The world premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon’s new opera, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, to a libretto by Michael Korie, was a fitting entry for Holocaust Remembrance Day 2022 being performed at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Big things were expected for this latest collaboration between Gordon and Korie following their “instant classic” with the 2007 opera The Grapes of Wrath.
Unfortunately, both this ambitious opera itself and the elaborate presentation, a co-production of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene and the New York City Opera, leave a great deal to be desired. While one might admire that the team went back to the source material, the 1962 semi-autobiographical novel by Italian modern master, Giorgio Bassani, it is to be regretted that they did not avoid the pitfalls that Vittorio De Sica’s beloved 1970 Academy Award-winning Best Foreign Film so brilliantly sidestepped.
Set in Ferrara, Italy, from 1927-1938 along with a prologue and epilogue set in 1955, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis tells the story of the narrator Giorgio who is a middle-class young man growing up in a Jewish family on the eve of World War II and the Fascist takeover of Italy. As a child in 1927, he is aware of the Finzi-Contini family, “High-Holiday Jews,” who show up at the synagogue only once a year and who only send their children to the public school to take their exams but tutor them at home.
When the newly passed racial laws in 1938 deprive him of playing tennis at the public club, he is invited to play at the home of the aristocratic and stand-offish Jewish family who has their own court hidden behind the walls of their estate in the middle of their famous but hardly ever seen garden. There he falls in love with the daughter Micòl and meets her effete brother Alberto and his former college roommate Giampi Malnate, a tall athletic young communist with whom he immediately feels in competition. Although Giorgio is forbidden to return to his graduate studies at the University of Bologna, Micòl leaves to finish her degree in Venice due to her family’s influence.
When Jews are forbidden from using the libraries, Micòl’s father invites Giorgio to use his extensive collection, and he gets to know the tubercular Alberto who has an unrequited passion for his former roommate. When Micòl returns after finishing her degree, she lets Giorgio know that she is not interested in him as a lover or a suitor. Both Giorgio’s father who has all along been a supporter of the Fascists and Micòl’s father who is anti-Fascist remain extremely naïve about the encroaching situation in Italy for Jews. Giorgio finds out about his personal betrayal by people he thought were friends as the deportations begin. Giorgio lives to tell the story of the two families in 1955 after the war is over.
While Gordon has said in interviews that his model for the music was Puccini, in fact, the atonal orchestral score sounds more like operas by Gian Carlo Menotti, Carlisle Floyd and Dominick Argento. The singers are usually so loud that they tend to drown out the orchestra which is playing something different than the vocal score. Placed on the far right of the stage, the orchestra plays to the side wall muffling the sound. The orchestral score suggests background music for a film rather than music for the opera house. On paper, Korie’s text reads fairly well; however, in performance the singers are punching his rhymed couplets so hard that they seem a mistaken intrusion. At almost three hours, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis feels overwritten though episodes have been left out of the original novel. In the libretto provided to the press in advance, Alberto’s story deviates from that of the novel, but on opening night this was changed back to the book’s ending.
Many strange choices were made in the production co-directed by Michael Capasso, the NYCO’s General Manager, and Richard Stafford who also worked as choreographer. The casting does not choose to follow the novel or De Sica’s lead with the film version. While Giorgio should be a romantic, idealistic intellectual, tenor Anthony Ciaramitaro does not fit the bill. Micòl should be an ice princess, imperious and cold, but soprano Rachel Blaustein plays her as a petulant flirt. While Micòl criticizes Malnate for being too hairy and the libretto describes how muscular he is, the tall, thin Matt Ciuffitelli is neither of those things. When lyric baritone Brian James Myer as Alberto tells Giorgio how much he looks like his sister Micòl, it strikes a wrong note, and then one realizes that because of the mustache he sports throughout the opera, he looks nothing like his sister.
Many of the singers use a bombastic, declamatory approach, including baritone Franco Pomponi and tenor Peter Kendall Clark which seems inappropriate for the two fathers. While there are very few traditional arias, there are a few standouts: mezzo-soprano Sarah Heltzel as Signora Olga (Micòl and Alberto’s mother) received the first enthusiastic ovation of the evening with her moving and nearly hysterical “Alberto Growing Thin.” Blaustein was finally able to show what she could do with the emotional “We Can Never Be Together” when she turns Giorgio down. Ciaramitaro’s stentorian singing finally proved appropriate in his final solo, “Let Yourself Die.” Conductor James Lowe kept the orchestra well in hand for what could be heard of the muffled score.
While the garden of the Finzi-Continis should be a kind of Eden cut off from the rest of the world, projection design for the opera’s 28 scenes by John Farrell is so pale that it does not suggest this. However, this might be the fault of his set which is comprised of six panels at various angles which may be causing a spill of the light. In the scene in Micol’s bedroom when she gushed about her latimmi collection, this white glass is depicted as blue and amber colored even though the word means milky white. Ildikó Debreczeni’s costumes never suggest that the Finzi-Continis are wealthy or chic, but rather a bit dowdy. The lighting by Susan Roth is hampered by the needs of the projection design and often seems not to be at the needed intensity for the scene before us.
With all these drawbacks, the story is still compelling though not as moving as it ought to be. Many of these problems could certainly be addressed and corrected in future productions. In this world premiere production which was postponed due to Covid concerns, Ricky Ian Gordon’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis has not yet fulfilled its possibly glorious potential. The production is scheduled for eight performances, a great many for a new opera, and may develop over the course of the two-week run.
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (January 27 – February 6, 2022)
National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene & the New York City Opera
Edmond J. Safra Hall of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, 38 Battery Place, Battery Park, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 855-449-4658 or visit http://www.NYTF.org
For more information, call 212-655-7653
Running time: two hours and 55 minutes including one intermission