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La Ciociara review: The audience roars its approval as the curtain falls on this seat-shiftingly vivid opera

Wexford Festival Opera 2023: If you want to hear what a Puccini of the 21st century might have sounded like, this is as good a starting point as any

La Ciociara

Wexford Festival Opera

The 69-year-old Italian composer Marco Tutino is a man who wants to reconnect with his country’s glorious operatic past. It is a past that, for most of us, ended with Puccini’s unfinished Turandot in 1924. Tutino has something of a golden-age perspective in his approach to singing and dramaturgy, and the golden age for him seems to be the period of verismo.

His La Ciociara, premiered in 2015, was commissioned by San Francisco Opera, which, he says, “wanted a new opera that was stereotypically Italian”. The libretto, verses by Fabio Ceresa, faultlessly shaped plot by Luca Rossi, is based on Vittorio De Sica’s 1960 film, which secured Sophia Loren best-actress awards at the Oscars (for a foreign-language film) and at Cannes. And the film itself is based on Alberto Moravia’s 1957 novel, known in its English translation as Two Women.

It is a harrowing story about a mother and daughter escaping from second World War Rome to the country and experiencing violence, deceit and rape along the way. Rosetta Cucchi’s direction pulls no punches in her response to Tutino’s highly cinematic music; the period sets by Tiziano Santi and costumes by Claudia Pernigotti fully support her dark vision.

Refine aspects of some of the most successful of today’s film composers, replace most of their generalities with gestures of more specific purpose, refine the orchestration, and you’ll have a musical picture of Tutino’s world in this work.


That description, however, does no justice the visceral emotional impact of the work on the Wexford stage. Tutino and Cucchi know exactly how to draw the listener into the perilous and precarious experiences that their the two heroines are forced to negotiate.

The characterisation of the two leads – the mezzo-soprano Na’ama Goldman as the fraught and overburdened mother Cesira, and the soprano Jade Phoenix as the daughter Rosetta, who transforms from innocent child into violated young woman – is superb. The performances are uncomfortably, seat-shiftingly vivid as the singers take us on a journey in which their experience of men is mostly violent, and often life threatening.

The major male presences are the manipulative, shape-changing, self-seeking Giovanni of the imposing baritone David Cecconi, always threatening, always changing sides. The rare hopeful light provided by the valiant Michele of the tenor Leonardo Caimi is all too soon extinguished through his torture and death.

Just as Camille Erlanger tried in the previous night’s opera, L’Aube Rouge, to introduce some conventional operatic lightness, Tutino takes us to a dinner the two women have in a house with a domineering mother (the mezzo-soprano Erin Fflur as the brusque, blithely offensive Maria Sciortino) and a comically browbeaten son, Pasquale (the tenor Conor Prendiville, always looking as if he wants to shrink into nothingness). And then the comedy is turned on its head, as the gruesomely imperious and composed German Major (the impressively malevolent bass Alexander Kiechle) turns out to be a house guest.

In the pit, Francesco Cilluffo whips up a storm in Tutino’s flamboyant score, even managing to make some moments of water-treading, minimalist patterning sound plausible, and the chorus, trained by Andrew Synnott, has the presence of an independent character. The audience roars its approval as the curtain falls.

If you want to hear what a Puccini of the 21st century might have sounded like, La Ciociara is as good a starting point as any.

La Ciociara runs at Wexford Festival Opera on Saturday, October 28th, Thursday, November 2nd, and, closing the festival, on Sunday, November 5th

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan is a music critic and Irish Times contributor