The songs of the Shepherds’ Cantata. The Neapolitan nativity scene between theater and music

In Naples, what is sung at Christmas? Well, of course… the songs of the Shepherds’ Cantata!

In Naples, the nativity scene is sacred, but for the Neapolitans, that wasn’t enough, so they turned it into a spectacle.
The Shepherds’ Cantata is one of the most beloved performances by the Neapolitan audience. A show that has lived on and endured since 1698, thanks to the genius of Andrea Perrucci, a Jesuit, playwright, and innovator of the theater.
Although ancient, the work has been continuously renewed over the years, and undoubtedly the most successful version is the one still performed today by Peppe Barra, born from the creativity of Maestro Roberto De Simone in 1974. It is this version that sees the birth of the songs of the Shepherds’ Cantata, performed by the Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare (NCCP), led by De Simone.

The songs of the Shepherds’ Cantata do nothing but set to music the birth of Jesus, but accompanied by a framing story: that of the scribe Razzullo and Sarchiapone. Immortal songs like Nascette lu Messia, Rosa d’argento, Rosa d’amore, and Quanno nascette Ninno are among the most beautiful and moving Neapolitan songs, written by a group of artists who revolutionized the theater in Italy from the 1960s.

SEA and YOU, to celebrate Christmas, tells you about the magic of the songs of the Shepherds’ Cantata, a cultural heritage of Neapolitan musical tradition.

Before the songs of the Shepherds’ Cantata. Who was Andrea Perrucci and why did he write it?

Who was Andrea Perrucci, the Jesuit who wrote the Shepherds’ Cantata in the distant 1698? Some know him as Casimiro Ruggero Ugone; others say he was an actor, while others claim he was a theater genius. Andrea Perrucci was all this and much more.

He was the theorist of the Commedia dell’Arte with the treatise Dell’arte rappresentativa premeditata ed all’improvviso, a fundamental text for the history of world theater. A theoretical manual where Perrucci, both an amateur actor and a professional in rhetoric (he was a doctor of civil and canon law), wrote the rules for perfect improvisation. Perrucci created a manual that included the characters of the Commedia dell’Arte and their functions, as well as their relationships and some “prompts” for perfect improvisation.

The fortune of Andrea Perrucci is mainly due to the religious drama Il Vero Lume tra l’Ombre, or La Spelonca Arricchita per la Nascita del Verbo Umanato, written in 1698 and now known as the Shepherds’ Cantata.

Before the work fell into the hands of Roberto De Simone and before the songs of the Shepherds’ Cantata were written by the NCCP, Perrucci’s creation appeared completely different. With a colossal duration of 5 hours, the Shepherds’ Cantata was commissioned by the Jesuits to bring the Neapolitans back to church on Christmas Eve. In fact, just before the 1700s, Naples had an unfavorable atmosphere for Christmas Eve masses. The shows that Neapolitans were accustomed to were blasphemous and performed in makeshift tents.

Perrucci brought the faithful back to church with a work that tells the journey Mary and Joseph undertake to escape the soldiers, and in which the birth of Jesus is narrated.

Over the years, the Shepherds’ Cantata has been modified. It has been made lighter, thanks also to the introduction of the comic character Sarchiapone, and the duration has been significantly reduced. Although it has been represented several times over the years, especially for a cultured and religious audience, in 1974 Roberto De Simone created the most beautiful and, to this day, canonical version of the Shepherds’ Cantata.

Roberto De Simone. Who is he, and why is he so important?

The Shepherds’ Cantata as we know it today, with the songs of the NCCP and the farcical flavor given by the masks of Sarchiapone and Razzullo, is the work of the direction of Roberto De Simone.

Who is Roberto De Simone? A musicologist, theatrical director of incredible works such as the Shepherds’ Cantata and La Gatta Cenerentola, essayist, and composer, Roberto De Simone is part of that explosion of creativity that invested Naples in the second half of the 1960s. It was precisely in those years that De Simone set up the Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare (still active today), among whose members were Eugenio Bennato, Carlo D’angiò, Peppe Barra, and Giovanni Mauriello. It is these last two who play the two protagonists of the story, the scribe Razzullo and his fellow countryman Sarchiapone.

Over the years, the role of Sarchiapone has passed to other interpreters, especially women. One particularly memorable version is a fantastic 1976 television adaptation with Concetta Barra, Peppe Barra’s mother, in the comedic role of Sarchiapone. However, we must not forget the last great interpreter of the role, Rosalia Porcaro, who still today plays alongside Peppe Barra in the role of Sarchiapone.

De Simone’s version is a true study of Neapolitan musical folklore. First of all, De Simone has the merit of restoring the strength of the Commedia dell’Arte, of which the author Perrucci is somewhat the father. The comedic duo Razzullo-Sarchiapone works because they are two perfect comic masks in their scenes. The direction is perfect in coordinating exceptional performers, which in 1977 reaches its peak with actors like Fausta Vetere in the role of Mary, accompanied by Roberto De Simone himself as Saint Joseph, Isa Danieli in the role of the Angel, and Franco Iavarone as Satan.

The songs of the Shepherds’ Cantata

If the work is remembered today, it is also thanks to the songs of the Shepherds’ Cantata.
Anyone in Naples looking for Christmas songs, the songs of the Shepherds’ Cantata are perfect!

The musical group NCCP (Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare) performed the songs that continue to be sung in the corners of Naples today. The NCCP was the group led by Roberto De Simone. In those years, between the second half of the 1960s and the mid-1970s, the group was driven by a real mission to research the ancient popular sounds of traditional songs. From this passionate research, masterpieces that we can hear today were born. Not only with the songs of the Shepherds’ Cantata but also with those of La Gatta Cenerentola, presented at the Festival dei due Mondi in Spoleto in 1976.

Quanno nascette Ninno, Nascette lu Messia, and Rosa d’argento, Rosa d’amore are just a few examples of songs that narrate Christmas through music.

It’s not Christmas in Naples without the songs of the Shepherds’ Cantata!

One of the most beautiful traditions of Neapolitan Christmas is the songs of the Shepherds’ Cantata. Like every celebration, even Halloween, has its traditions in every country, Christmas also has its variations. That of the songs of the Shepherds’ Cantata is one of the most beautiful Neapolitan traditions. Far from being just a mere musical tourist attraction, the songs of the Shepherds’ Cantata are among the most beautiful and important Neapolitan songs. [Also read: The Classic Neapolitan Song in Europe thanks to SEA and YOU]

SEA and YOU wants to pay homage to this high example of Neapolitan musical theater, and the songs of the Shepherds’ Cantata, which today represent a high point in Neapolitan song. SEA and YOU are preparing for its SECOND CONCERT in Porto (read here to discover how the first one in Granada went), and in the meantime, it wishes you a Merry Christmas.

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By Davide Lancia