Anyone with a shred of humanity, compassion, and comprehension should understand that the Holocaust must never be forgotten. Thousands of books, articles, movies and exhibits serve as a reminder to those true tales of suffering, tragedy, courage, hope, and survival. Some are based on fact, others are works of historical fiction. Yet while one doesn’t mean to undermine any of these stories, it’s fair to say that some of the narratives are better than others.
Which brings us to The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, a world-premiere opera that recently opened in the Edmond J. Safra Hall of the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Cinephiles may recognize title from Vittorio De Sica’s 1972 Academy award winning (Best Foreign Language) film of the same name. De Sica took his source material from Giorgio Bassani’s novel, also of the same name. It was part of a trilogy Il romanzo di Ferrara, which focused on Italian Jews in the Northern Province of Ferrara.
While the story is equal parts disturbing, interesting, and important, one has to have great endurance to sit through this three-hour slog.
The well-heeled Finzi-Contini family, who live securely in their manicured garden, ignore the signs of Fascism around them—until of course, it is too late. Meanwhile, love has sprung between Micol,(Rachel Blaustein) a member of the aristocratic family and Giorgio (Anthony Ciaramitaro), a lower class individual. Essentially, it’s Cabaret meets Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but a lot longer and not nearly as compelling.
This isn’t to say that the talent is lacking. Quite the opposite. Directors Michael Capasso and Richard Stafford have assembled a fine cast who all possess glorious voices and act quite well. The problems lie more in composer Ricky Ian Gordon’s score and Michael Korie’s book.
Musically, there is nothing captivating. In fact, the relentless score, conducted by James Lowe is a consistent mélange of disjointed notes, cacophonous melodies, and endless arias. While one wouldn’t expect big showstopping pieces, even an occasional melody would elevate the work. Consequently, it makes it difficult for audiences to empathize with any of the characters. When it comes to Holocaust stories, that’s not particularly a good quality.
Korie’s book is also too dense. However, he must be applauded for his choice of work. Korie, along with composer Scott Frankel, are never one to stray from unique subject matter. Whether it is giving the dilapidated mansion of Grey Gardens a musical treatment, making-Up Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole as dueling divas of cosmetics in War Paint, or taking us on an LSD trip with Flying Over Sunset, Korie continues to tackle unconventional material and his creativity is admirable.
One also must wonder why this opera, set in Italy, is performed in English. Perhaps Ian Gordon and Korie are non-Italian speaking, but given the fact that the art form was invented there—and that vocally it is arguably the best sounding language for soaring vocals—why they would not have worked with translators?
John Farrell makes excellent use of his effective set with dazzling projections. Ultimately however, this is not a must-see. Those who want to learn the story would be best served by watching the 1972 film, which has a brisk running time of 90 minutes.
This production, produced in partnership between New York City Opera and National Yiddish Theatre Folksbienne sadly misses the mark.
Let’s hope that Barry Manilow can deliver something better with National Yiddish Theatre Folksbienne’s next production, Harmony. It is slated to begin performances March 23rd at the museum.
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis runs through Feb. 6th at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (36 Battery Place, NY NY). For tickets and more information, click here