing in a conservative tonal idiom is hardly incompatible both with original musical ideas and having something genuine and honest to say. So any attempt to champion Two Women as an embrace of the audience forsaken by 20th-century composers is, frankly, a red herring and overlooks the fatal shortcomings of a manipulative, derivative opera.

Despite the failure of both libretto and score, SF Opera has gone out of its way to present Two Women with excellent production values, assembling an impressive cast. Anna Caterina Antonacci (who also sings Cassandra in The Trojans on her “free” nights) is the linchpin as the courageous, spirited Cesira – a dynamo of acting and vocal passion.

If only the opera actually delineated any of its characters in depth! And given Tutino’s failure to explore the relationship between the actual two women in question – mother Cesira and her daughter Rosetta – the considerable talents of Sarah Shafer in the latter role are lamentably underused. Still, Shafer movingly conveys the final stages of Rosetta’s transformation following the violence and trauma she has endured.

Dmitri Pittas brings his ardent tenor to the pedestrian music he is given as the fearless idealist Michele. Mark Delavan has to play a cardboard baddie as the rapist/collaborator/fascist/betrayer/liar etc. etc. Giovanni. He does sing well. (Another critique: Tutino’s libretto, which was co-written with Fabio Ceresa and “adapted from a script by Luca Rossi,” absurdly whitewashes the historical role of the Italians and their relationship to Hitler’s Germany in WWII. Characters like Giovanni and Sciortino are presented as the “bad apples” among an otherwise terrified and subjugated populace in this turning-point year of the war of 1943. Yeah, right….)

Nicola Luisotti conducts with a palpable belief in the score, somehow rendering its gestures with an actual sense of passion. (Tutino turns out to be a skilled orchestrator, even if he leans too heavily in one scene on xylophone-drum sonorities.) The production gains a lot from director Francesca Zambello’s attentive eye and sense for pacing. She makes the most of what she can from this predictable dramaturgy, and Peter Davison’s sets work beautifully, integrating film projections of scenery and historical footage. Is it any surprise that these documentary images of people uprooted, refugees fleeing the bombing of their cities, are far more moving than the “new” opera in which they’re embedded?

Filed under: aesthetics, music criticism, new opera, San Francisco Opera

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