National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene & New York City Opera 2022 Review – ‘The Garden of the Finzi-Continis’

Anthony Ciaramitaro & Rachel Blaustein Shine in Ricky Ian Gordon & Michael Korie’s Potent New Work

By Chris Ruel
Photo: Alan Chin

Authoritarian governments don’t pop up overnight, they grow day by day, sometimes imperceptibly. Little things snowball, and soon, certain “undesirable” communities become targets of opprobrium, violence, and extermination. Hatred is equal opportunity, sparing neither the rich, the poor.

It is on this canvas that composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Michael Korie paint their adaptation of Giorgio Bassani’s 1962 novel about the Italian-Jewish community in Fascist Italy, “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.” The completed picture is complex, with multiple layers of rich storytelling layered atop Gordon’s compelling score, while directors Michael Capasso and Richard Stafford worked with the subtleties of the story to deliver a potent and intense opera.

Gordon/Korie’s latest, (the two collaborated on “Grapes of Wrath,” 2007), was moving and utterly heartbreaking, and I envisioned the last scene long before it arrived. There’s no spoiler in saying it: the Nazis round up the Ferrara Italian-Jewish community, including the privileged Finzi-Contini family despite their wealth. With them on the station platform, their fellow Italian-Jews of all classes stand with them, terrified. All wear the Star of David armband on their sleeves, and there’s no mistaking where the train will take them.

Fact & Fiction

Italy under Mussolini enacted Racial Laws in 1938 that revoked the citizenship of Italian-Jews and shut them out of society; they were no longer Italian—they were Jews and considered guests who must follow the Fascist regime’s laws.

Life within the Italian-Jewish community was difficult between 1938 and 1943, but they fared better than those in other Axis-controlled countries; Fascist Italy was less inclined to take part in the genocide.

But in 1943, after the liberation of southern Italy, the Nazis began deporting Jews from the central and northern parts of the country. The Germans deported 8,564 Italian Jews, with many sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Only 1,009 survived the death camps, and in Italy proper, Nazis murdered another 196, while 100 perished in police custody.

“The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” as adapted by Korie, depicts the fictional Finzi-Contini family from 1927 to the 1940s, with the Prologue and Epilogue set in 1955. The Finzi-Continis live on a beautiful, large, wall-enclosed estate. Few are ever invited to the grounds. Though the family sounds reclusive, it’s not, but there is classism and elitism at play. Not the most observant of Jewish families in Ferrara, they’re considered, in the words of one character, “high-holiday Jews,” meaning their presence at the synagogue—built with their money—is but a few times per year. In this review, I’ll introduce you to the plot and then look at a few of the themes I took away.

Setting up Tragedy

Act one begins with a Prologue set in 1955. The main character, Giorgio, has returned to Ferrara and visits the now decrepit synagogue—its eternal flame extinguished. Here, he remains, remembering what had been before the opera begins the extended flashback that comprises the story.

The audience is introduced to 15-year-old Giorgio and his family attending high holiday service. Behind them sit the Finzi-Continis, and their pretty teenage daughter, Micòl. Giorgio has a crush on the girl and the two teens exchange furtive glances during the service, drawing the approbation of Giorgio’s father, simply known as Papà. He tells Giorgio that he shouldn’t be foolish in thinking Micòl would be a good match. “They’re not like us,” he says.

We next see Micòl as she gazes over the wall and promises the young Giorgio a kiss if he can scale the wall, which he can’t, and he leaves dejected.

Fast forward to 1938 when Italy passes the Racial Laws. The regime shut the Jews out of society; Papà can no longer bank, the public library is off-limits to Ernesto, and the organizers of a local tennis tournament dis-invited all Jewish players, and these include Giorgio and his friends.

In response, the Finzi-Continis offer the use of their tennis court, which Giorgio sees as an opportunity to spend time with Micòl. It is during the tennis scene that Malnate, the handsome former college roommate of Alberto Finzi-Contini, is introduced. Malnate claims to be an agnostic, lapsed Catholic, and communist.

