Wexford Festival Opera 2023 Review: La Ciociara
A Staging That Confirms Tutino’s Opera as a Contemporary MasterpieceBy Alan Neilson
(Photo: Clive Barda)
In 1943, Italy was a country wracked by the turmoil of war. Not only had the allied armies invaded, but internecine conflict had broken out amongst the Italian people. Communities and families were against each other as the patriots and fascists fought for control. The situation was depicted in Alberto Moravia’s 1957 novel “La Ciociara,” which later formed the basis for Vittorio De Sica’s iconic film of the same name, starring Sophia Loren. In 2015, Marco Tutino’s opera, based closely on the film, with a libretto by Fabio Ceresa and Luigi Rossi, premiered at the San Francisco Opera to excellent reviews.
The narrative recounts the horrific experiences of two women, a mother and daughter, as they flee Rome to the countryside in search of safety, only to find that they are shunned by their own people. They are attacked and raped by foreign troops supposedly friendly to the Italian people, and harassed and abused by Giovanni, a fascist who has followed them from Rome. There are also some tender moments, such as the close bond that exists and deepens between the two women and the love Cesira, the mother, finds with the schoolteacher, Michele. But even these oases of happiness come crashing down. Michele is executed by Giovanni for his collaboration in aiding an American pilot, and Cesira’s daughter, Rosetta, turns against her mother, blaming her for everything that has happened to her.
Cucchi’s Spellbinding Presentation
The director, Rosetta Cucchi, decided on a realistic staging, setting the drama in 1943 Italy, initially in Rome but then in other locations, as it followed Cesira and Rosetta’s attempts to find a safe refuge. Supported in her staging by scenographer Tiziano Santi, costume designer Claudia Pernigotti and lighting designer Daniele Naldi, she created a riveting and highly charged reading that had the audience spellbound.
It was Cucchi’s sensitivity and detailed handling of the characters and their relationships with each other that was mainly responsible for the success of the presentation. In particular, her insightful management of the crucial mother-daughter relationship, which lies at the heart of the work, made this a convincing and emotionally strong production. Both were given clearly defined, multi-layered characters; Rosetta is a vulnerable, naïve and fearful young women who is totally dependent upon her mother, while Cesira is hard-headed yet loving, compassionate and very protective of her daughter. Their close bond was expertly portrayed and splendidly enhanced during the musical interludes through black-and-white video projections, in which Rosetta and Cesira enjoyed each other’s company as they trekked through the Italian countryside.
The brutal rape of the two women by Moroccan soldiers shattered their relationship as Rosetta turned upon her mother. It was a strongly directed scene that dug deeply into the psychology of the two women and was acted out brilliantly. The contrast of the love they held for each other was superbly brought to the fore as Rosetta sat in a complete state of shock, unresponsive to her mother’s words, while Cesira, unable to help her daughter, was left distraught.
Likewise, Cucchi was equally attentive to Michele’s relationship with both Cesira and Rosetta, as well as to the complexities of Cesira’s dealings with Giovanni. All characters were depicted carefully, even down to the minor role of Maria Sciortino, the mother of the timid and cowardly collaborator, Pasquale Sciortino.
Santi’s sets were designed to create an authentic staging. The opening scene is set inside Cesira’s realistically constructed greengrocer’s shop. The second scene moves to the town of Sant’Eufemia a Maiella, where the two women ask for food and shelter. There is a bar and waiting room with a small piazza in front, which provided the space for crowd scenes but was also used effectively to suggest the closed nature of a community under pressure by having the open space surrounded by darkness.
In Act two, the scene moves to Sciortino’s claustrophobic dining room, which proved ideal for the concentrated confrontations between Michele, Cesira, Giovanni and the German officer, Von Bock, before shifting again to the outside of an abandoned church, the location of the women’s rape. Naldli’s lighting designs were used to illuminate the spaces behind the church walls, exposing the inside of the church and the cell in which Michele was held. The set switched easily between the two scenes, piling the horrors of the gang rape directly upon the interrogation and execution of Michele, in which Cucchi again drew out the full terror and emotional depths of the scene. Finally, the drama returns to Sant’Eufemia, where the piazza is used for the liberation celebrations, and where Giovanni reappears, this time as a patriot, with some American soldiers, to continue his victimization of the two women.
Pernigotti’s costumes were all typical of the period and fitted perfectly with the sets, containing small details that enhanced the sense of realism, such as Cesira’s unlaced boots with one sock higher than the other.
It was stunning staging, embracing the full horrors of the work, in which the terrors and violence were vividly depicted, along with their consequences laid bare to the point that the audience was often left sitting in a state of stunned silence. Yet throughout, Cucchi managed to convey the underlying sense of hope that allowed the two women to persevere and eventually find peace and reconciliation in the final scene.
There were a couple of unexpected and interesting additions that Cucchi introduced to the narrative, both of which could be considered unnecessary or illuminating depending on one’s viewpoint. However, neither could have been said to have disrupted the dramatic impact or flow of the staging. The first was the inclusion of the character of Vittorio De Sica, the film’s director, who sat at the front corner of the stage, smoking cigarettes and occasionally physically venting his emotions; the staging thus became a vision of how he foresaw the film he was about to direct. The second was the inclusion of his muse, played by Yaimara Gomez Fabre, who appeared occasionally during quieter moments or in musical interludes and communicated through choreographed dance and mime sequences.
Goldman’s Emotionally Powerful Performance
From the opening scene, Cesira is destined to suffer, suffer and suffer some more. The emotional and physical abuse is virtually unrelenting. She is caught in a bombing raid, abused and humiliated by Giovanni, and raped by “friendly” soldiers. She also experiences the murder of her lover, who has brought some stability and hope to her life, and has to watch over her insecure daughter, who is raped and suffers a breakdown and, in a final twist of the knife, is then shunned by her. It is a role requiring substantial emotional and vocal stamina.
