Wednesday, April 7, 2010

THE SINGER OF NAPLES

A surprisingly good piece of work, THE SINGER OF NAPLES (1928), by Cynthia Dodge and May Hewes Dodge, seems to inform, right off the bat, why some of the other work by the Dodges is so frustrating. If you look at other titles by May Hewes, you'll find her husband's name attached — and in every case save one, the dramatic construction is, to be kind, problematic. A huge first act. A middling-sized second. And a very brief but exposition-intense third, where everything you really need to know to resolve the story is crammed into two pages of near breathless dialogue between minor characters.

Not so with THE SINGER OF NAPLES, I'm happy to say. While it's not the best the genre has to offer, it's well-paced and solidly written, in terms of both music and dialogue. But what surprised me more than anything was the maturity of the story.

We're in Naples, where a family of itinerate street singers, led by the patriarch Nicola, are engaged in their profession outside the garden town house of one Countess of Tristiani, who's well known for taking handsome young singers under her wing (as well as under other things) as she propels their careers. Nicola's foster son Guido attracts her attention, despite the worries expressed by Nicola's daughter Gabriella that Guido will forget his musical roots — and her, although she never quite says anything about the latter. After all, they were just childhood friends, and of course he's completely blind to her attention.

Still, Guido is dazzled by the Countess' attention and the prospects of fame, and when we see him again two years later, he's prepping for his debut at La Scala as Pagliacci. He's wrangled a promise from the Countess that if his debut is successful, she'll marry him. Once more, Gabriella tries to talk some sense into him, but he's a bit too caught up in the diva lifestyle to pay attention.

As we might expect, the debut is a disaster. His voice is ruined. The Countess, now no longer interested in her plaything, ignores him and moves on to yet another protégé, and Guido returns to Nicola and Gabriella a sadder but wiser man... albeit with a bit of a secret: the damage done to his voice was not permanent. He can still sing, but now he knows who his real audience is — and who the woman is who truly loves him.

Okay, these days, this would come across as sappy and sentimental... but kindly notice some of the themes running through this. A rich woman using younger (and much poorer) men as sexual toys: it's never baldly stated, of course, but certainly suggested broadly enough. The idea that riches arent always measured by wealth, something no doubt caused by the riot of bubble money just before the crash of the Depression. Even more amazing, there are no cultural or ethnic stereotypes in this play — instead, we have fully-drawn characters. Even the Countess is portrayed as less a facile villain than a woman who is, for her own reasons, simply incapable of a relationship. Her intentions are all well-meaning — Cynthia Dodge goes almost out of her way to make that plain — but she just cant find the right fit. As such, the gossip spoken behind her back comes off as cruel — and as a result, a frighteningly honest portrayal for the times of the results of meanspirited rumour.

THE SINGER OF NAPLES also distinguishes itself by being, at times, a full fledged opera rather than an operetta. There are long stretches in which the score almost flows from one character's song to the next, with no dialogue inbetween. The sixteen-page opening number (remember: most are only five or six) is divided across the stage for three distinct groups, a pretty nifty piece of construction, with some credible parts work that must have been a challenge for its inexperienced performers. Guido has a couple of truly lovely ballads that do indeed sound Napolitano, and Gabriella has one heart-breaking solo in the second act. And there are a couple of vicious little comedy numbers — one in particular on the importance of style and au courant clothing if one wants to succeed in life — that remind us that we're not watching some pleasant little show about happy Italian streetfolk. Rather, THE SINGER OF NAPLES comes across as a shockingly solid drama: predictable, to be sure, but with far more depth than your usual high school operetta fare.

I'm still not sure what, if any, relationship there might have been between Cynthia, May, and John, but I'm pretty certain it was more than just a coincidence of a last name. Cynthia was also an accomplished illustrator whose work appears on the covers of some of the Dodge's other efforts, and she was also a composer in her own right — albeit one that specialized in musicals for much younger performers (As noted in this blog earlier, she did all the work on WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH SALLY). I suspect she was possibly John's sister or cousin, given the time lines in which the various Dodges' work appears, but there's nothing to substantiate that. The one huge loss on this particular copy of SINGER is that the front cover has been hacked apart and pasted on card stock, no doubt because of the wear and tear of rehearsal.

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