After the match, Giorgio and Micòl take a walk in the garden. The lack of flowers and the abundance of old trees disappoint Giorgio. During a brief rain shower, the couple ducks beneath a tree and holds hands before Micòl runs away and Giorgio is shown to the gate by the estate’s Catholic majordomo, Perotti.

That same evening, Giorgio calls Micòl, who informs him she’s wearing a white negligee (which sets Giorgio’s mind spinning). She also describes her room, which is entirely white. The reason: Micòl is an avid collector of Murano glass art, and the white surroundings allow the objets d’art to become the focal point of the room. As Giorgio speaks longingly of Micòl, she speaks with similar passion about her menagerie before telling him of her departure to Venice to finish her studies—thanks to her family’s influence. Giorgio fumbles when he attempts to tell Micòl he loves her, sending him in despair from his house to the streets of Ferrara that now seem foreign. When he enters the synagogue, he finds it desecrated. Meanwhile, his brother Ernesto’s pleas for them to flee the country fall on deaf ears; Giorgio stands firm in the restoration of normalcy in Italy and that Micòl will love him.

No One is Safe

The second act opens with Micòl in Venice, writing a letter to Giorgio. While there’s little room for ambiguity in her missive—she explicitly states their relationship is platonic—Giorgio, after receiving the letter, views her words differently (delusionally), taking them as a sign of her affection. After finishing her letter, Micòl, ever enamored of her Murano glass, purchases an antique goblet before sauntering off with an unknown gentleman.

Giorgio visits the Finzi-Contini family library, where he meets Professor Ermanno, the patriarch of the family. The Professor confides in Giorgio that the Finzi-Contini bloodline is dying, and the conversation concludes with Ermanno asking Giorgio to be a friend to his son, Alberto. The professor, too, expresses some confidence that Italy’s present situation will blow over.

Giorgio visits Alberto in his “salon,” when Malnate shows up. Drinking ensues to the tune of a big band record on the phonograph. Malnate and Alberto engage in an alcohol-buzzed dance, and while Malnate is simply horsing around, the contact means much more to Alberto. Frustrated that he can’t express the secret love he holds toward his former roommate, the dance sends Alberto into the garden, where he laments dying a virgin.

The Passover seder with Giorgio’s family descends into a fight as Ernesto takes a hammer to the illusion that everything will be all right, given time. A phone call from Alberto summons Giorgio to the Finzi-Contini estate, and he rushes over, hoping Micòl has returned from university.

Giorgio, now at the Finzi-Contini seder, observes the family ganging up on Alberto about his weight and their concern for his health. Angered, he takes the antique goblet Micòl bought in Venice and plays fortune teller. After dropping several folded pieces of paper with the words “yes” and “no” written on them, he summons the oracle of the goblet and asks a series of benign questions, but then Alberto’s queries grow serious. He asks about his health, and the goblet’s response is dire: Alberto is dying of leukemia.

After dinner, Giorgio speaks with Micòl in her room, desperate to hear her say she loves him. When this doesn’t happen, he attempts to rape her. Micòl tells Giorgio once and for all; she will never love him romantically and he is never to return to the estate. The devastated Giorgio goes home, where he is consoled by Mamma and Papà. They also provide him and Ernesto with passports and papers that will get the brothers to the Swiss border.

Malnate hopes to cheer the despondent Giorgio by hooking him up with prostitutes on the streets of Ferrara. After paying for the hookers, he leaves Giorgio to his own devices and heads straight for the Finzi-Continis’ and the arms of his lover, Micòl.

Giorgio learns the ruining truth when bicycling past the Finzi-Contini estate. He observes Malnate’s bicycle and watches as he and Micòl engage in a passionate embrace. Ernesto finds his brother near the estate. In his hands are suitcases and he urges his brother to leave the country before it’s too late. They escape successfully.

Now, we arrive at the penultimate scene: the Jews of Ferrara stand on the train station platform, awaiting their fate. The privilege enjoyed by the Finzi-Continis has run its course and they are no longer welcome in their own country or city.

