La ciociara at Wexford Festival Opera: in conversation with conductor Francesco Cilluffo

Women & War is the theme uniting the works being performed at the 72nd Wexford Festival Opera next month.  The three main productions in the Irish National Opera House each highlight different aspects of struggles faced by women: conflict, prejudice, making their voices heard.  In the words of Artistic Director Rosetta Cucchi, Zoraida in Donizetti’s Zoraida di Granata is in a political fight against her destiny; Olga in L’Aube rouge by Camille Erlangeris struggling to change a nihilistic partner; and Rosetta in Marco Tutino’s La ciociara is fighting for survival for herself and daughter.

La ciociara, which will be directed by Cucchi and conducted by Wexford’s Principal Guest Conductor Francesco Cilluffo, is based on a script by Luca Rossi drawn from the 1957 novel of the same name by Alberto Moravia.  The book is probably best known in the 1960 film adaptation (Two Women), directed by Vittorio de Sica, which starred Sophia Loren and won her an Academy Award for Best Actress, the first such award for a non-English language film.  It tells the harrowing story of wartime suffering, based on a true historic event, as a woman, Cesira, attempts to shield her teenage daughter Rosetta from the horrors of war and in particular the weapon of rape in the aftermath of the Battle of Monte Cassino.

Marco Tutino (b.1954), who, with Fabio Ceresa, adapted the libretto from Rossi’s script, was commissioned to write the opera by the Royal Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, where it had its first performance in 2015, with a cast led by Anna Caterina Antonacci.  It received its European premiere at Teatro Lirico, Cagliari, in November 2017.  The opera will be heard in a newly orchestrated version at Wexford.

Tutino is the composer of a dozen operas, but they are rarely performed in the UK.  However, in conversation, conductor Francesco Cilluffo tells me that Tutino is probably the most performed Italian opera composer working today, with significant productions staged at La Scala and in Germany.  Francesco hasn’t come to this Wexford production ‘cold’ as it were.  He first met Marco Tutino in 2011, when he conducted his opera The servant – based on Robin Maugham’s 1948 novella, which was adapted by Harold Pinter in Joseph Losey’s 1963 film.  For a period during 2014-15, when La ciocara was being composed, both Francesco and Marco were living in Milan; they became friends and enjoyed collaborating. 

Francesco Cilluffo © RibaltaLuce Studio

“I trained as a composer originally, studying in London at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and King’s College, and I think Marco liked using me as a ‘sounding board’,” explains Francesco.  “So, I saw the opera developing and know it well.  Sadly, I wasn’t able to conduct the Italian/European premiere as I was busy at that time – in fact, I was conducting in Wexford!  And, actually, Rosetta [Cucchi] and I had worked together on Marco’s comic opera Miseria e nobiltà at the Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa in April 2018.  So, with this production of La ciocara in Wexford things feel as if they are coming full circle.”

Francesco comments that it’s unusual to know a work so well before beginning to study it, and also to be performing an opera by a composer who is alive and well, and with whom he enjoys an ongoing professional relationship.  “Last year in Wexford, I performed an opera that hadn’t been staged for 150 years [Fromental Halévy’s La tempesta].  But, conducting the work of a living composer brings its own challenges – sometimes dead composers can be useful!” he laughs.  “One doesn’t want a composer breathing down one’s neck, but because of our professional relationship and my own work as a composer, I think that Marco respects my musical judgements.”

In interviews leading up to San Francisco Opera’s world premiere of La ciociara, Tutino described the opera as a ‘neo-verismo’ work.  In the late 1970s he was co-founder, with Lorenzo Ferrero and Carlo Galante, of an Italian Neo-Romantico group of composers, and one of his earliest operas was La lupa (1990), a verismo work designed to celebrate the centenary of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana.  Francesco has himself been highly praised for his own work in verismo repertoire, at Opera Holland Park, for example (Mascagni’s Isabeau (2018) and Puccini’s Le Villi (2022)) and at Wexford itself, where he has conducted Mascagni’s Guglielmo Ratcliff (2015), Alfano’s Risurrezione (2017) and Leoni’s L’oracolo (2018).  I ask Francesco if he thinks that ‘neo-verismo’ is a good term to describe La ciociara

“In some ways, I think it is a little limiting,” he replies.  “I think that Marco’s opera is rare in that it strikes a successful balance between looking back at musical and operatic traditions and sounding relevant today.  But, in other ways ‘neo-verismo’ is an apposite term.  The 1960 movie was an important event in ‘neo-realist’ cinema, and in many ways it looked back at verismo opera from the start of the twentieth century.  Now, Marco’s opera looks back to the movie, so there is a sense of things coming full circle.” But, he adds, he feels that the opera is more ‘modern’ than the movie. 

