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The Nonconformist

The great Italian novelist Alberto Moravia depicted life in all its gritty reality. GAITHER STEWART traces the progress of Moravia’s La Ciociara from the page to the opera stage, where it bows in San Francisco this month.     

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Soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci, in costume for the role of Cesira in Two Women (La Ciociara), the adaptation of Moravia’s novel that is due at San Francisco Opera this month
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera 2015
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Novelist Alberto Moravia
© Horst Tappe/Lebrecht Music & Arts 2015
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Composer Tutino
© Scott Wall/San Francisco Opera 2015

Marco Tutino was at home in Italy when he received a 2 A.M. telephone call from San Francisco Opera music director Nicola Luisotti. Ignoring the nine-hour time difference between California and Italy, Luisotti asked if he was sitting down, then informed him that the company had decided to commission him to compose an opera.

The world premiere of Marco Tutino and Fabio Ceresa’s Two Women (La Ciociara), on June 13 at San Francisco Opera, with Anna Caterina Antonacci as its star, will be the first Italian opera of such scope to have its premiere in the U.S. since Giacomo Puccini’s Fanciulla del West was given at the Metropolitan Opera on December 10, 1910. Tutino’s opera is based on Alberto Moravia’s acclaimed novel La Ciociara of 1957, published in English in 1958 as Two Women

When it comes to making an opera adaptation, Tutino believes that “the literary source is merely a pretext. The film, or in this case the opera, based on a literary work, will necessarily become something else. I came to realize that Moravia’s novel, despite its many qualities, was not necessarily adaptable to an operatic intrigue. His novel has too much reality, too little plot, and a lack of a negative character. For that reason, I asked the professional cinematographic scenario writer Luca Rossi to start with the Moravia novel but to write a different story. The scenario that resulted from this rewrite is the point of departure for the lyric opera, Two Women, from which Fabio Ceresa and I wrote the libretto.

“The choice of La Ciociara,” Tutino continues, “was in fact determined by a specific request of the San Francisco Opera to create a true Italian opera, related to our grand tradition. It seemed to me and Nicola Luisotti in San Francisco that the Moravia novel contained all the right elements — love story, war, maternal love, saving intervention of the Allies, violence, redemption, forgiveness. We only had to correct it from a dramaturgic point of view, invent and develop the role of Giovanni as responsible for all the negative events, and it would be perfect. I then entered into the story musically and sought to grasp the dramatic elements that could serve as a model of the Italian opera today.”

A novel by Moravia, who died in 1990, was a surprising choice of source material. Moravia’s first and most successful novel, Gli Indifferenti (The Time of Indifference), published when he was twenty-one, is a forerunner of the existentialist works of Camus and Sartre in France. It is the simple story, set in Rome during the early days of Fascism, of a bourgeois family lacking any positive values. The characters live in a state of inertia: “Nothing matters,” is the protagonist Michele’s lament. “It makes no difference.” 

The Time of Indifference was begun in a sanitorium near Cortina d’Ampezzo in the Dolomites, where, as a teenager, Moravia was treated for a tubercular infection of the bones. The principal method of treatment was exposure to the Alpine sun. Moravia often said that illness “became the most important fact of my life; the second was Fascism.” During part of the Fascist period, he wrote La Ciociara, hailed by some critics as a profound expression of a tragic period in the history of a people. He emphasized that the two “illnesses” forced him to do things he would not otherwise have done. The two illnesses also instilled in him the sense of desperation that he considered “man’s natural state.”

Five years in bed, which he spent reading works of various international authors, left him with a more European mindset than that of other Italian authors of his generation. (Dostoyevsky was his master in narrative and dramatic technique.) But Moravia paid for his teenage isolation. Speaking of his solitude in the sanitorium, alone with European literature, he coined a phrase which he often used — in Italian, a play on words: solo col sole, or alone with the sun. From 1943 until the arrival of the Allies in central Italy, he found refuge — again in isolation — in Fondi, a village on the edge of Ciociaria, a mountainous area south of Rome where part of the novel Two Women takes place.

Two Women is narrated by Cesira (pronounced Cheh-zeera), a strong-willed widow who must flee Rome in 1943 with her eighteen-year-old daughter, Rosetta. They travel to Fondi, where they suffer hunger, fear, betrayal, the brutality of their fellow peasants and finally rape at the hands of one of the wartime “liberators,” a Moroccan soldier. As a result, Cesira loses her faith and concludes that human nature is infected by evil. The seminal point of Moravia’s novel is the way in which the war has devastated one and all — in Moravia’s words, “reduced everybody’s relationship with reality to almost primordial dimensions.” 

