Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews    entry July 201
Dialect Theater, Opera Parodies and the San Carlino [sic] Theater

Dante's la Divina Commedia (1300) pretty well established the linguistic future of literature in what would one day be called "Italy." No matter what variety of neo-Latin you wrote or spoke at home, if you wished to write for a general audience from among the various states on the Italian peninsula, it would be in Dante's language (still called "Tuscan" as late as the 1700s). That didn't mean that vibrant local languages would die out; they continued to provide pleasure for theatergoers in a great many places in Italy, including Naples.

Neapolitan comic opera and theater well into the early 1700s was often in Neapolitan, although Alessandro Scarlatti in 1718 got in on the future with his The Triumph of Honour. It was advertised as "in Tuscan" and "not dialect." By the time of Piccinni's La Cecchina in 1760, it is fair to say that dialect in Naples (and, indeed, in dialects everywhere in Italy) had been relegated to a sort of "counter-cultural" role in the path of the oncoming juggernaut of one Italian language. The most popular comic operas of the early 1800s are those of Rossini, many of them composed in Naples, and they are all in Italian.

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, comic opera served not just as random light-hearted entertainment, but as specific comic relief from serious operatic fare. There are many examples where the Neapolitan comic opera, in Italian as well as Neapolitan, makes fun of serious opera and customs of the serious opera goers. The best-known example from the late 1700s is probably Paisiello's Socrate immaginario, a parody of Gluck's Orfeo.

Romanticism in music was well-geared to the new fire of the times in Italy—the move towards national unity, a movement known in Italian history as the Risorgimento, up and running at least twenty years before Cavour's newspaper of that name was first published in 1848. Even Rossini got in on that; his William Tell (1829) is a fiery revolutionary opera about the birth of a nation (Switzerland). Verdi's Nabucco (1842) was so patriotic that both he and the opera became forever linked with Italian unity. Through all of this, comic opera in standard Italian in Naples became irrelevant. Italian was now the vehicle for the task of creating a nation. That was no laughing matter.

Yet, dialect survived. The most famous dialect theater in Naples was San Carlino. It started life as the Cantina di San Giacomo (St. James' Cellar), built in 1740 near what is now the city hall. The original name referred to the fact that the theater was adjacent to and below the church of San Giacomo. The founder of the theater was Tommaso Tomei, head of a roving troupe of actors. (The detailed history of that troupe as well as others of the mid-to-late 1700s is found in Croce, below.) Note the date. It is immediately after the construction of the San Carlo opera house, at the beginning of the Bourbon rule of Naples. Unlike the opulent San Carlo, the Cantina really was a cellar, little more than one room—a loud, noisy and dirty place with a stage for actors. The theater was closed by order of the king on 1759 "for moral reasons" (Croce) and then rebuilt in 1770 with the new name of San Carlino. For a few decades it presented a ragbag of assorted plays and music, both light and serious, with no real sense of direction. It ran into financial difficulties and closed for a few years at the turn of the 1800s. It reopened in 1814 with programs of both prose plays and music. In 1820 the first Neapolitan comic troupe was formed there under Silvio Maria Luiz and, until its demolition on May 6, 1884, San Carlino remained the most important vehicle for dialect works in Naples. Among the important names associated with the theater as playwrights or actors in the mid-1800s were Pasquale Altavilla, one of the great Neapolitan dialect playwrights of the century; the father and son team of Salvatore and Antonio Petito, first one and then the other as the best-known stage players of the Neapolitan masked figure, Pulcinella; and later Eduardo Scarpetta, a name synonymous with Neapolitan theater from the late 1800s. Interestingly, there is also a name not normally associated with comedic dialect theater, that of Salvatore Cammarano (1801-1852). Di Giacomo (below) laments the decline of the dialect Neapolitan opera buffa at mid-century, supplanted by the new maestri of music such as Donizetti and Verdi. Di Giacomo mentions Cammarano as one of those dialect wordsmiths who passed over to the music of Romantic opera to write libretti in the one language of Italy. Cammarano was from the best-known Neapolitan theatrical family of the 1700s and early 1800s. He contributed, as had his father and grandfather, to the comedic repertoire of San Carlino. In 1835 he heard the call of the new music and went on to write libretti for Donizetti (Lucia Di Lamermoor), Verdi (Luisa Miller, il Trovatore) and others.

