Director Martin Scorsese Explores Italian Opera’s American Arrival in ‘The Oratorio’

November 3, 2021 Becky Marburger Leave a Comment

Director Martin Scorsese reveals the fascinating story of a one-night-only performance in 1826 at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral — Scorsese’s home church in Little Italy — that marked the arrival of Italian opera in the New World in The Oratorio. This watershed event was lost to history for almost 200 years, but was recently rediscovered and restaged by an Italian opera company at the historic church.

Exploring the richness of the immigrant experience, the beginning of a cultural awakening in America, and the enduring power of art, The Oratorio: A Documentary with Martin Scorsese premieres 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 5 on The Wisconsin Channel (PBS Wisconsin-2) and 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 7 on pbs.org and the PBS Video App.

The Oratorio is populated with unforgettable real-life characters, including Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist, who, after being banished from Vienna, ended up in New York City working as a grocer; Pierre Toussaint, a freed slave who became a successful hairdresser and the primary benefactor for building St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral; and opera’s first diva, Maria Malibran, whose performances in America inspired young women to take up singing lessons.

Scorsese has a deeply personal connection to the cathedral and its surrounding neighborhood. He grew up around the corner and served as an altar boy at the two-centuries-old church where the original staging and restaging of the oratorio took place. In the documentary, he explores the neighborhood’s history, its transition from Irish to Italian, and the incredible influence it had on “the way I view my world and my work.”

The Oratorio features interviews with opera theater director Claudio Orazi and musicologist Francesco Zimei, who led the efforts to restage the oratorio and convince the Italian government to fund the performance as a gift to the U.S. from the Old World. Also, Jared Lamenzo, Music Director and organ master, provides a behind-the-scenes look at the tinkering and inventive engineering needed to keep the church’s 150-year-old organ working.

Immediately following the documentary, Da Ponte’s Oratorio: A Concert for New York presents Italian opera company Teatro Lirico di Cagliari performing the restaged concert, lost to history for almost 200 years.

Through the meticulous research of Basilica Music Director Lamenzo and Italian musicologist Zimei, the program recreates as closely as possible what was heard in 1826. The 2018 concert features the music of Cimarosa and Zingarelli along with that of Haydn, Handel and Arne. Maestro Donato Renzetti conducts, with performances by sopranos Francesca Dotto and Salome Jicia, tenor Patrick Kabongo, and baritones Pier Luigi Dilengite and Daniele Terenzi.

Featured Image Credit: Courtesy of Jon Nelson / Provenance Productions

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