In the Epilogue, the opera returns to the year 1955, where we rejoin Giorgio in the ruined synagogue. There he speaks with Perotti, now the caretaker of the synagogue. There’s little closure as Giorgio remembers the departed. He says farewell to his Mamma, Papà, and Micòl before leaving. End of opera.

Denial, Noblesse oblige, & Unrequited Love

The first act set the major themes. The first is denial. The Italian-Jewish community of Ferrara refused to believe Italy could become as bad as Germany, even after the Racial Laws. Papà, and so many others, believed things would return to normal if the Jewish people could hang tight, but this proves false. Also proved false is Giorgio’s denial to face reality and give up on Micòl.

The Finzi-Continis see it as their responsibility to help the less fortunate, which in their eyes comprises almost everyone. The out-of-the-blue offer to come to use the family’s tennis court, the offer to use the Professor’s library, and Finzi-Continis paying for the synagogue are, in themselves, good and kind, but the scenes were drawn to show the Finzi-Contini elitism as they used their wealth to solidify their privilege and power within the community.

Regarding unrequited love, Giorgio and Micòl are at the forefront, but there’s also Alberto’s love of Malnate, which is doomed never to come to fruition.

The two themes outlined above play out to their fullest in Act two. Once more, both Giorgio’s family and the Finzi-Continis believe the Fascist government will soon run its course and while life hasn’t improved, the families feel relatively safe. However, I sensed their hope diminish as the story progressed.

Whether Alberto truly has leukemia isn’t resolved; he simply pulled a folded slip of paper from the goblet with a 50/50 chance of the answer being “yes.” There’s no denying Alberto’s physical appearance, but is he dying of cancer? Did he ultimately die of cancer, or was he murdered in a death camp? We’d need to consult the goblet to determine Alberto’s fate because the libretto leaves the question open.

There’s also an open question surrounding the Professor’s knowledge of his son’s condition. In the library scene with Giorgio, he asks rather sadly if Giorgio will be Alberto’s friend. Why the sadness? Why the belief that he, Professor Ermanno, is the last of the Finzi-Continis?

Turning to Malnate’s betrayal of Giorgio, I don’t view it as simple as it may appear. We know Micòl has never viewed Giorgio as a viable match, but why? The conclusion I drew: He’s too Jewish. Remember that the Finzi-Continis weren’t observant, and they kept themselves separate from the larger Jewish community in Ferrara. My read is that Micòl wishes to shed her heritage as much as possible, and falling in love with an agnostic is a good way to do it. Whether Micòl’s parents would go along with the relationship is another unanswered question, but based on their priorities, they might welcome it.

What would life had been like for Giorgio and the Finzi-Contini family had the Holocaust not descended upon Italy? Zoom out, and what would life had been like for the millions murdered by the Nazis? The tragedy of tragedies that was the Holocaust is foregrounded by examining the lives of two very different and imperfect families and their horrific fate.

Singer Shoutouts

The entire cast put on top-notch performances, but the two principals I’d like to call out are tenor Anthony Ciaramitaro for his fascinating depiction of Giorgio, and soprano Rachel Blaustein’s turn as Micòl.

Ciaramitaro has a powerful tone loaded with a passion that cuts smoothly over the orchestra. I was invested in the character and wanted Giorgio to win Micòl’s heart, and I felt it in my own when he couldn’t.

During the bedroom scene in which Giorgio forces himself on Micòl, I wanted to tell Giorgio to stop immediately because foremost, his behavior was disgusting and inexcusable, but also because the Giorgio presented prior to that scene was, in my eyes, the least likely to harm Micòl. Did he pine and long for her? Yes. Was he obsessed? One could say, yes; but it felt more benign than say Don José’s pathological pursuit of Carmen. So, the scene jarred me with its incongruence in my beliefs about the character. Giorgio crossed a huge line, and from that point forward, I couldn’t see him in the same light. All of this to say, Ciaramitaro worked the nuances of his character and had so sucked me into Giorgio’s life that he became real—authentic enough for me to want to throttle him for his actions. This is the highest compliment I can extend to an actor.

