Christina Ritter | October 29, 2021
A new PBS documentary shows how the future of Italian opera in New York City was shaped in 1826 by three immigrants who made a concert possible: a freed slave who became a benefactor, opera’s first diva, and Mozart’s librettist.
In The oratorio, Martin Scorsese reveals the fascinating story of a one-night-only performance in 1826 at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, Scorsese’s children’s church. The concert marked the arrival of Italian opera in the New World. This turning point event was lost in history for nearly 200 years, but was recently rediscovered and re-staged by an Italian opera group in the historic church. Exploring the immigrant experience, the beginning of a cultural awakening in America, and the enduring power of art, The Oratorio: A Documentary with Martin Scorsese World premieres on Friday, November 5th, at 9 p.m., followed by Da Pontes Oratorio: A Concerto for New York at 10 p.m. on THIRTEEN and the THIRTEEN Explore and PBS Video apps.
The documentary is populated with unforgettable real-life characters. There is Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist, who ended up in New York City after being exiled from Vienna. He worked intermittently as a grocer and bookseller while continuing his music career in New York. Pierre ToussaintFreed from slavery and becoming a successful hairdresser, was the primary benefactor for the construction of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral while running other charities (he is now a venerable Catholic Church and the only lay person in the St. Patrick’s Cathedral is buried on Fifth Avenue). And Spanish singer Maria Malibran, the opera’s first diva, gave performances in New York that inspired young women to take singing lessons. She died a legend at the age of 28.
The oratorio Contains interviews with opera theater director Claudio Orazi and musicologist Francesco Zimei, who led efforts to re-produce the oratorio and persuaded the Italian government to fund the performance as a gift from the Old World to the United States. Jared Lamenzo, music director and organ master, offers a behind-the-scenes look at the tinkering and inventive technique required to maintain the church 150 year old organ Work.
After its historic performance in 1826, Da Ponte opened New York City’s first purpose-built opera house in 1833: the Italian Opera House (read more about it and NYC opera history on the website of the classical music channel WQXR.
Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral
The Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral stands off Mott Street, between E. Houston and Prince Street, partially lined with a brick wall that curls under the pressure of time. The granite structure was built in 1840 and was the seat of the Archdiocese of New York until the newer St. Patrick’s opened on Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan in 1879. Martin Scorcese used to worship at Old St. Patrick’s. Today’s parishioners include Jim and Jeannie Gaffigan, who in the film discuss the role of the church and an ever-changing immigrant demographics in the surrounding communities of NoLita, SoHo, Little Italy, and Chinatown.
“Everything is in constant flux, but this basilica was and is a constant, an anchor,” says Scorsese. “And it was built by people who flocked here to start a new life in this city. A city that still attracts people from all over the world. A city that for me has always been synonymous with America itself – America at its best. “
Scorsese has a deeply personal connection with the cathedral and its surroundings. He grew up around the corner and served as an altar boy in the two-century old church where the original staging and re-staging of the oratorio took place. In the documentary, he explores the neighborhood’s history, its transition from Irish to Italian and the incredible impact it has had on “the way I see my world and my work”.
the Site of the Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral describes its fascinating story.
Da Pontes Oratorio: A Concerto for New York
Immidiatly after The oratorio at 10 p.m. Da Pontes will present Oratorio: A Concert For New York Italian opera company Teatro Lirico di Cagliari the newly staged concert. Through the meticulous research of the music director of the basilica Lamenzo and the Italian musicologist Zimei, the program reproduces as accurately as possible what was heard in 1826.
The 2018 concert features the music of Cimarosa and Zingarelli as well as Haydn, Handel and Arne. Maestro Donato Renzetti conducts with performances by the sopranos Francesca Dotto and Salome Jicia, the tenor Patrick Kabongo and the baritones Pier Luigi Dilengite and Daniele Terenzi.