A new look at an old story
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A new look at an old story

The abduction of a Jewish child

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Iulia Merca as Marianna Mortara and Peter Furlong as Salomone Mortara flank Christopher DeVage as their son, Edgardo. Sarah Shatz

The plot has everything a grand opera should have: an abduction, a distraught mother and father, a famous historical figure (Pope Pius IX), a furious conflict (between Jews and Roman Catholics), suspense about the resolution, and a stunning, shocking ending.

“Il Caso Mortara” (“The Mortara Case”), which premieres at the Dicapo Opera Theatre in New York on Thursday, Feb. 25, is based on a true story: the abduction in 1858 of a 6-year-old Jewish boy, Edgardo Mortara. When he was ill, he was secretly baptized by a servant in his home in Bologna, Italy. When papal authorities learned that he had been baptized, Edgardo was kidnapped and raised as a Christian. Later, he declined to return to his family and became a prominent member of the Augustine order. His case provoked outrage throughout the world, and even President Ulysses S. Grant, Emperor Franz Josef, and Napoleon III appealed for his release. (See Edgardo’s story.)

The kidnapping was one of the most infamous in history, along with the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, but the opera is not a heavy-handed indictment of the abductors. Still, the composer, Francesco Cilluffo, 31, an Italian Jew, does refer to the event as “terrible.”

Fanatics are not necessarily insane. They believe in something so strongly – something even, perhaps, preposterous – that they become unreasonable. To the kidnappers, Edgardo had become a Christian and, clearly, had to be spared eternal damnation by living as a Christian, not as a Jew.

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Francesco Cilluffo Marino Ravan

Cilluffo has been working with the opera company – the only one in the city besides the Met and the New York City Opera to mount an entire season of musical productions – during rehearsals. “That made rehearsals exciting and different,” said Michael Capasso, Dicapo’s general director.

The opera, which has seven principal singers and a chorus of 35, will be performed – for the first time anywhere – in Italian, but with English supertitles. This is the first time an Italian opera has been commissioned in the United States since Puccini’s “Fanciulla del West” at the Metropolitan Opera in the early 20th century.

“The opera is accurate,” said Capasso during a telephone interview. “It shows exactly what happened, when, and why.” Still, he grants that there’s some dramatic license taken. (For example, the opera features a ghost. And the ending is more dramatic than the real-life resolution.)

The subject was suggested to Cilluffo by Tobias Picker, Dicapo’s artistic adviser.

Even though it’s a modern opera, with modern rhythms and harmonics, Capasso reports that “it’s extremely melodic. There are arias, duets, and choruses – like any Italian opera by Puccini or Verdi.” He grants that there’s no “Nessun dorma” or “La donne e mobile,” but there are beautiful arias, like one in the first act sung by the boy’s father.

In another phone interview, Cilluffo, whose English is heavily accented, said, “I’m very excited. The story is dear to me, even though most people don’t know anything about it.”

Cilluffo said that he himself has never experienced anti-Semitism, and hopes to keep it that way.

Seeing what he’s written on the page “come to life on the stage” has been thrilling, he volunteered. “The cast is young but talented, and they give 100 percent.”

What composers have influenced him? Puccini and Verdi, and especially Puccini.

A play about the case was written in the mid-19th century, Cilluffo went on. “But it has been totally forgotten.” Still, it was helpful for him to read it. (In writing his own libretto he had help from a dramatist, Luca Valentino.) He also read the major histories of the case. In 2002, a film, “Edgardo Mortara,” was about to be produced, starring Sir Anthony Hopkins as the pope, but apparently it went nowhere. Also in 2002, a play was actually produced about the case, “Edgardo Mine” by Alfred Uhry, the author of “Driving Miss Daisy.”

The opera, Cilluffo continued, shows how tragedy can result when one party to a dispute is determined to act for the good of a third party.

Cilluffo was born in Turin in January 1979 and lives in Milan. He earned a music degree from the University of Turin, with a thesis on Benjamin Britten’s opera, “Billy Budd.” Then he studied composition and conducting at a conservatory in Turin. In 2003 he moved to London, where he completed a doctorate in composition at King’s College in London, after having been awarded a master in composition degree by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Another recent work of his, “Emily Dickinson: A Song Cycle,” was awarded The Tracey Chadwell Memorial Prize in London; he also won the East-West Competition for “The Other Boat,” commissioned by the Elektra Ensemble in Amsterdam.

His works have been performed in Italy, England, Austria, Russia, and Hong Kong. This will be the first performance of a work of his in this country.

The conductor is Pacien Mazzagatti, Dicapo’s principal conductor; Opera News has referred to him as “clearly a name to watch.” He is a regular conductor of the New England touring company National Lyric Opera, and he has also conducted the Sarasota Opera, the Polish National Opera, the Russian Philharmonic, the Opera Orchestra of New York, and the Fresno Grand Opera.

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Michael Capasso James Martindale

The staging is by Capasso, sets by John Farrell, costumes by Ildiko Debreczini, and lighting by Susan Roth.

Capasso co-founded Dicapo Opera in 1981, emphasizing the works of Puccini, and he has since produced more than 100 operas by more than two dozen composers.

He grew up in a nonmusical family of contractors in Great Neck, Long Island. At the age of 7, when he saw Mario Lanza in “The Great Caruso,” he became an opera lover. By the age of 9, he was a regular at the Metropolitan Opera.

At the same time that he produced his first operas, he was forging a career in the family business, first as a heavy equipment operator and, later, as a field supervisor responsible for constructing highway improvements.

Capasso’s two careers converged when he obtained a 40,000-square-foot space in the lower level of St. Jean Baptiste Church. Using his background, he built a permanent theater in 100 days. The 204-seat Dicapo Opera Theatre there is considered among the best-equipped off-Broadway theaters in New York, with state-of-the-art computerized lighting and super-titling systems.

Capasso has received numerous awards, including The Licia Albanese/Puccini Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award, a proclamation from the City of New York in conjunction with Italian Heritage and Culture Month, and the Leonardo Da Vinci Award for Cultural Achievement. In May, he will receive the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.

Does he think that “Il Caso Mortara” will endure? Will it be recorded? Performed elsewhere? “I like to think so,” he answered. “It can endure. It’s not unreasonable in scale, and – most important – it has good music and a good drama.”

The cast

Singing the key role of the boy’s father, Salomone Mortara, is Peter Furlong, a tenor. Opera News has called him “a strong performer with promising range and tone.” The New York Times wrote that “the highlight of [a performance] was his strong singing and acting ability.

Mezzo soprano Iulia Merca, who was born in Romania, sings the mother. She performs with the Cluj National Opera. Among her awards: Grand Prize at the Hariclea Darclee International Singing Competition.

Edgardo is sung by Christopher DeVage.
An inquisitor is sung by Ricardo Lugo, a Puerto Rican bass who made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 2006, in “La Gioconda,” and has since appeared in four other Met operas.

Edgardo as a child does appear on stage, but his is not a singing role.

The four performances of the two-act opera are scheduled for Feb. 25 at 7:30 p.m.; Feb. 27 at 8p.m.; March 5 at 8 p.m.; and March 7 at 4 p.m. Tickets cost $50 and are available through Smarttix at (212) 868-4444.

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