Likewise, Blaustein; her Micòl wasn’t entirely endearing, but to me, that was exactly how she should be received. That she cared more about her Murano glass, rather than Giorgio’s heart, was telling. And though she flat out tells Giorgio that he’d never be more than a friend, her earlier signals were mixed. On top of this, Micòl was the epitome of privilege and Blaustein played her with the same level of nuance Ciaramitaro brought to Giorgio. The “rich girl” who is careless with hearts is a trope, and a less-skilled actor could fall into the stereotype trap. Blaustein stayed far from that pitfall.

Vocally, she was well cast. Her lyric voice had a carefree lilt, perfect for the daughter of the richest family in Ferrara, and this came across beautifully in the letter-writing scene as she narrates the words she will send to Giorgio. Of course, the timbre of Blaustein’s voice changed dramatically during the aforementioned Act two bedroom scene. There was palpable fear, anger, and disappointment living within her lines. Micòl may not have loved Giorgio, but I believe she was honest in her feelings for him as a friend—someone akin to her brother. But Giorgio’s attack destroys that.

Both artists had much to balance in playing their roles and each succeeded not simply admirably, but with convincing excellence.

The Music

The 15-piece New York City Opera Orchestra under the baton of conductor James Lowe was tight. I could hear it and see it. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched Gordon move with the cadences, feeling every note he had written, knowing exactly where beats should fall, and Lowe met every unseen cue Gordon delivered.

The versatility of the band was on display when during the Malnate/Alberto dancing scene in Act two. Malnate wanted to cut loose with some big band, and the Orchestra obliged with a Broadway-Esque jazz number, changing genres with the flip of a switch.

An aspect of Gordon’s music that I am fond of is its accessibility. Someone utterly unfamiliar with new opera can connect with his compositions. As a listener, there are challenging sections, but melody isn’t chucked. With his latest, Gordon brings in elements from other styles that provide audiences with a familiarity that draws the listener into the music, rather than away from it. Gordon has a lot of implements in his composer’s toolbox, and he’s not afraid to mix and match styles that engage the audience.

At first, the music of “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” sounds fanciful, but there’s a dark undercurrent threaded throughout. At dramatic heights, the music would crash together like an ominous warning, providing a sense of urgency. When the Racial Laws are promulgated in Ferrara, an ensemble piece hammers home the bitter truth of the legislation as the words “The law is the law,” and “Is the law the law,” repeat mechanistically to a driving beat.

With so many levels of meaning spread across the libretto, it’s hard to do Korie’s adaptation full justice. Take Micòl’s menagerie, for instance. The glass might represent Micòl and her family’s ultimate fragility. What of the wall around the estate? Walls keep people out but also keep them in. Papà refers to the Finzi-Contini compound as “a kind of rarefied ghetto.” He’s not entirely wrong about that. These are just two other paths to exploring Korie’s exquisite adaptation. His task of taking such a powerful, meaning-laden story, and shortening and versifying it so the heart of the tragedy remains, was brilliantly rendered. I read the libretto, and it’s a powerful piece, even sans music.

Sets and Costumes

John Farrell’s set and projection design were stunning. Prior to curtain, I had little idea how the jagged geometry I saw on stage would bring a garden or the streets of Ferrara to life. Farrell reproduced Ferrara using brilliant projections of photos taken by the creative team during a six-week stay in the city. When projected upon the shapes, the world of 1930s and 40s Ferrara sprang into existence; I found the creativity astounding. Farrell had to calculate the geometry of the set and how the projections would land to recreate the garden, the synagogue, the streets, while using the same geometric backdrop for the entire show.

Ildikó Debreczeni’s costumes were magnificent, from the vintage-style tennis wear to the more formal and elegant dresses and tuxedos of the Finzi-Continis.

It falls upon us to not simply remember the horror of the Holocaust, but to ensure nothing like it happens again. Right now, the world is at an inflection point. Authoritarianism is on the rise throughout the world, even in places previously unthinkable. I left the performance with not just the intriguing questions the story put out into the audience but challenged to remain vigilant, not complacent, and to never think such a thing won’t happen again because____________ (Fill in the blank). Or I’m safe if the unimaginable occurs because___________. That was the ultimate lesson and impact this show had on me.


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