As a young man, Moravia’s interests were chiefly literary. Already he was trying to fuse the techniques of the novel with those of the theater. The Time of Indifference stirred up a beehive of scandal. In the Italy of 1929, when the traditional high-flown poetic style of literature was favored, the novel was treated with contempt by Fascist censors. Because of his departure from the stilted old-style poetry and his obsession with realism, Moravia always disconcerted Fascist censors, who frequently expressed regret that such talent was wasted on decadent themes. Stylistically, The Time of Indifference stripped away the frills so loved by the establishment literati;its natural flow of speech, painting a canvas of the customs and morals of the bourgeoisie as it really was, rankled many. Its morality shook literary Italy. Not only did critics lambaste Moravia, but in 1952, the Vatican banned all of his books, because he painted in words the life of the petite bourgeoisie as he saw it — empty and useless. 

Realism became the core value of Moravia’s novels: sex, alienation, moral vices and money were the basic themes of all his work. He believed that the writer’s eye must not admit obstacles. Like Dostoyevsky, the young Moravia felt the necessity of exposing hypocrisies and false appearances. Early literary critics scorned his predilection for plot and theatrical technique, so far from Italian tradition. He applied to the novel the principle of the unities of time, place and action, creating a firm grasp on reality within a framework of structural clarity. Later, his characters became the social reality that speaks in the first person through one of the story’s individuals, like Cesira in Two Women, who emerges as a symbol of the Italian people caught up in the vortex of World War II.

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Conductor Nicola Luisotti, composer Tutino, director Francesca Zambello and San Francisco Opera general director David Gockley, above, the team behind Two Women (La Ciociara)
© Scott Wall/San Francisco Opera 2015

As a journalist working in Rome, I had occasion to interview Moravia several times. Our conversation inevitably returned to the underlying question of reality and his attempts to distance literature from Italian provincialism and its enduring conservatism, bordering on the reactionary. 

Moravia was not a man of humor, never a performer. When I interviewed him, I used a portable tape recorder. He would sit on a couch behind a coffee table and I on the other side of the table. One day, he shouted in his rather high, squeaky voice, “Everything around us is reality — this table is reality,” at which he whacked the table with the strong shepherd’s cane that never left his hands. “It’s, it’s …,” he muttered, as the tape recorder crashed to the floor, pieces flying here and there. Immediately, we were both on the floor on hands and knees, trying to reassemble the delicate instrument. After we randomly pushed pieces back where they seemed to fit, the thing worked. “Unbelievable,” Moravia said, sitting back, nearly smiling — nearly — and pleased with his vivid demonstration. 

It has been said that the publication of Two Women in 1957 marked the rebirth of a great, neglected author. Once, Moravia had published many short stories in Italy’s leading newspaper, Corriere della Sera, and they subsequently appeared in book form as Roman Tales. These stories brought to life working-class Rome, but in an objective style that sounded much like a social study. Years had passed since those stories, during which, he said, he did not know what to write. 

Moravia preferred to work mornings, leaving the afternoons free to dress up in the latest fashion — he especially loved flashy neckties — and go out on the town for a film or a flirt with one or another of the women who became his wives or mistresses, several of whom were also writers. In 1941, he married Elsa Morante, author of the novel La Storia (History). Later, he lived with Dacia Maraini, a young, sensitive writer; they remained close until the end of his life. He telephoned her every day, and she later recalled that he was as dependent on her as a child. In 1986, he married up-and-coming Spanish writer Carmen Llera, some forty-five years his junior. His close friends included Pier Paolo Pasolini, a writer, filmmaker and important leftwing intellectual. 

Moravia loved the cinema and for many years wrote a film column for the Rome weekly magazine L’Espresso. I suspect he also enjoyed seeing what film directors did with his several novels that were converted to films, such as La Noia (Boredom) or Il Conformista (The Conformist), both among his most important works. However, the author swore that he never interfered with the filmmaker and firmly believed that literature and cinema were two distinct and separate arts. Though he wrote his later books with an eye on their cinematic aspects, I believe he would feel the differentiation of the arts even more strongly between literature and opera. Without a doubt, Moravia would be delighted and highly honored by Marco Tutino’s Two Women (La Ciociara)spacer 

GAITHER STEWART is a novelist and journalist whose latest novel is The Fifth Sun (Punto Press), set in Italy and Mexico. His collection of short stories, People of Rome, is being prepared for publication. He is a long-time resident of Rome, with his wife, Milena. 

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