Marco Tutino

“The film is ‘of its own age’ and somewhat ‘fixed’: it is framed by the language of the 1960s.  Whereas the opera is regenerated with every performance, and the all-embracing nature of its musical language speaks to us today.  Also, the novel and film embody a timescale from earlier in the twentieth century.  Today we need a different way to communicate the way we experience a narrative.  I use a metaphor.  In the past, travelling to an opera house would take, say, three hours; today it’s just ten minutes.  Performances would generally last three to four hours; now about two hours is more common – about the same length of an average movie.”

I ask Francesco about the ‘cinematic’ aspects of the opera, and how much it is influenced by the novel and film respectively.  Rossi is a professional cinematographic scriptwriter.  And, the plot is quite episodic with passages of instrumental music in between.  “Yes, there is some transition music – of course, in the cinema this would just be a few seconds, but it takes longer to move from scene to scene in opera.  One thing that I am really pleased about is that the 1960 film will be shown during the Festival.  It was a significant event in cinema history, and it really launched Sophie Loren’s career.  The book, which was translated into English in 1958, is probably more commonly read now, but the film is rarely shown.”

I suggest that the novel isn’t inherently ‘dramatic’, even though it has a sequence of events that are well-suited to the theatre, since it is narrated by Cesira, in the first-person.  One can understand why it was felt necessary to have a ‘script’ to work from, rather than the text of the novel itself.  “But, in a sense, in an opera the composer is the ‘narrator’,” responds Francesco.  “The music is like a first-person narrator telling you what is going on.  Wagner was probably the first cinematic opera composer: the orchestra is telling you what is important and what the ‘meaning’ is, giving voice to the consciousness of the author – and also of the audience.  The way audiences identify with the orchestral music is so strong; there are fewer words in opera than in other media, so it’s so intense.”

Francesco is keen to emphasise that while La ciociara is based on real-life historic events, the story and opera speak to modern audiences.  “The opera shows what war brings out in people – and, of course, when we were planning the Festival programme, we could not have imagined that Europe would actually be at war.  What La ciociara tells us is that in war it is very difficult to find something that is 100% wrong or 100% right.  At the end of the opera, at the moment of liberation, when ‘good’ should triumph, the worst thing occurs.  And, even at the beginning, Cesira, who is involved in black market trading, is actually enjoying the war – it’s quite handy for her business!  She can earn more and she’s quite cool about the war, even hoping that it goes on.  At that point, it’s very convenient for her.  It’s only when war destroys all she has, and she and her daughter are raped, that she realises the suffering war brings.”

I wonder about the difficulty of staging such violence in the theatre, especially following the #MeToo movement.  And, about the possible political intimations presented by the fact that the marauding troops were Moroccans?  “Yes, they were Moroccans, but they were in fact French.  And, they were consciously permitted by the US to behave in that way.  They had trained in rural mountain locations and so the US were very pleased to be able to take advantage of their knowledge and expertise.  They were similarly happy to close an eye when victory came.”  The Wexford production will be less ‘documentary’ than the original staging in San Francisco, where Francesca Zambello strove for clarity and Peter J. Davison’s sets, S. Katy Tucker’s black-and-white film clips and Jess Goldstein’s period costumes directly evoked Fascist Italy.  “It will be less ‘realistic’,” explains Francesco.  “Of course, the premiere production needs to tell the story in the clearest way, but in Wexford we will aim to be more universal.”

The orchestration has been slightly reduced for Wexford, though Tutino still employs large forces – “It’s not a ‘chamber orchestra’”, says Francesco.  “Marco knows Wexford as an audience member.  The acoustic in the National Opera House is, I think, one of the best in the world.  The voices always come through, not matter how big the instrumental forces.”

Francesco has been visiting Wexford regularly since 2015.  What draws him back to the small, friendly coastal town in south-east Ireland?  “I feel very lucky and privileged.  Wexford Festival Opera connects with all the good things about being a musician – taking something that needs a bit of care, and having time to nurture and nourish it for a couple of months, in a beautiful location.  Even performers who have gone on to become very established like to come back.  There are so many standard repertory operas that can just stand on their own feet.  But, to use a metaphor, at Wexford – it’s quite maternal and paternal – we take extra care of our child!  It’s an act of love.  It’s worth turning down other things to have this valuable time and experience.”

Francesco continues, “Everybody in the building, those working backstage and the volunteers, shares a single mission: to try to find the best way of making opera relevant.  It’s not always like that in big houses, where people come and go – there’s not the same sense of working as a ‘collective’.  And, sitting in the opera house, watching a work that no one has seen for 150 years, the audience, too, are part of that experience.”

Wexford Festival Opera 2023 runs from 24 October to 5 November.

Claire Seymour

ABOVE: Francesco Cilluffo © RibaltaLuce Studio