It fell to mezzo-soprano Na’ama Goldman to essay the role, and it was a role in which she excelled. Her identification with Cesira was total; she lived the part. The emotional pain, the trauma and the occasional moments of happiness and joy were all expertly realized. Her performance was a tour de force. Her bodily movements, facial expressions and vocal interpretation were perfectly synchronized. The pain she was able to bring to her singing was stunning. Wrapping the vocal line in a tumult of emotions, she brilliantly gave voice to her anger, pain and fears. She was also feisty and combative. To the end, Giovanni was unable to subdue her. She also expressed Cesira’s more sensitive side, in which her voice softened and bloomed in her tender moments with Michele and Rosetta. It was a compelling performance!
Soprano Jade Phoenix captured Rosetta’s vulnerability and her complete non-understanding of what was happening around her superbly. She sat dumbly while looking vacantly at the events taking place around her, panicked and cowered at the sound of the bombs and the ever-present aggression, ran spontaneously towards her mother for help, looked naively upon Giovanni as a friend and quickly looked on Michele as a father figure. After her rape, she emerged as a new person, parading around with false confidence, tormenting and provoking her mother; she was surly and unrestrained. Phoenix acted out the two very different aspects of Rosetta’s personality both sensitively and assuredly, while she backed everything with a strong, expressive singing performance in which her adornment of the vocal line was emotional, colored and dynamic. She placed special emphases to accentuate the impact impressed upon her.
Tenor Leonardo Caimi portrayed Michele as a calm, decent man. His singing possessed a pleasing lyrical quality that captured his open and sensitive nature, which, however, did not prevent him from convincingly expressing his ardent love for Cesira, which he supported with his fine acting skills. Under pressure from Giovanni, however, he displayed the courageous side of his nature, in which he coated his voice with anger and defiance. The success of his presentation ultimately came from the sensitive way he was able to build a sympathetic relationship with Cesira, in which he subtly adapted his character to contrast and complement her more explosive, impulsive nature.
Baritone Devid Cecconi’s stage presence and physicality allowed him to dominate the stage as the loathsome Giovanni. He was brutish and bullying and did not hesitate to assert and abuse his power. He was violent, untrustworthy and displayed few redeeming features. At the final curtain, his character was roundly booed before it gave way to a wave of applause for Cecconi’s performance. He possesses a voice with a very strong character. It has versatility, strength and color, and he sings with a great sense of freedom and security. Moreover, he appeared to have an intuitive grasp of the character, allowing him to engage with it with a high degree of spontaneity.
Along with Cecconi, two other singers were lightheartedly booed at the final curtain for their character’s base behavior: bass Alexander Kiechle playing the role of the German officer Fedor Von Bock, who was responsible for imprisoning Michele, and tenor Conor Prendiville as Pasquale Sciortino, the man who informed on Michele to the German authorities.
Kiechle produced a knowingly confident and authoritative portrait of Von Bock. Although superficially pleasant, he could not hide his lack of interest in the fate of those around him, except for that of Michele, whom he wanted punished. His singing was nicely balanced with an attractive timbre, which he employed sensitively and with precision to flesh out his character.
Prendiville’s Sciortino was an odious, timid and pathetic character, whose actions even appeared to offend himself. His phrasing was nicely crafted, and his well-judged, deliberately misplaced and untimely emphases successfully brought out his character’s feeble nature.
The injured US airman, John Buckley, who was helped by Michele, was played by baritone Allen Boxer. He was depicted as a stereotypically brave, never-say-die, upstanding American who rode into Sant’Eufemia to save the day in the final act. Boxer gave a strong performance, impressing with his resonant, secure and dramatically sensitive singing.
Having hammed up the comedy as the Marquise in the afternoon’s production of “La Fille du régiment,” mezzo-soprano Carolyn Dobbin was cast in the role of Lena, which allowed her to show off other aspects of her acting and vocal strengths by bringing a completely different role to life. Her clearly crafted phrasing and warm-colored palette enabled her to produce an expressively compelling performance.
Mezzo-soprano Erin Fflur produced a tidy performance in the role of Maria Sciortino, depicting her as a pleasant, good-natured woman with no idea of the terrors unfolding within her own dining room. Her warm, comforting tone added to the impression.
Tutino’s Score Embraces the Italian Tradition
Tutino’s composition drew upon Italy’s rich musical and operatic traditions, which he believes were abandoned by Italian composers following the Second World War, to create a score built upon the music of verismo, in which the influences of both Puccini and Mascagni are clearly evident. It is not, however, a backward-looking work; there are many instances in which he has moved forward, embracing post-war practices, such as his use of atonal language and the way he occasionally allows the percussion to assert itself. However, it is the accessibility of his music and his rich melodies that define his style.
The Wexford Festival Opera Orchestra, under the baton of Francesco Cilluffo, produced an intense, engaging reading that expertly caught the spirit of the work, with each scene carefully managed, to bring out the dramatic contrasts while ensuring its overall musical shape. The orchestral sound had a beautiful lucidity, which clearly revealed the work’s textural qualities and promoted its captivating melodies.
The decision to stage the opera at this year’s Wexford festival as one of its headline productions proved to be an excellent choice. Not only does “La Ciociara” contain a powerful story with accessible and dramatically strong music, it also fits perfectly with the theme of the festival, “Women and War.” It brought home in no uncertain terms the abuse and brutality to which women are exposed, even down to known acquaintances taking advantage of the chaos of war to abuse them.
It would be no exaggeration to say that this was one of the best productions I have witnessed at the Wexford festival over the years, a view I believe to be shared by its audiences, whose reactions were overwhelmingly positive.