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.
Tenor Peter Furlong as Salomone Mortara had a decent instrument that was quite lovely at times. However, he had a tendency to over-sing his high notes in a manner that made them inaudible and, therefore, did not match the passion of the phrase being played by the orchestra. He seemed to abandon the acting to focus on getting the high note.
Baritone Christopher DeVage, appearing as the grown-up Edgardo Mortara in Act 2, was a blank slate — literally showing no emotions throughout the course of the evening. He sang somewhat lyrically – also without any emotion. It was an awkward performance to witness as it was not clear if this characterization was an actual choice that had been made.
Ubaldo Feliciano-Hernandez was quite dashing as Ricardo Mortara and has a fine tenor voice that rings out above the orchestra. Yet, his high notes seemed to give out at times, either from fatigue or illness. Regardless, he was very prepared musically which enabled him to give the audience some degree of characterization that all of the other men seemed to lack or, rather, abandon for the sheer sake of watching the conductor.
Chad Armstrong, with an admirable baritone voice, sang one dynamic all night long — a very strange mezzo-forte that seemed half-yelled, half-sung. This young talent was commendable in the role of Pope Pius IX although it was a rather flat character with little development or emotion.
Tom McNichols was a questionable choice as Inquisitor Feletti. His buffo-bass voice seemed to have little focus and disappeared within the loud orchestrations of the piece quite often. Soprano Christina Rohm was a delight as the Jewish girl, Rachele, and possesses a rather lovely voice. Through no fault of her own, this particular character had no real connection to the story whatsoever, and it was rather ambiguous as to why she was onstage at all.
A variety of smaller roles were handled decently by Daniel Quintana, Michael Callas, Alexandra Woodruff, Sara Petrocelli, and the delightfully precocious Jake Glickman as the six-year old Edgardo.
General Director Michael Capasso stepped into the spotlight as the stage director for this grand event – a task that is not too easy for a new work. His intricate staging techniques were present. However, the inabilities of the cast to follow through on his ideas were far too great and, thus, it began to resemble a game of Pick-up Stix.
It seems as though conductor Pacien Mazzagatti trained these singers rather well — that is, trained them to keep their eyes on him at all times no matter what, because that’s exactly what they did. The orchestra played rather well, sometimes giving the audience the emotion the singers could not, other times providing a gentle support under the delicate harmonies that floated above.
Ildiko Marta Debrezceni provided the costuming which was beautiful and often eye-catching. The set design was by veteran theatrical designer John Farrell. The pieces were striking individually, but seemed disjointed and mismatched together, as though each element had been designed without thinking of the overall look for the show. The lighting by Susan Roth was simple and elegant though at times the singers were singing in the shadows. Of course, that’s mostly the actors’ fault since “find your light” is taught in Acting 101.
The Italian composer and lyricist, Francesco Cilluffo, had every good intention when he started this work. However, it seems as though he did not know how to edit the story down to the basics. The opera encompasses 89 years with numerous scene changes and many characters – quite a few of which were not even necessary. There were many beautiful musical ideas – like the “Sh’ma Israel” being interwoven with Latin prayers – and some non-musical ones where the chorus spoke in rhythm without pitch, but these moments came too infrequently and never progressed anywhere exciting. It was a large project that seems to have overwhelmed this talent and in the end produced, at best, a mediocre piece of musical storytelling.
Interesting story – yes. Dramatic possibilities – sure. There were several things that could have gone right. Yet despite Dicapo Opera Theater’s best efforts, this piece just failed to impress – musically or dramatically – and it made for one long, boring evening of opera.
Two performances remain, March 5th and 7th. Visit the company website at www.dicapo.com.