The Shepherds' Cantata - Andrea Perrucci and the Cantata dei Pastori
he cantata is a musical composition consisting of vocal choruses and solos, possibly with limited instrumental accompaniment, all to the end of singing a story. The term is from the early 1600s (thus a contemporary form of early opera). They may or may not be religious and, thus, are called sacred and secular cantatas, respectively.
In Naples, The Shepherds' Cantata is three-act composition by Andrea Perrucci (b. Palermo, 1651-d. Naples, 1704) a formidable playwright, librettist, Jesuit and author and theoretician of the Italian commedia dell'arte. He also wrote poetry in Latin and in various Italian dialects and was active in productions of religious theater. He is credited with stimulating the beginnings of the comic opera (opera buffa) in the kingdom of Naples.
The sacred cantata is a product in Italy of the counter-reformation; in a sense, these works were home-spun tales meant to bring the story of the birth of Christ closer to the church-going common folk. Perrucci's Shepherds' Cantata is such a work and is still performed at Christmas in the south. The story is straightforward: Mary and Joseph are underway from Nazareth to Bethlehem, but the trip is interrupted by the forces of evil in the form of Bephegor, Satan and Astaroth, who are eventually defeated by the archangel Michael. The curtain falls on the scene of the nativity in Bethlehem. The cast is filled out with various angels and shepherds. Over the centuries the plot has changed a bit through the introduction of additional characters—a Neapolitan barber named Sarchiapone shows up in Galilee, for example, as does a perennial Neapolitan comic favorite, Razzullo, a public scribe, that is, the person who wrote and read letters for the illiterate. Perrucci first published the work in 1698 under the pseudonym of Ruggiero Casimiro Ugone. With time, the story became so secularized through the addition of even more comic characters that in the late 1800s, productions were temporarily suspended. Today, there have been a few TV productions of La Cantata dei Pastori, and stage productions are commonly put on by the Peppe & Barra theater company, founded by Giuseppe Barra in 1983. He was born in Rome in 1944, grew up on the island of Procida in the gulf of Naples, and was the co-founder (with Roberto De Simone) of the Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare (new company of popular song) in the late 1960s. He has been a major element of producing and acting in traditional Neapolitan theater all of his life. He first staged la Cantata dei Pastroi in 1975 and last in 2008. There is a production of the work by his company on YouTube at this link.
We should note that this kind of religious theater has a longer history than indicated above. The presentation in public of a reenactment of the Nativity is well-known in Italy through the tradition of the Presepe, the Christmas Crib, the Manger scene. Such presentations go back to 1223 in Greccio when Francis of Assisi staged what is considered the first presepe reenactment.