Return to Ferrara: The Opera of the Finzi-Continis
In 1962 Italian writer Giorgio Bassani published the small Proustian novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, remembering the relatively recent but already strangely remote world of Jewish Ferrara in the late 1930s, just before the outbreak of the war and the coming of the Holocaust. The Finzi-Contini family are the Guermantes of this particular world, the fabulous, almost legendary, and superrich Sephardic aristocrats whose glamour and charisma hypnotized the first-person narrator as a young man, sparking his hopeless infatuation with the daughter of the family, Micòl. While Bassani’s novel made its mark on Italian literary culture, winning the Viareggio Prize, in 1970 director Vittorio De Sica made the book into a movie that became an international sensation, winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. De Sica’s son Manuel composed a delicately sentimental film score. The nostalgic mood of romance is very remote from the neorealist style of De Sica’s classic Bicycle Thieves—though bicycling is also important in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Bassani hated the film for, among other things, making “Giorgio” (the narrator of the novel) seem “sentimental” and “banal,” and for dealing crudely with the different time frames. Perhaps hyperbolically, he lamented “il mio giardino tradito,” my garden betrayed.
If The Garden of the Finzi-Continis had been composed as an opera at the time of its publication in the 1960s, the obvious composer might have been Bassani’s near contemporary Gian Carlo Menotti whose spirit of verismo lyricism would have suited some of the novel’s shifting moods. Instead, the novel waited sixty years to come to the stage as an opera and premiered in New York during the height of the omicron wave of the Covid pandemic in January 2022, set by American composer Ricky Ian Gordon to a rhyming libretto by Michael Korie; the work was presented at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, near Battery Park, the museum designated as “A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.”
The novel opens after the war with the narrator visiting an Etruscan cemetery and then recalling the Jewish cemetery in Ferrara with the elaborate tomb of the Finzi-Contini family, where almost none of the novel’s principal characters, murdered in the Holocaust, lie buried. For the narrator, who has survived, that mausoleum feels almost as remote as an Etruscan monument: “The tomb was big, massive, really imposing: a kind of half-ancient, half-Oriental temple of the sort seen in the sets of Aida and Nabucco in vogue in our opera houses until a few years ago.” From the very beginning of the novel, Bassani was thinking about opera, about how the pomp and passion of Verdi’s most dramatic Italian operas framed the history of the Finzi-Continis. Gordon’s opera begins in an abandoned synagogue rather than a cemetery, with Giorgio returning from America to Ferrara after the war: “I am not a tourist.” In the synagogue, he conjures up the ghosts of the vanished Jews who chorally intone the sounds of the Italian toponym—“Ferrara”—with its sustained and musical middle syllable and the repeated and rolled Italian r.
Bassani imagined a set of his fictional works linked together, in Proustian fashion, under the title “Il romanzo di Ferrara,” the fictional reconstruction of a remembered city. Gordon and Korie take up the challenge of the postwar framing that makes this story a memory excursion into time past, haunted by the ghosts of the dead. The simple set of angled backdrops allowed for transformative projections, so that the derelict abandoned synagogue of the 1950s became again a living sanctuary with a rabbi and a ram’s horn, the shofar, for the Jewish High Holidays. Giorgio returning from the future is now watching himself as a child with his family and the child Micòl with her family, the Finzi-Continis. With the sounding of the shofar, the score becomes quasi- liturgical, not for the last time in the opera, and the lyrical tenor role of Giorgio (sung by Anthony Ciaramitaro) sometimes takes on cantorial intonations even in non-liturgical contexts. Like De Sica, Gordon and Korie are intrigued by Giorgio’s earliest memory of Micòl—described by Bassani in the novel—the children eyeing one another in synagogue from beneath their fathers’ tented prayer shawls.
