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A new look at an old story

A tale of two popes

There’s a lingering controversy over the possible canonization of Pope Pius XII (1876-1958). Some Jews believe that he did not do enough to protect Jews from the Holocaust. Perhaps unfairly, he has even been called “Hitler’s Pope.”

Many Jews also opposed the canonization of Pope Pius IX (1792-1878), in part because of his role in the abduction of Edgardo Mortara and his refusal to deliver him back to his parents.

Pius IX had a mixed record when it came to Jews. He started out as a liberal, opening the ghetto in Rome; later he closed the ghetto. And in a speech in 1871 he called the Jews of Rome “dogs” and said “of these dogs, there are too many of them at present in Rome, and we hear them howling in the streets, and they are disturbing us in all places.”

Edgardo Mortara himself always praised the pope, and strongly favored his canonization — which occurred in 2000.

Elena Mortara, a great-great-granddaughter of one of Edgardo’s sisters and a professor of literature in Rome, campaigned for an apology from the for Edgardo’s abduction and against the canonization of Pius IX.

She has said she is “appalled at the idea that the Catholic Church wants to make a saint out of a pope who perpetuated such an act of unacceptable intolerance and abuse of power.”

 
 

A new look at an old story

Edgardo’s story

This account is based on the book “Emancipation,” by Michael Goldfarb (Simon & Schuster, 2009).

Edgardo Mortara, age 6, was the son of a Jewish merchant in Bologna, the fourth of six children.

As a baby he became seriously ill, and the family’s 14-year-old housemaid, Anna Morisi, “baptized” him. She took a small glass of water, sprinkled it on the baby’s head, and said the holy words. To her, it was an act of kindness — in case the child died.

Edgardo recovered.

Some years later, Morisi told a friend what she had done.

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Edgardo Mortara, right, became a priest in the Augustine order. Here he is with his mother and an unidentified man.

On the evening of June 23, 1858, police came to the Mortara apartment and seized Edgardo. They took him to the Convent of San Domenico, where the local representative of the Holy Inquisition had his office. To the church authorities, Edgardo had become a Catholic and therefore could not be raised by Jews.

This wasn’t the first case of its kind; during the previous decade, a number of Jewish children in Italy had been secretly baptized and taken away from their parents.

Edgardo’s mother, Marianna, upon learning the news, had a mental breakdown. The boy’s father, Momolo, spent a day searching for his son, then was found unconscious in a street.

Eventually the father learned that his son had been taken to Rome and was lodged in the House of the Catechumens.

Momolo went to the ghetto in Rome for help, trying to get access to his boy. For a few months, the parents were allowed supervised visits with their son; then all contact was closed.

The plight of the Mortara family became a political issue. France wanted the boy released. The case became an international cause celebre. Forty rabbis from Germany petitioned the pope for the boy’s release, without success. Jewish leaders tried to persuade Protestant clergymen to have Protestant countries pressure the Vatican.

“The situation quickly turned into a public relations disaster for the pope,” writes Goldfarb.

Sir Moses Montefiore, 74, a respected member of the Jewish community, went to Rome; neither the pope nor his secretary of state would meet with him. Eventually the secretary of state did meet with him — and told him that Edgardo was now a Catholic and the pope was his father. “End of discussion,” Goldfarb wrote.

It was because of cases like this that young Jewish professionals banded together to form Alliance Israelite Universelle, to stand up for Jews around the world. The Alliance began working on behalf of Edgardo’s family and sent a message to Momolo Mortara: “Getting your child back is the cause of all Israel.”

In 1870, when the Vatican’s authority became weakened, Mortara went to Rome to look for his son — whom he had not seen in 12 years. Edgardo was now 19 — and studying for the priesthood. He fled Rome to avoid meeting his father.

Mortara was living on the charity of the Rothschild family and other Jews. Falsely imprisoned for murder, he spent six months in prison, and died one month after gaining his freedom.

Edgardo, now Father Pio Edgardo, was eventually reconciled with his mother and attended her on her deathbed.

“He lived to see Kristallnacht and the opening of the first concentration camps,” wrote Goldarb. “He died in 1940 in a Belgian monastery.”

He died, in fact, mere months before the Nazis invaded Belgium. In the opera, he dies just before the Nazis come to his monastery to arrest him and to deport him.

 
 

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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