When we say "theater," we include musical theater. Operatic parody in dialect at San Carlino was very popular from about 1850; many of them were parodies of works by Verdi. Send-ups in the 1850s included versions of il Trovatore and something called il Traviato (a parody of la Traviata—the gender change from -a to -o indicates that the man, not the woman, is "traviated". The word, itself, may be translated as "seduced," but more precisely it means "led astray" or, in the case of the opera, "The Wayward Woman."  The title of Verdi's opera so shocked Neapolitan censors in the 1850s that they changed the title to Violetta, the heroine's name. They apparently did not interfere with the title of the parody.) San Carlino often employed singers from San Carlo, itself, just a few blocks away. In some sense, the musical parodies at San Carlino were an extension of the earlier comic operas in Naples, those by Paisiello and Cimarosa, many of which were in standard Italian and, in any event, were old hat in the age of Romanticism. So, while some were watching Aida premiere at San Carlo in March, 1873, two months later in May others were down the street watching Aida dint' 'a casa 'donna Tolla Pandola (Aida at home with donna Tolla Pandola), considered the greatest of all such parodies done at San Carlino. The author was Antonio Petito of Pulcinella fame; the work starred Scarpetta in drag as Aida. It played 28 consecutive nights, a number chosen (as a tribute?) to correspond to the number of curtain calls Verdi had taken at the San Carlo premiere of the real Aida a few months earlier.

The theater ran into financial difficulties and was closed for months in 1880. It reopened briefly and was finally closed for good in 1884. Scarpetta, played there for the last time on the Tuesday before Easter of that year. The theater closed the next day. There is a cork model (photo, above) commissioned by Scarpetta of "his theater" (from artist Michele Castiglione) along with other physical items from the theater and a large photo collection in the theater display at the San Martino museum.

The date of the closure cannot just be coincidental. The theater was having problems—yes, but... Plans for the Risanamento (urban renewal by gutting large portions of the city) had already been drawn up; Piazza Municipio (where the theater was located) had to be dug up and rebuilt; and cholera was already in the city and about to strike devastatingly hard later in the same year (1884). Naples was now part of a new Italy and who is to say that that did not influence—not the affection for native dialect among the people—but at least the official attention paid to parochial dialect in an age where we were all now one people?

It is hard to say whether spoofing Verdi in Naples in the 1850s (when Naples was still an independent kingdom) was necessarily an anti-unitarian political statement. There might have been some of that, but the fact that the spoofs continued well after unification might mean that dialect parody of standard works was, again, simply a counter-cultural safety valve, a way to resist the linguistic and political juggernaut. You can have your large-scale national opera, but we're still here. Pzzzzzzttttt!

Opera parodies in Naples did not die with San Carlino. Indeed, Scarpetta presented his version of La Boheme in 1896 at the Bellini Theater. He had received permission from the composer of the original, Giacomo Puccini, who was on-hand for the performance and enjoyed it!


Carteggio [Letters, correspondence] Verdi-Cammarano (1843-1852). (2001) Istituto Nazionale di Studi Verdiani, Parma.
Croce, B. (1891) I Teatri di Napoli, secolo VV-XVIII. Luigi Perro, Naples.
Di Giacomo, S. (1891) Cronaca del teatro San Carlino 1738-1884. Bideri, Naples.
Minervini, R. (1948) "Da San Carlo a San Carlino" in Cento Anni di Vita del San Carlo, 1848-1948. Ente autonomo del Teatro di San Carlo, Naples.
Sapienza, A. (1998) La parodia dell'opera lirica a Napoli nell'Ottocento. Istituto Universitario Orientale Press, Naples.
Viviani, V. (1992) Storia del Teatro napoletano, preface by Roberto De Simone. Guida ed. Naples.


related entries: Dialect Literature in Neapolitan; Neapolitan language.

to portals for music & theater

Copyright © 2002 to 2019