The plot is set in motion by the promulgation of Fascist Italy’s racial laws in 1938, which eliminated the civil rights of Italian Jews. The approximately 40,000 Jews were perhaps a tenth of a per cent of the total Italian population, some families resident in Italy dating back to ancient Roman times. In a gradually building musical ensemble, driven by an anxious percussive beat, the Jews of Ferrara are informed of the new restrictions: at the bank, at the library, at the tennis club. Gli ebrei non appartengono alla razza italiana, Jews do not belong to the Italian race, affirmed the Italian Fascist manifesto of 1938. It doesn’t sound like an operatic phrase in either language, but, with a very slight adaptation—“Jews are not of the Italian race”—Gordon makes it into a marching musical phrase underlying the ensemble, the refrain bluntly affirmed by the Fascist representatives and then nervously echoed by the Jewish characters.
It is conventional historical wisdom that Mussolini undertook the racial laws to consolidate his alliance with Hitler, following the latter’s visit to Rome in May 1938. In fact, Jews did not face significant persecution during the earlier years of Italian Fascism, and it is even known that Mussolini’s Jewish lover Margherita Sarfatti was a significant cultural force in the Fascist regime. Still, the Italians were not just “brava gente”—good folk—who merely mouthed the anti-Semitic slogans of the moment; they were susceptible to racist enmity like many other European nations. Gordon and Korie’s opera, composed in the twenty-first century, is perhaps even more frank than the original novel about the ugliness that confronted the Jews of Ferrara among their formerly friendly neighbors and colleagues. In particular the figure of Perotti, the faithful servant and major-domo of the Finzi-Contini family (sung by tenor Adam Klein) emerges as a sinister figure in the opera. It is Perotti, accompanied by trumpet, who formally issues the invitation to the young Jews of Ferrara—now expelled from the Ferrara tennis club—to come and play on the private court of the Finzi-Continis, thus bringing Giorgio for the first time into the mysterious garden.
Giorgio dominates the opera, singing in almost every scene, and in all the different time frames (even harmonizing with the teenage performer who sings his younger self). Yet Giorgio’s infatuation with Micòl makes her soprano role also crucial to the opera. De Sica set the diva bar very high when he cast the mesmerizing young French actress Dominique Sanda, only nineteen in 1970, the year she also appeared in The Conformist for Bernardo Bertolucci, another cinematic evocation of Italian fascism. Her enigmatic innocence struck more than one famous Italian director as the perfect focus for dramatizing the brutalization of humanity under fascism. Yet Micòl’s seductive flirtation with Giorgio, her deployment of her own aristocratic glamour to compel his slavish devotion, and then her absolute rejection of his love in favor of another lover, reflected her charismatic power to dominate the novel, the film, and now the opera. For Gordon hers is a role of long soprano melodic lines, ravishing lyricism, and rarely a harsh note (as sung by Rachel Blaustein). Gordon creates a series of duets for Giorgio and Micòl, sometimes singing together in the garden, sometimes singing from opposite sides of the stage into their telephones. Their duets have some of the character of operetta music, lushly accompanied by strings, with her melodic musings set alongside his impassioned longings, coming together in climactic high notes, but never failing to allow for the fact that she moves in her own musical element.
In De Sica’s film Micòl’s brother Alberto rises to an almost equally starring role, partly because he was played by the beguiling Austrian actor Helmut Berger, the lover and muse of director Luchino Visconti who had already cast him in The Damned as the sexually complicated Martin von Essenbeck, cross-dressing as Marlene Dietrich in Nazi Germany; Berger would go on to star for Visconti as King Ludwig of Bavaria, Richard Wagner’s infatuated patron. Berger and Sanda as the super-privileged and hyper-glamorous Finzi-Contini siblings were also peculiarly sexually connected—with some resemblance to the incestuous Jewish siblings in Thomas Mann’s short story “The Blood of the Wälsungs.” The connection involves Micòl’s love affair with her brother’s great friend Giampiero Malnati, a dedicated Christian Communist who enjoys the company of very wealthy Jews. De Sica created a marvelous scene toward the end of the movie in which Giorgio climbed over the wall to sneak into the Finzi-Contini garden at night and pressed his face against the window of one of the outer buildings to confirm, crushingly, what he already suspected: that Micòl, who refused all his own advances, was Malnati’s lover. Micòl, noticing him at the window, turned on a light so that Giorgio at the window (and the audience in the movie theater) could have an illuminated view of her naked body.
