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Everything is related to Naples
Number 130 in this series. Link to all items here.
Operetta, musicals, musical comedy, light opera, comedy opera—all of these terms have been used at times in English since the early 1800s to describe a form of musical theater in which there is spoken dialogue as well as music; this, as opposed to simply "opera", in which even lines of dialogue are sung, or at least talk–sung as recitativo. This type of musical theater, mixing music and spoken dialogue, is also generally shorter than, say, traditional Italian Classical and Romantic opera and generally felt to be less serious and less ambitious, dramatically. Many of the names associated with this mixed form of entertainment are well known: Offenbach, Johann Strauss, Gilbert and Sullivan, Franz Lehar, Victor Herbert, Rodgers and Hammerstein. Sometimes we remember only the name of the person who composed the music, and sometimes we remember both, even though we may not be sure who wrote what. It is conventional, too, to group this music into "national schools"; thus, we speak of Viennese operetta, English operetta, American musical comedy, and Spanish Zarzuela.
There are many local, regional versions of this kind of musical theater. In Naples, it is called the sceneggiata. It is always sung and spoken in Neapolitan dialect and generally revolves around domestic grief, the agony of leaving home, personal deceit and treachery, betrayal in love, and life in the world of petty crime. (If you get all of that in one piece, then you may understand why I don't like it very much. I am allergic to musical theater in which men bite their knuckles when they find out they've been cuckolded, then stab the other man, disfigure the woman involved, and break into song.)
The sceneggiata started shortly after WWI, was extremely popular in the 1920s, faded, but has been enjoying somewhat of a comeback with newer generations of performers since the 1960s. It is, today, extremely popular in small theaters and on local television.
What is interesting about the sceneggiata is that besides the one focus of popularity, Naples, the other main one is (or, at least, was) that area of New York City known as Little Italy. That is not surprising, given, one, the large Neapolitan and Sicilian population in the New York of the early 20th-century and, two, the drama and trauma that naturally spin off from the theme of immigration. (Indeed, one of the most popular of all "Neapolitan Songs" comes from the tradition of the sceneggiata: Lacreme Napuletane (Neapolitan Tears), composed in 1925 by Libero Bovio (lyrics) and Francesco Buongiovanni (music). It is the ultimate immigrant tearjerker written in the form of a letter home to mamma in Naples at Christmas. The writer is the immigrant son in America, who bewails being far from home; the famous refrain begins, "How many tears America has cost us".
When one says—as I did—that
the song "comes from" the tradition of the
sceneggiata, that ties in with another interesting
point about this kind of musical theater: the
relationship between an individual song in the piece
and the entire piece, itself. Most people who have
seen, say, American musical comedy, are used to the
idea that songs are written for a musical.
That is, the story first exists in some form or
another and then a tunesmith and lyricist (on
occasion, one person does both) get together and knock
out 7 or 8 songs for the production. (It is also the
case, however, that the plots are often weak; thus,
the musical will be forgotten while some of the songs
become independently famous. (Quick, what musical does
"Someone to Watch Over Me," come from? See?) In the sceneggiata,
the opposite obtains: a song is written and the theme
is so potentially dramatic that writers then decide to
weave a plot around the song—basically, something for
actors to do until the main song comes along. The
result is perhaps the same: the individual song tends
to outlive the larger dramatic framework.
In the days when small neighborhood theaters were the main form of entertainment, and when audiences were less sophisticated (or maybe just less jaded), the sceneggiata evoked real passion among onlookers. I have some friends who, even today, talk to the television, offering advice such as "Watch out!" so I have no problem at all in believing that in the 1920s, fistfights used to break out in the audience during one sceneggiata or another as people chose up sides in support of either the betrayed husband or the unfaithful wife. (Even in straight Italian opera, Enrico Caruso and company—in the tenor's very early career—were once chased from the stage and through the streets of a small town near Naples because the audience was scared out of its wits by the apparition of the Devil in a production of Gounod's Faust.)
The most popular sceneggiata ever written is probably Zappatore, (meaning, exactly, "clodbuster," one who works the land and breaks up the soil for farming) written as a song in 1929 by Bovio and Albano. It was then spun out into a full-fledged stage production and even made into a film on various occasions, the first actually from a film company in Little Italy in New York. The most recent film version is the 1980 version starring Mario Merola, easily the most popular performer of the Neapolitan sceneggiata in the last 40 years and one whose considerable talents have no doubt contributed to the staying power of the sceneggiata in an age when it might have otherwise become passé. The plot is typical: Hardworking Father—the Zappatore—sacrifices to give Son an education. Said son promptly forgets his family and is even embarrassed by their peasant presence. Etc. etc.If you think you have never seen a sceneggiata, you have seen at least a small bit of one if you have ever seen The Godfather, part II. There is a scene in which the young Vito Corleone (played by Robert De Niro) is watching just such a production in a small theater in Little Italy. In the scene, a young woman bursts onto the stage and says "Una lettera per te!" (A letter for you). The male lead then reads that his mother in Naples has died, pulls out a pistol, and is about to shoot himself. That is when the main plot in The Godfather, part II moves on to something else, so we never find out what happened. I suspect that the young man did not, in fact, blow his brains out, but simply broke into song.