by Steven Pisano
Italy is not the first country that comes to mind when considering the Jewish diaspora in Europe. The northern part of the country, however, has long been home to small outposts of Jews, most notably Venice and its segregated Ghetto. About an hour away by train from that famed city is the inland city of Ferrara, where one extant synagogue dates back to the 1400s.
In 1962, novelist Giorgio Bassani wrote The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (later made into an Oscar-winning film by Vittorio de Sica) about a prominent Jewish family living in a lush, walled compound in Ferrara in the 1930s with ancient trees, tennis courts, and a sizable private library. But, all is not well. Much like the Von Trapps of Salzburg, the Finzi-Continis have seen what's coming since the Italian Fascists rose to power alongside the Nazis and implemented race laws against Jews, but believe they can ride it out from behind their high walls.
The two Finzi-Contini children, Micòl and Alberto, are privately tutored at home and therefore don't have much interaction with the other Jewish children of Ferrara. The exception is at Temple, where one day Micòl meets Giorgio, a middle-class Jewish teen, who briefly flirts with her. Nothing comes of it, and their paths don't cross again until years later when Giorgio, now a student at the prestigious University of Bologna, is riding his bike by the Finzi-Contini compound and Micòl beckons him to come inside and play tennis. They soon become friends, and over time, Giorgio develops an unexpressed love for her. But Micòl, who is both beautiful and intelligent - not to mention wealthy - stays aloof, both emotionally and physically. The novel goes on to explore Giorgio's unrequited love against the dark shadow of war.
“The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” has now been made into an opera by composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Michael Korie, co-produced by the New York City Opera and the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene and running all this week at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City. This is an impressive production, with some gorgeous passages of music by Gordon, particularly after intermission when the opera reaches passionate heights that are sadly missing from the first half.
There are many first-rate performances in both the primary and supportive roles. The soprano Rachel Blaustein is stellar as Micòl, her singing pure and inspired. It's clear what Giorgio sees in her that's so attractive. But, we also see that Micòl is materialistic, vain, and often snobbish, as the town considers her entire family to be.
Anthony Ciaramitaro plays Giorgio as a stolid and earnest young man, his singing both steady and strong. We sympathize with his yearning for Micòl until one night, frustrated by her constantly keeping him at arms-length, he physically mauls her, trying to force the love she doesn't want to give him. Only after are we told that it is because of Micòl's love for him that she spurns him, knowing all-too-well that the Fascists will target her high-profile family. In the end, love does not conquer all: while Giorgio finds safe passage away, the Finzi-Continis are rounded up with the rest of the Ferrara Jews at the train station, from where they're transported to the death camps.
Other notable performances include Franco Pomponi as Giorgio’s father and Peter Kendall Clark as Micòl’s professorial father, who's especially effective in a scene from the rich Finzi-Contini library.
Director Michael Capasso (who is also the General Director of NYCO) deftly moves the action forward, aided by set and projection designs by John Farrell. But the opera sometimes loses focus with too many side stories; maybe it’s just me, but a sparer, more poetic approach might have served the story better. Conductor James Lowe led a small orchestra positioned to the left of the stage, and the music always sounded intimate and bright.
More photos can be found here.