The opera is interested in exposing other bodies. While the novel offers some implicit suggestion that the friendship between Alberto and Malnati is complex, and the film more strongly suggests that Sanda and Berger, as the siblings Micòl and Alberto, are sexually interested in the same man, an opera requires more than furtive glances. In an opera the characters must sing of their romantic longing, and Gordon and Korie thus give voice to Alberto’s all-consuming love for Malnati. Gordon sets up a telephone duet for Giorgio and Micòl, from opposite ends of the stage, and then the panels of the set rotate to reveal, stage center, the bathhouse in which Alberto and Malnati are showering and dressing after tennis, and the duet becomes a quartet. Giorgio and Micòl occupy the upper staff as tenor and soprano, while Alberto and Malnati join from below as baritone and bass-baritone Giorgio and Alberto (sung by baritone Brian James Myer) sing to themselves about their unconfessed, unrequited, and ultimately unreciprocated longing, intoning a solemn five-note line: “How much is too much?” for Giorgio, “How much does he know?” for Alberto. At the same time Micòl and Malnati (sung by bass-baritone Matthew Ciuffitelli) are ornamenting the line with conversational chatter, seemingly oblivious to the passion that is focused upon them. Malnati the Communist, in his underwear, is actually chattering about Stalin. Here the music achieves something extraordinary and fundamentally operatic, vocalizing passions in an intricate ensemble, and adding an agonizing romantic intensity that draws upon, but also deepens, the sentimentally analytical aspects of the novel and the elegant visual drama of the film.
In The Gold-Rimmed Glasses of 1958, Bassani explored homosexual desire in Fascist Ferrara and considered the parallel persecution of Jews and gay men. In The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, the garden itself is a landscape of desire, a vast expanse of luxuriantly germinating sexual possibilities, with its wandering paths, sheltering trees, isolated pavilions, and a tennis court for the athletic manifestation of more submerged forms of sensual play. I went to Ferrara in February to look for the garden of the Finzi-Continis, knowing full well that it was just a fantasy site in Bassani’s literary imagination. Yet, in the novel Bassani gave precise directions: you follow Corso Ercole I d’Este, “straight as a sword,” due north, from the moated ducal castle of the Renaissance Este dynasty in the center of town, for more than a mile, till you come to the Porta degli Angeli, the Gate of the Angels, in the former Renaissance fortifications that were inspected by Michelangelo in 1529.
On your left, on the Corso, would be the entrance to the garden—25 acres in extent—and if you walk along the top of the former fortifications, you can gaze down, voyeuristically, as Giorgio did: except that there is no garden to be seen. There are a series of schools laid out along narrow streets, like Via del Pavone, the street of the peacock. If you turn your back to the site and look north beyond the fortifications of the Renaissance city, you’ll see the playing fields of Parco Urbano Giorgio Bassani, the city park named for the celebrated Ferrarese author. Exposed playing fields, however, look nothing like the verdantly imaginary and erotically mysterious groves of the Finzi-Contini garden.
In 1940 Bassani, then the age of the narrator in the novel, published Una città di pianura (A City of the Plains), a collection of stories. The title referenced Proust’s volume Sodom and Gomorrah, but, though Ferrara certainly had its secret vices and evils in the 1930s, the allusion was also utterly literal. Central Italy is full of hill towns, but Ferrara is remarkably flat, a city of the plain of the Po River, and walking along the flat length of Corso Ercole I d’Este, as if on my way to visit the Finzi-Continis, I realized why bicycles were so important in the novel, the film, and even the opera. Ferrara is topographically ideal for urban cycling, and the Renaissance town planning that created long straight roads to the remote fortifications have made the bicycle an indispensable vehicle right up to the present day. For Giorgio it would have been the practical way to manage daily visits to the Finzi-Continis, for tennis when he was expelled from the tennis club, for study when he was expelled from the library, and, of course, for stalking the object of his infatuation.
