Il Caso Mortara is the first work commissioned from an Italian composer by an American company since the Met commissioned La fanciulla del West from Giacomo Puccini in 1910. As expected, there is an excitement in the air whenever a company premieres a new piece. The grandeur and, often, the pretentiousness of the affair is definitely worth taking stock of at each juncture of the creative process. Dicapo Opera Theater, a chamber opera group on Manhattan's Upper East Side that works diligently to be able to claim a long list of "firsts," is the plucky little company tackling this long-overdue event.
The story centers on the historic events surrounding Edgardo Mortara, a six-year-old boy who was ripped from his Jewish household by Papal Police in 1858 because his Christian nursemaid had baptized him as an infant. It was against the law for a “Christian” child to be raised in a Jewish household. Edgardo, in the House of Catechumens, which is a residence for converts, is visited several times by his parents, Salomone and Marianna, who urge him to say the “Sh’ma Israel” daily and not forget his roots. He eventually grows up to become a priest under the watchful eye of Pope Pius IX who has decided to raise the child as his own.
Ricardo Mortara, his brother, visits later on to ask Edgardo to return to his father’s deathbed and recite the Kaddish thereby giving comfort to his ailing mother. He turns his back on his blood relations and refuses. Ricardo coldly reminds him that the people who surround him will remind him he is a Jew. Fast forward to 1940, when Edgardo at 89 years old is on his own deathbed having visions of his long-deceased mother. As he lies dying, Nazi soldiers burst in with papers proving his Jewish roots. Curtain.
Leading the cast was the beautifully graceful and utterly astounding Romanian mezzo-soprano Iulia Merca who played Marianna Mortara, Edgardo’s mother. When she came onstage, she grasped the audience with a ferocious intensity that titillated every hair on the back of every neck. She became the character, with total abandon, doubling over in pain as she wailed for her lost son. The glorious mezzo voice she possesses is impressive and she completely envelops the listener with a timbre like dark molasses. She simply was the only one onstage when she sang.