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Art, Cinema, History & Politics, Italian American Issues, Literature, Music, Theater & Dance

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis

The Novel, The Film, and the Opera [Zoom Webinar]

February 1, 2022
5:00 pm

Panel Discussion on Zoom

This event is part of Giorno della Memoria 2022

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The Garden of the Finzi-Continis
The Novel, the Film, and the Opera

On the occasion of the world premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon’s opera The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, with a libretto by Michael Korie, presented by National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene and New York City Opera (click here for further information about the opera). A panel discussion featuring:

Anthony Tamburri (Calandra Institute, CUNY)
Alessandro Cassin (Centro Primo Levi)
Michael Korie (Librettist, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis opera)
Bianca Finzi-Contini Calabresi (Columbia University)

Moderated by Stefano Albertini (NYU)

Giorgio Bassani’s novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis was first published in English in 1965 enticing a small number of high profile literary critics.  However his lasting success began with the 1972 film version by Vittorio De Sica which was awarded the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film. 

Only in the following decades with two more translations by William Weaver and Jamie McKendrick, did the novel become one of the main literary references for American critics, scholars and the public at large, making increasingly clear the distance that separates the two works. This year, the National Yiddish Theater and New York City Opera (Michael Capasso, General Director) present the world premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon’s new operatic version of Bassani’s masterpiece with a libretto by Michael Korie. 

A tale of love, friendship and liberty, the book explores the lives of Jewish youths from Ferrara, between the promulgation of the anti-Jewish laws in 1938 and the deportations of 1943-44. While the narrator embraces the ideals of nationhood and modernity, the Finzi-Continis’ aristocratic aloofness suggests a more complex reflection on what this means for a religious minority. Their self-isolation goes hand-in-hand with their resistance to sentimentalism and their keeping of knowledge and traditions: a refusal of consent that is masterly represented by the figure of Micol. They open their home to other Jews only when, in 1938, the racist laws separate all of them from the Italian society and the garden becomes a forced and elective refuge from the looming storm.

Beautifully produced with a certain degree of literality, De Sica’s film sacrificed both Bassani’s investigation of individual agency and his political edge, in favor e of a more universal morale of love in times of upheaval. Bassani, who had initially collaborated on the screenplay, took distance from the film with an article in the weekly L’Espresso title “Il mio Giardino tradito” (My Garden, betrayed). Symbolically placed among his complaints was that his recommendation to have a returning, leitmotif-like sequence of the roundup of Ferrara’s Jews, shot in black and white, as seen by the protagonist, had been ignored.

As it emerges from his less-known writings and his last novel, The Heron, Bassani was skeptical about Italy’s post-war re-elaboration of Fascism as well as about promises of equality that did not leave room to exist outside of precise molds, of politics, gender, emotions, nationality or religion.

With its extraordinary commercial success, De Sica’s film was America’s first exposure to Italian Jews, to their allure and culture, as well as to their persecution by Fascism and its Nazi allies. There are many reasons why it captivated the American imagination in ways that Bassani’s novel did not.  

To these days, his critical gaze eludes readers and scholars alike and De Sica’s benevolent view is still somewhat prevalent.

The debut of a new chapter in the elaboration of the Finzi-Continis saga, through a much richer knowledge than what the American public had in 1972, will tell us more about how things may or may not have changed in 50 years.


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