Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews    entry Feb 2005
The  Musical in Naples


various musical posterAlthough definitions of musical genres can get blurred, much of the time they do let us know what to expect. Thus, in Italian, la lirica means what in English is called "opera"; that is, a longer, usually serious, bit of musical drama in which even dialogue is sung or, at least, "talk-sung" in a style called recitativo. And so forth through various historical genres such as "Neapolitan comic opera," "operetta" and, more recently, "musicals."




Indeed, the English term "musical" has come to be used increasingly over the last few decades in Italy, in general, and Naples, in particular, to describe a kind of musical drama not native to Italy, a form that employs the American idiom of jazz-pop-and rock-based music and rhythms to move a story along in a combination of songs and spoken dialogue. Obviously, the term is used to refer to original American musicals, but now is used, as well, for original productions in Italian as well as Neapolitan dialect.



The first Italian musical was billed as "...worthy of comparison with the great American musicals..." and was a 1953 film called Carosello Napoletano (a film version of a stage production). It was directed by Ettore Giannini and featured a young Sophia Loren in the cast. The music was so American that it even included a Gershwinesque clarinet solo à la Rhapsody in Blue. It was only the second film in color ever made in Italy, and it won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival of 1954. It didn't have much of a plot, but was rather one long variety piece, an excuse to tell the long history of the city through updated versions of Neapolitan song. One scene featured 'O sole mio being sung in the rain! (Get it? I thought so.)



All of this is as natural as New York having a fine symphony orchestra (a European invention). There is nothing unusual about cultures borrowing from one another. Indeed, musical globalization (I am trying to avoid  the term "syncretism" because I'm not sure what it means) is moving swiftly along, as anyone knows who has heard Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Orchestra or the new Pacific Symphony Orchestra in Los Angeles, or even picks up a CD (as I have done recently) called Planet Soup, which has a track of someone playing John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" on a slide alp-horn accompanied by a chorus of those Tibetan monks who can sing two notes at the same time. (OK, I made that one up.)



A more recent Neapolitan musical was C'era una volta...Scugnizzi, based on the lives of Neapolitan street kids ("Scugnizzi") incarcerated in the juvenile detention center on the little island of Nisida in the waters off of Bagnoli. The song lyrics and dialogue are in Neapolitan dialect, and the stage musical is based on a 1987 musical film by Nanni Loy. Scugnizzi has been a perennial favorite since it opened.



I see from a cursory glance at posters along the street that there is a musical now running called Edith Piaf, based on the life of the great French singer. It bills itself as a commedia musicale. That term is a translation of "musical comedy." They may be consciously avoiding the Anglicism "musical" for some reason, but maybe we don't want to overanalyze these things. I see another poster advertising the musical Chiara di Dio, based on the life of St. Claire.


T
he most interesting musical going at the moment is Napoli 1799, combining Neapolitan history and the ever-popular travail of star-crossed lovers. The historical event is the republican revolution of 1799 that briefly overthrew the Bourbon monarchy. The "Romeo and Juliet" in this case are Riccardo (the royalist son of a count) and Stella (the peasant girl and republican revolutionary). Twelve original songs are by Gianfranco Gallo. The work claims to be "relevant" (meaning that since there are wars going on, an anti-war piece such as Napoli 1799 has something to say); at one point, it features a backdrop display showing the number of civilians killed in wars over the past two centuries. Much of the music is text-centered in the recent tradition of the Neapolitan cantautore — singer/songwriter; that is, important lyrics are intoned to somewhat anonymous tunes that are not meant to be stand-alone melodies in themselves.

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