By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
Times have been very busy both together and separately for the composing team of composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Michael Korie. The team had worked previously on the opera The Grapes of Wrath, which premiered in 2007 and was later revised and expanded in 2010.
In the interim, the two have worked on projects with others. Within the past 10 days, Gordon premiered a new opera at Lincoln Center, “Intimate Apparel” with award-winning playwright Lynn Notage as librettist, while Korie premiered his COVID-delayed musical “Flying Over Sunset” with book writer and director James Lapine and composer Tom Kitt in an adjacent theater at Lincoln Center in December. (That show ended its run early last month due to the continuing pandemic.)
Korie had also worked previously with composer Scott Frankel in the critically acclaimed War Paint in 2016 and the award-winning Grey Gardens in 2006. The Gordon-Korie team set their sights on their latest project, the mounting of a new opera, a joint project of New York City Opera and the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbeine, “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.” Originally scheduled for a January 19 opening, the premiere was delayed until January 27 due to COVID and is currently running in New York at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.
Those familiar with the 1970 Victoria Di Sica 1971 film or the celebrated historical novel by Giorgio Bassini on which it was based, know it is a cautionary tale. The background is the northern Italian city of Ferrara situated near Milan. Most of the characters are Jews of the well-established community there living under the ever-increasing threat of Mussolini, his fascist Black Shirt supporters and, later, the menace of Nazi occupiers.
The reference to the mythical garden with its many ancient trees contained by a protective wall is Bassini’s literary device to acknowledge the many Jews of Ferrara who lived in a ghetto there since Renaissance times and who famously defended it during the Napoleonic Wars.
There is also a disparity existing between the landed class epitomized by the Finzi-Contini family and the poor working class family whose surname is obscured and unimportant. Giorgio, played by Anthony Ciaramitaro, is the leading character who falls in love with the pampered and spoiled Micól Finzi-Contini.
As Giorgio remembers his youth, ghostly voices of the past echo against the strains of Gordon’s somber notes. They are “the muted strings” who begin to return in the past as the desecrated synagogue returns to its pre-war state and its symbolic ner tamid (eternal light) begins to flicker and then glow as congregants are gathered once again in prayer at Rosh Hashanah. A French horn simulates the distinct blasts of the shofar and we are thus transported back to 1938, the year in which Il Duce instituted the laws of racial purity which deprived Jews of their basic rights in Fascist Italy. When the opera opens, Giorgio has returned to the city of his youth as a naturalized American carrying a red TWA travel bag while wearing a hat, sports jacket and rumpled khakis. He is sporting a heavy beard as he enters the old dilapidated synagogue of his youth. There Giorgio is recognized by Perotti (Adam Klein), the former groundskeeper at the Finzi-Contini estate, who informs him that all of his former employers have vanished, never to return.
It is there that Giorgio first espies Micól (Rachel Blaustein) sitting under the protective talit (prayer shawl) of her provincial father, Professor Ermanno (Peter Kendall Clark). As his older counterpart observes from the sidelines, Giorgio’s father (Franco Pomponi) cautions his younger version that the aristocratic family is well above their station:
The Finzi-Continis are people so perfect,
They’re objects one glimpses from afar.
The Finzi-Continis are different.
Gordon’s somber music sets the tone for the story that details the dichotomy of the Jewish haves and their poorer have not counterparts. Yet, as the months and years march on, the affluent Finzi-Continis are stripped of their ability to hire Aryans and reduced to the same level as that of the others.
The 32-member cast includes a number of outstanding nationally prominent opera performers provided through the networking of New York City Opera paired with several veterans of previous productions from the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbeine. This is, after all, a tale of the Holocaust and the music rarely assumes light or frothy moments. While Gordon’s music is noticeably downbeat with a heavy reliance on strings, the libretto by Korie is filled with subtlety and sub-text. The ill-advised pairing of Giorgio and Micól is at the epicenter of the story in which the two families suffer similar fates, but there are moments where male bonding occur and where feelings are expressed or repressed.
Bryan James Myers, who portrays Micól’s brother Alberto, provides an interesting sub-plot as a young man hiding his attraction to his college Communist pal, Giampi Malnate, portrayed by Matt Ciuffitelli. Myers possesses an impressive baritone that fits beautifully with Gordon’s more sumptuous passages as he suffers physically from an undiagnosed disorder and begins to lose weight.
Ciutffitelli, also a baritone with incredible power, is memorable as a Marxist, who is not above enjoying the luxury and privileged status of the Finzi-Continis, sampling their stocks of liquor and making use of their tennis court for amusement. This contradiction is lost on Alberto, who secretly yearns for his company, but is unable to express his feelings.
Giorgio has no problems expressing his interest in Micól to his father and to his brother Ernesto (Robert Balonek), a pragmatist who recognizes the looming danger from Mussolini (Spencer Hamlin) and his supporters. Yet, when it comes to Giorgio displaying his desire and love to Micól in person, he is inept and awkward. He is a lovable buffoon, but a buffoon nevertheless.
As conditions worsen for the Ferrara Jewish community members and they lose their rights to be educated, the outsiders – the collaborators and the Black Shirt supporters – are symbolically represented by Perotti, who hurls his occasional antisemitic epithets revealing his true nature.
As Korie’s powerful words demonstrate, despite their long history in the area, the Jews are no longer considered “part of the Italian race.” The Nazis and the Italian fascists have instituted a new narrative that strips them of their humanity. They are banned from worshipping as a people and their sacred synagogue is sacked and pillaged. Ironically, the antisemite Perotti is left to tend to what’s left, paid for by an annuity established by none other than Professor Ermanno.
The ending of the work culminates with the roundup of all the Jewish characters, no matter their previous station in life. They are consigned to a lowly state to await determination by a group of bureaucrats holding clipboards bearing long lists of their names.
When we are returned once again to the present time of 1955, the synagogue is once again seen as ravaged, but we have gleaned insight into the true reason behind Micól’s refusal towards Giorgio’s advances. The ner tamid flickers and glows with the promise of new life after the Holocaust and hope that the lessons of man’s inhumanity will not be lost on the next generation. The beautiful choral work of the ensemble is the glue that keeps the riveting work moving in many of the pivotal scenes situated in the synagogue, on the street and along the alleyways of Ferrara.
John Farrell’s picturesque projections and vibrant set design moves the action along in the 19 assorted scenes in Acts One and Two. The concept of the production was devised by Richard Stafford, who co-directs with New York City Opera’s Michael Capasso.
James Lowe conducts a full 15-member ensemble of players including violins, viola, cello bass, flute/piccolo, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet trombone, perscussion and piano. The sound is lush at times, but often subdued as the action plays on the stage through the singers. Orchestrations are by Gordon with Bruce Coughlin. The brilliant costumes are a highlight of the opera as rendered by designer Ildikó Debrexzeni and wigs and hair by Loryn Pretorius.
Directed by Michael Capasso and Richard Stafford, “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” by Ricky Ian Gordon (music) and Michael Korie (libretto) concludes its run on Saturday, February 5 and Sunday, February 6 in the Edmond J. Safra hall of the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.