In 2012 there were two large earthquakes in northern Italy that inflicted significant damage on Ferrara and led to the closing of the synagogue in the center of town, in the area of the former Jewish ghetto, the synagogue where Giorgio and Micòl had eyed each other as children. In 2017, one year after the Bassani centennial in 2016, Ferrara became the site of the National Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah. The selection of Ferrara was certainly connected to the city’s Renaissance Jewish history, which culminated in the publication of a Sephardic Bible in the Ladino language in 1553 (dedicated to Duke Ercole II d’Este), but it was Bassani who made the Ferrara Jewish community famous in the twentieth century. The inauguration of the museum in 2017 took place in the presence of current Italian president Sergio Mattarella, one year before he named the Milanese Jewish activist Liliana Segre to the Italian Senate, where she established an Italian commission for intolerance, racism, and anti-Semitism. Segre experienced the effects of Mussolini’s Racial Laws of 1938 in Milan when she was still a child, before being deported to Auschwitz with her family; she was the only survivor. She also cares about opera and was present in Milan at La Scala in December, along with Mattarella, for the opening performance of Verdi’s Macbeth—a momentous occasion since the La Scala opening of 2020 was canceled on account of the Covid pandemic.
Gordon’s Garden of the Finzi-Continis was produced by the New York City Opera, barely surviving in attenuated form since its catastrophic bankruptcy in 2013, but also co-produced by the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene. New York City Opera, since its creation in 1943, has a distinguished record in presenting the world premieres of new American operas, while the National Yiddish Theater, dating back to 1915, has only more recently found a home in the Museum of Jewish Heritage but has already made notable contributions there to New York’s cultural life. The 2015 staging of Joseph Rumshinsky’s 1923 Yiddish operetta Golden Bride (Goldene Kale) was a stunning rediscovery, and the 2018 Yiddish-language production of Fiddler on the Roof was a big hit that moved uptown to Broadway.
The neoromantic score of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis offers some settings that might recall the operatic styles of Menotti and Samuel Barber, while there are others that come closer to the musical theater idioms of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. Even as the Finzi-Contini opera opened downtown, Gordon had another beautiful new opera opening at Lincoln Center in the Mitzi Newhouse Theater, Intimate Apparel, about an African-American seamstress in early-twentieth-century New York (sung by soprano Kearstin Piper Brown). This opera explores, as one of its story lines, the professional relationship and awkward romantic feelings between her and a Jewish American fabric salesman (sung by tenor Arnold Livingston Geis). Though they cannot touch each other, they are linked by a common sensual relation to cloth: “Touch it, feel it.”
Sponsored by the National Yiddish Theater, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis does not make use of Yiddish; nor is the libretto concerned with Sephardic Ladino or the Judeo-Italian dialect. Oddly, it makes some gestures toward a New York Jewish idiom, as for instance when Giorgio’s father warns him against the Finzi-Continis and “their fancy schmancy garden”—as if this were Brooklyn rather than Ferrara in the 1930s. The use of Italian phrases in the English libretto—as in the quintet for Venetian peddlers that opens the second act, “Bellezza”—brings the opera a little closer to the works of American musical theater that make use of Italian scenarios or soundscapes. One might think of Richard Rodgers’ Do I Hear a Waltz? in 1955 or his grandson Adam Guettel’s Light in the Piazza in 2005 and certainly of Maury Yeston’s 1982 musical Nine (based on Federico Fellini’s 1963 film 8½) or Yeston’s 2011 musical Death Takes a Holiday (based on a 1924 Italian play by the Fascist author Alberto Casella). Gordon daringly inserts into his score the Italian Fascist anthem “Giovinezza” (Youth) which exercises its infectiously rousing effect, even as we hear it from the perspective of the youthful Jews now utterly excluded from the Fascist sense of national solidarity.
