The opera ‘the Finzi-Continis’ tells a story for today – the Forward


“The Garden of Finzi-Continis” experienced what its creators call a “difficult birth”.

Over a decade in preparation, the opera, adapted from the book of the same name by Giorgio Bassani, which Vittorio De Sica turned into an Oscar-winning film in 1970, was to be part of the 2011 and then 2013 season of the Minnesota Opera. It did not eventually open up, according to the librettist and composer, due to opera company policy. Plans to launch it in early 2020 have been sidelined by the pandemic. But in its long gestation, the work on how two Jewish families are affected by the slow evolution of anti-Semitic politics in Ferrara, Italy in the 1930s has only become more timely.

“The parallels are actually nauseating,” said librettist Michael Korie, a Tony contestant for his lyrics for the musical “Gray Gardens”.

For Korie, Donald Trump’s brand of nationalism almost perfectly matches that of Benito Mussolini, who appears in the opera in a sequence heralding Italian racial laws and revealing their dehumanization of Jews, regardless of their political stripe. In the scene, these Italian citizens are denied access to banks, libraries, auditoriums and tennis clubs, the latest ban paving the way for unshared romance between the wealthy Micòl Finzi-Contini and the protagonist, Giorgio, based on Bassani.

“It’s a Catholic country”, sneers a character, “And you are our guests”.

While the Finzi-Continis are conservative Republican Jews living in a walled estate filled with flora, Giorgio’s family belongs to the middle class, and his father was one of the earliest supporters of Mussolini’s populism. Ultimately, neither clan is safe.

The consequences of the elections and the dangers of feeling complacent about government securities are ingrained in the narrative.

“In our country right now there are people who voted for someone like Donald Trump – you might as well vote for Mussolini – who at first thought he was in the right direction,” said Ricky Ian Gordon, the composer of “Finzi-Continis” and, along with Korie, the co-creator of a 2007 opera adaptation of “Grapes of Wrath.” “A lot of these people, I would say a lot of them, got burned.”

Gordon first thought about adapting De Sica’s film after revisiting it as an adult in 2008, long before the era of Trump’s true political aspirations. But he and Korie found material in Bassani’s book that fleshed out the characters and made the exact restrictions on the Jews of Ferrara more explicit.

Now at the center of the story is Alberto Finzi-Contini, the young and sick lord of the mansion whose sexuality and attraction to his former Malnate University roommate are explored in more depth. Alberto’s debilitating illness goes untreated, the opera makes it clear where the film and book went untreated, as Jews are prohibited from seeking medical specialists.

Early in the writing process Gordon visited Ferrara and composed much of the work in a castle in Umbria as part of a residency. Gordon, like Bassani and De Sica before him, found the cemetery in the center of Ferrara an unmistakable landmark and a living metaphor. But when Korie learned of the destruction of the city’s synagogue, he decided to start and finish the opera amidst its ruins.

The temple, built by the Finzi-Continis, is the site of Giorgio’s first meeting with Micòl, where the Jews of Ferrara are deported and houses an eternal flame that lends its imagery to an air.

Musically, Gordon aimed to evoke the unique quality of the setting.

“I wanted to create my Italian opera,” Gordon said. “I wanted to enter this sort of august, summery trees, waving in the wind, in the warmth of the flowers, in the garden, in this kind of overripe sexuality, in the desire – the whole was so perfumed by the Tuscan hills. “

The opera includes a few Italians, and, during the roundup of the Jews – the inevitable end of racial laws – a Hashkiveinu for the Jews of Europe. Both men connect with their Jewish roots, dedicating the work to their late fathers.

For Rachel Blaustein, who plays Micòl Finzi-Contini, the story is personal. His paternal grandfather is a survivor who lost his family in the camps after the Vel d’Hiv roundup in Paris. This is her first leading role in a professional opera, and the first in which she plays a dying character.

“It’s going to be a very heavy and heavy scene and a difficult thing for me to go through, especially with my family being so close to this story,” said Blaustein.

Prior to December, Korie and Gordon had only seen the opera performed in a workshop hosted by the current producers, the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene and the New York City Opera. The two attend rehearsals, although each also has simultaneous shows at Lincoln Center (Gordon’s opera titled “Intimate Apparel” by Lynn Nottage is scheduled to open later this month and Korie’s “Flying Over Sunset” will be performed. until February).

They believe that opera has found its moment, although its journey began in another. This isn’t the first time that Korie and Gordon’s work has accidentally come to the fore.

“When we did ‘Grapes of Wrath’ we didn’t know there was going to be this whole immigration problem,” Korie said. But the couple decided to make some of the fruit pickers Mexican migrants and write a morning prayer for them in Spanish.

After the show, a man identifying himself as a curator found Korie and told him that the opera made him realize that Mexican families who worked the land wanted the same as the Joads. Korie considers this exchange a victory, but isn’t sure she can replicate it.

“Right now, in this country, I don’t know if you can open minds with an opera,” he said. “But I think we can answer.”

“The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” is on view from January 19 to 30, 2022 in the square of the Edmond J. Safra Center of the Museum of Jewish Heritage. You can buy tickets and find more information here.


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