By Harriet P. Gross
Very recently, our daily paper’s classical music reviewer scored the Dallas Opera’s announcement of its forthcoming season: Nothing new there, he noted — and complained. At virtually the same time, a friend pointed out to me a very new Italian opera that’s just had its first performances. That’s the first irony.
The second: This new opera has a Holocaust theme. And the third irony is that its story, which involves the not-always-stellar role of the Catholic Church vis-à-vis World War II’s Italian Jews, premiered in a Catholic church. I hope you’re intrigued.
The opera is called “The Mortara Case” (“Il Caso Mortara” in Italian). New York City’s Dicapo Opera Theater actually commissioned this new work by a young composer-librettist, Francesco Cilluffo, who based it on something entirely real.
Back in Bologna in 1851, a Jewish baby, Edgardo Mortara, fell seriously ill; the family nursemaid, hoping to save this near-dead child’s soul, had him baptized without the by-your-leave of his parents. Edgardo did indeed survive, but when he turned 6, representatives of the pope came to the family’s house to claim him; according to the Vatican, no baptized child could be raised in a Jewish home.
In his New York Times review of the opera, Anthony Tommasini attributes what happened next to “righteousness and paternal longing”: Pope Pius IX raised Edgardo himself, like a son, and the boy grew up to become a priest.
With much lyric and some of what Tommasini calls “tormented, complex, highly-charged, spiky” music, especially in the scene where the boy is taken away from his parents, the opera follows Edgardo’s life until 1940. Then, at age 89, he dies — some might say fortunately, for his passing was only a few minutes before he was to be arrested by German soldiers. Ah, the supreme irony here: Under Nazi law, Edgardo was a Jew!
(In the best tradition of Italian opera, the priest has a vision of his mother just before his death, and the two join in what the reviewer calls “an agitated duet.” How could it be otherwise? No irony here: Remember, this opera is based on truth. Marianna Mortara must surely have suffered torments far beyond agitation when her youngest child was torn from her, and for the rest of her life.)
We should be quick to hand Dicapo our praise for conceiving this project and seeing it through to completion. This opera company is no Met. But it’s no amateur effort, either. Its founder and general director, Michael Capasso, birthed his artistic baby almost 30 years ago on Long Island, in a theater-turned-movie-house that was in the process of becoming a legitimate theater again. He convinced its renovators to open their inaugural season with an opera, which was “wildly successful,” he says. But then, those developers had an offer they couldn’t resist, and sold the building to folks who made condos out of it.
The opera company, however, was too good to disband. For 10 years, it “bounced around” — Capasso’s words — from venue to venue, until finding a permanent home at St. Jean Baptiste Church on Manhattan’s East 76th Street, corner of Lexington. The lower level, fully remodeled back in 1995, boasts a large lobby, a pit for Dicapo’s own 26-piece orchestra and the “supertitles” that today’s opera-goers are accustomed to. With only 204 seats, it’s certainly not The Met, but Capasso revels in that: “We stage full-scale productions with professional performers whose voices and careers bring them to the greatest opera houses of the world and still perform here,” he says. “It is very high-end. The quality is there, but there is an intimacy and accessibility to the performance that you don’t receive anywhere else.
“The difference is, our last row is closer to the stage than the first row of the Metropolitan Opera is to its stage!” There are too many ironies right here in this tale of “The Little Opera Company That Could” to count!
The last performance of “The Mortara Case” was sung one week ago tonight, and I’m really sorry I wasn’t able to be in New York to hear it. I do hope, however, that a day — or a year! — will come soon when the Dallas Opera decides to update its offerings by adding a very new opera to its seasonal schedule, and that it will choose this one for that honor. A Jewish-themed work in Italian, sung on a Texas stage: That could be the greatest irony of all!