2022 marks the hundredth anniversary of Mussolini’s March on Rome in October 1922, when he seized power and began to demolish Italian constitutional democracy, inaugurating the age of fascism in Europe. The complex relation of Italian fascism to the Italian operatic tradition makes The Garden of the Finzi-Continis into an especially interesting subject for contemporary opera. “Giovinezza” was famously recorded by superstar tenor Beniamino Gigli in 1937. One of Gigli’s favorite roles was in Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chenier which he performed and recorded in Fascist Italy, while Giordano himself wrote an anthem to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Mussolini’s March on Rome in 1932 (“Inno Decennale”). Pietro Mascagni was honored all across Fascist Italy in 1940 for the fiftieth anniversary of Cavalleria Rusticana, and he himself conducted the La Scala anniversary performance starring Gigli. Giacomo Puccini died in 1924, two years after the March on Rome, but he seems to have admired Mussolini. The posthumous premiere of Turandot at La Scala in 1926, in Mussolini’s Milan, was conducted by Toscanini, who openly broke with the regime (and was beaten up) when he refused to conduct “Giovinezza” in Bologna in 1931.
Bassani’s novel frankly presents the narrator’s father as a Jewish member of the Fascist Party, and the opera develops this character (sung by baritone Franco Pomponi) even more fully, exploring his political disillusionment alongside his anxiety about his son’s involvement with the Finzi-Contini family and, eventually, the awareness that he must somehow manage his own family’s escape from Italy. “I never learned how to move on,” he sings, as he offers passports out of Italy to his sons, and his baritone vocal line also has some of the character of cantorial lamentation, darkly accompanied by the cello and the horn.
Mussolini was deposed in Rome in July 1943, after the Allied landing in Sicily, and the Nazis then occupied much of the peninsula, ordering the deportation of the Italian Jews, including those of Ferrara in September. Bassani was remarkably reticent about the deportation in the novel, describing it in one single paragraph of the two-page epilogue; for him the point of the novel was the evocation of what came before, the last days of Jewish Ferrara. De Sica created whole new scenes: the Finzi-Contini family arrested in their palace, the police calling the roll of Jewish names, the parents responding from the staircase as if they were going to the guillotine in the final scene of Andrea Chenier: “Son’io.” De Sica used Hebrew liturgy to accompany the rounding up of the Ferrara Jews, and Gordon likewise has the rabbi chanting the liturgical Hebrew Hashkiveinu:
Lay us down in peace, O Lord, and raise us up again to life . . .
Save us for your name’s sake,
And shield us from every enemy, plague, sword, famine, and sorrow.
Leonard Bernstein composed a setting of this prayer in 1945, as the war was concluding, but Gordon makes use of the traditional chant.
The Jews of Ferrara are assembled at the train station, and then, as they go off stage, they become again the ghostly voices who sing the syllables “Ferrara, Ferrara,” still haunting Giorgio after the war. At the Ferrara synagogue, closed since the earthquakes in 2012, two marble plaques commemorate the deportation of the Jews on September 8, 1943, listing the names of some hundred Ferrarese Jews. Four people on the list have the surname Bassani, and two have the surname Finzi. Gordon and Korie’s opera honors the fictional family that Bassani created and allows them once again, as operatic voices, to haunt and inhabit a garden in Ferrara that never actually existed but continues to resonate in memory and history.
 Giorgio Bassani, “Il mio giardino tradito” (1970), republished in La Nuova Ferrara, 12 May 2011
 Michele Sarfatti, La Shoah in Italia: la persecuzione degli ebrei sotto il fascismo (Turin: Einaudi, 2005); Michele Sarfatti, Gli ebrei nell’Italia fascista: Vicende, identità, persecuzione (Turin: Einaudi, 2000; revised edition 2018); Michele Sarfatti, The Jews in Mussolini’s Italy, trans. by John and Anne Tedeschi (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2007).