United States Gordon, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis: Soloists, New York City Opera Orchestra / James Lowe (conductor). Museum of Jewish Heritage, New York City Opera & The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, New York, 30.1.2022. (RP)
Librettist – Michael Korie
Director – Michael Capasso
Production Concept & Choreographer – Richard Stafford
Sets & Projections – John Farrell
Lighting – Susan Roth
Costumes – Ildikó Debreczeni
Wigs & Makeup – Loryn Pretorius
Giorgio – Anthony Ciaramitaro
Micòl Finzi-Contini – Rachel Blaustein
Giampi Malnate – Matthew Ciuffitelli
Alberto Finzi-Contini – Brian James Myer
Papa – Franco Pomponi
Mama – Mary Phillips
Ernesto/Merchant – Robert Balonek
Perotti – Adam Klein
Professor Ermanno Finzi-Contini – Peter Kendall Clark
Olga Finzi-Contini – Sarah Heltzel
Rabbi – Spencer Hamlin
Young Micòl – Meredith Krinke, Violet Paris
Young Giorgio – Gabe Ponichter
At the moment, there is a Ricky Ian Gordon festival in New York. Gordon, a prolific composer of art song, opera and musical theater, whose 2007 opera The Grapes of Wrath, based on the John Steinbeck novel, was an instant success, has not one but two new operas playing simultaneously. The world premieres of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and Intimate Apparel were just days apart in late January 2022 due to Covid delays.
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, a coproduction of New York City Opera and the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, is based on Giorgio Bassani’s historical novel of the same name. The book recounts the relationships between the narrator, Giorgio, and the children of the Finzi-Contini family in the late 1930s when Italy’s fascist regime enforced discriminatory laws against Italian Jews. Michael Korie’s libretto is faithful to the original.
It is also a story of class conflict, with Giorgio’s father disapproving of his friendship with the wealthy Finzi-Continis, whom he dismisses as High-Holiday Jews. Regardless of wealth or social standing, however, most of Ferrara’s Jewish community are sleepwalking toward annihilation, either unwilling or unable to accept that Italian fascists are as bad as Nazis. Antisemitism is an effective equalizer: Giorgio and his brother, Ernesto, are the only ones to survive as all the others perish in Nazi death camps.
It is a sprawling work in two acts with fifteen scenes each; cutting a few scenes would undoubtedly streamline the action and yield greater dramatic punch. Korie has a penchant for rhymes, some of which can come off as contrived – gamin and famine for example. It seemed odd for Giorgio’s father to compare his son to Judas, when there must be dozens of Old Testament examples of similar betrayals. And, undoubtedly, there were billionaires in the 1930s, but describing the Finzi-Continis as such lent a twenty-first-century feel that didn’t ring true.
The production impressively imposes coherence on the episodic action through design and technology. A white shell comprised of irregular geometric shapes is transformed by projections into scenes as varied as the Finzi-Contini garden, a Passover seder in Giorgio’s family home. and the family’s impressive library where Giorgio studies after his library card is revoked and ever more punitive antisemitic laws are enacted. The projections are so realistic that only a few props and pieces of furniture are needed to instantly create atmosphere.
There is little Italianate in Gordon’s score, except for the passion and truth that he instilled into the role of Giorgio. It is through Giorgio’s eyes that we see the multiple tragedies unfold – his unrequited love for Micòl Finzi-Contini, the fascist vise closing in on Ferrara’s Jewish community, and the aftermath when a people and a culture have all but been erased. With his ringing Italianate sound and more than a touch of squillo, Anthony Ciaramitaro’s tenor pierced even the thickest of Gordon’s rich orchestral textures in a standout performance.
The men of his family were the most complex and vividly etched characters in the opera. As Giorgio’s Papa, baritone Franco Pomponi did fierce verbal combat with his son, but slowly the scales dropped from the older man’s eyes as he realized that he made a fatal miscalculation by placing his trust in the fascists. The fine baritone Robert Balonek as Ernesto was equally fiery: like Ciaramitaro, Balonek can command the stage. A far more subtle and endearing characterization was that of mezzo-soprano Mary Phillips as their mother.
The Finzi-Continis occupied a more rarified place both in Ferrara’s Jewish community and in the opera. As Micòl Finzi-Contini, soprano Rachel Blaustein was a romantic, determined young woman with a thirst for adventure and a voice as fresh and exciting as the character she created. Baritone Peter Kendall Clark lent a refined air and warmth to Professor Ermanno Finzi-Contini, and mezzo-soprano Sarah Heltzel provided glamour as his wife.
Giorgio is not alone in suffering the pangs of unrequited love. Alberto Finzi-Contini pines for Giampi Malnate, his former college roommate, an avowed communist who enjoys the pleasures afforded by his wealthy friend. A scene in a sauna does little to advance the plot but provides baritones Brian James Myer and Matthew Ciuffitelli the opportunity to display their fine voices and toned physiques. While Alberto pines after Malnate, it is his sister who gets the man.
Of the remaining roles (of which there are a multitude), tenors Spencer Hamlin as the Rabbi and Adam Klein as Perotti, the Finzi-Contini retainer who once tended their garden and in old age looks after what is left of Ferrara’s synagogue, stood out. Meredith Krinke and Violet Paris who portrayed Micòl at different stages of her childhood and Gabe Ponichter as the young Giorgio gave heartfelt portrayals of youthful exuberance and innocence.
Gordon’s score is lush, colorful and melodic. His use of the ensemble as a chorus is particularly effective in generating emotion and musical interest. The Museum of Jewish Heritage’s small theater is not ideal for opera as it has no pit. With few exceptions, James Lowe kept balance in check, but it was a vibrant sonic experience where musical details were undoubtedly lost and the opera’s impact diminished by the volume of sound produced by singers and players alike.
At times, the opera seems to bear the weight of the musical Fiddler on the Roof, which Vittorio De Sica’s award-winning 1970 film adaptation did not. One could easily imagine the entire cast breaking into ‘Anatevka’, but then again, both tales are two sides of the same coin. Exile or death were ever present threats to European Jewry throughout the centuries.
After the final scene, a film of the eternal flame at Yad Vashem, the memorial in Jerusalem to all Jewish people who perished in the Shoah, was shown. Those powerful seconds of film drove home a point that had been more subtly but just as effectively made in both Bassani’s novel and the opera by Gordon and Korie. It was an artistic impulse that might best have been saved for another time.