United we stand, divided we fall. This seems to be the motto that the three leading Tuscan regional opera companies, the Teatro Verdi of Pisa, the Teatro Goldoni of Livorno and the Teatro del Giglio of Lucca, have adopted by joining forces for some of their productions. The latest effort is a mise-en-scène of a real rarity, Napoli milionaria by Nino Rota, with Eduardo De Filippo's libretto based on his play (in English changed into Side Street Story). Lucca had this time the honour to host the première; Livorno and Pisa will follow shortly. De Filippo's original theatre drama was written at the end of the Second World War, in 1945; in 1950 the author transposed it to a movie, and Rota provided the sound track. Several years later, the composer used the score for a new transposition of the play, this time as an opera, which was presented at the Festival dei Due Mondi in Spoleto in 1977.
De Filippo was the motor behind the project: he was the one who decided to make an opera out of his play, and chose the composer. He even had a say in the choice of the cast. De Filippo lobbied to have Maria Callas in the leading role of Amalia. Out of politeness, Callas went so far as to read the score, but at the end, as widely expected, she declined. If Callas, her vocal problems aside, would have been a perfect dramatic solution, the next diva De Filippo tried to procure was a bizarre choice indeed: Birgit Nilsson, hardly the prototype of a Mediterranean hot-headed lower class woman. Surprisingly enough, Nilsson showed interest in the project, but her still busy schedule prevented her participation. Ultimately it was agreed to choose mostly young singers, and for the role of Amalia a soprano who was making her debut in opera was selected: Giovanna Casolla, a born and bred genuine Neapolitan, still going strong into her late 60s. Next to her, another young soprano was cast as her daughter, Mariella Devia: apparently Napoli milionaria brought good luck to both for vocal longevity.
In a move that caused many controversies, De Filippo made significant changes in the transposition from his play to the libretto. In the original play, a Neapolitan family tries to earn a living in the black market during the war. The first act is set in 1942; immediately thereafter the father Gennaro Jovine is drafted into the army. The women, left alone, have relationships with various men: one of them is an American soldier who gets Gennaro's daughter Maria Rosaria pregnant. His wife Amalia becomes the lover of Errico "Settebellizze", while their son Amedeo gets involved in criminal activities.
When Gennaro comes back home in 1945 he would like to tell his family about his conditions as a prisoner in a concentration camp, but has to learn about the latest events with growing despair. While he tries to come to terms with reality, the police break into his apartment and his son is shot, leaving Amalia mourning as the opera ends. The hopeless finale was written by De Filippo for the opera, and makes this work more pessimistic than the original play, in which Gennaro's wife did not really betray him and his son did not die.
The opera premiere, a mundane event attended by international high society, was broadcast live by TV networks around the world; while the audience bestowed a considerable success on it, the critics and the “intelligentsia” crucified it, perhaps on account of Rota's melodic way of writing basically tonal music, far from what was considered at the time the 'modern' canon. Rota was accused of being an anachronistic epigone of Puccini, Mascagni and Giordano: if it is true that Rota adopts and revises the model of Verismo in general, and more in particular the late Puccini of La fanciulla del West and Il tabarro, where the collectivity almost prevails on the individuality of the characters, his detractors failed (and in many cases intentionally) to highlight Rota’s masterful blending of Verismo with the suggestions of the American musical theatre of Menotti (who, after all, commissioned the work), Gershwin and Bernstein as well with the conversational style of Strauss and Janácek.
In any case, the vilification of the opera caused its complete disappearance from the radar. Even the Teatro San Carlo of Naples, who had competed with Spoleto for the honour of premiering it, quietly dropped it from its future seasons. Napoli milionaria had to wait thirty-three years to see the light again, when it was revived at the 2010 Festival della Valle d’Itria in Martina Franca, and not long after in Cagliari. This is only its the fourth revival.
If the Spoleto production was moneyed and opulent, producer Fabio Sparvoli and set and costume designer Alessandra Torella, operating on a tight budget, opted for a minimalist approach: a bed, a few chairs, a table, with only a screen serving as fancy wallpaper to point out the illusory and very temporary reversal of fortune of the Iovine family between acts I and II. The atmosphere of gloomy desolation and degradation, reminiscent of the Liliana Cavani’s film “La pelle” (“The Skin”), was highly effective.
Sparvoli also had plenty of time to work with his large cast, all young singers belonging to the Progetto LTL Opera Studio, which had already contributed to Le nozze di Figaro that I reviewed in Pisa a few weeks ago. In roles requiring authentic singing actors, all of them owned the stage like consummate professionals, each of them with the right physique du rôle, while their vocal performances were of varying quality. Since the opera features seventeen roles, it is virtually impossible to review all of them, and I will limit myself to mentioning the lead roles as well as those supporting singers who managed to stand out. Among the latter ones, Alessandra Masini almost stole the show with her big Act II scene, where her character, Assunta, is a young woman who got married by proxy to a soldier who has not returned home, and asks if she is to be considered a married woman, a widow or a spinster, given the fact that her marriage was not consummated. She explodes in a long virtuoso scene of hysterical laughter wonderfully handled by Ms. Masini. Stefano Trizzino displayed a beautiful baritone as the American soldier Johnny, even though his English left much to be desired. His part is limited to a long duet with Maria Rosaria, where they sing in two different languages, and in a touching operatic reference the pregnant girl asks him why he keeps calling her “my little Butterfly”. Although she cannot understand him when he tells her that he has a wife and three children waiting for him in the U.S., Maria Rosaria, sung by Francesca Paola Geretto, a lyric soprano with a lovely voice, understands he will never come back to her. Tenor Saverio Pugliese sang the role of her brother Amedeo without particular distinction.
The three more substantial roles are those of Errico Settebellizze (tenor), Gennaro Iovine (baritone), the pater familias, and especially his wife, Amalia (soprano). While Gennaro is not vocally particularly demanding and often tends to the “parlato”, Amalia and Errico’s singing would not be out of place in a typical Verismo opera, with abrupt ascents to the top alternating with soaring arched lines, and in the case of Amalia, frequent descents into mezzo-soprano territory. Giampiero Cimino (Gennaro) managed to be appropriately funny in Act I, fully conveying his desolation and his estrangement, not unlike a Cassandra who keeps repeating prophecies while the others, in their chimerical and delusive happiness, do their best not to listen to him. Dario Di Vetri (Errico) showed a pleasant robust lyric tenor, with only some fixity at the very top. Valeria Sepe (Amalia), in a role which is an authentic tour de force, shone for the perfect rendition of her multi-faceted character, as well as a for a voice of significant volume and penetrative power, although not completely immune from asperities. Future performances in Lucca, Pisa and Livorno will star at least two additional singers for most of the lead roles.
Matteo Beltrami, a conductor in his mid 30s, led with firm hand the difficult score that calls for a large orchestra, successfully amalgamating the different styles of the opera and keeping a strong rein on the cast.
All things considered, although I personally consider Il cappello di paglia di Firenze a superior work, Napoli milionaria is an opera worthy reviving much more often, but only under the right circumstances, as it appeared to be the case in this current production.
Photographs © Lorenzo Breschi