The Merry Widow at San Carlo

Published in Opera
05 January 2016

The most famous operetta in the history of music sees actor and singer Peppe Barra starring  in the role of Njegus, the comic secretary of the Pontevedrian Embassy. Where interviewed him for you.

From 22 January to 3 February, the San Carlo Opera House will host ‘The Merry Widow’, the most famous operetta in the history of music. From the time of its first performance in 1905, the operetta in three acts based on a libretto by Viktor Léon and Leo Stein with music by Fraz Lehàr, enjoyed non-stop acclaim thanks to a perfect combination of comedy, music and dance and the provocative, sensual theme of its plot. An emotional extravaganza whose characters are involved in a frenetic, amusing exchange of couples, promises, suspicions and revelations. The version currently playing at the San Carlo Opera House is conducted by Alfred Eschwè and Maurizio Agostini under the directorship of Federico Tiezzi.

To mark the occasion, Where interviewed Peppe Barra, who stars in the role of Njegus, the  bungling secretary of the Pontevedrian Embassy. Born into a family of Neapolitan artists, he began acting when he was just a child. Throughout his career, when performing, he has always shown a preference for song and music. He is renowned for his interpretations of two masterpieces by Roberto De Simone, ‘La gatta Cenerentola’ and the ‘Cantata dei pastori’.

What type of opera is The Merry Widow and what type of character is Njegus?

The Merry Widow is a very important, elegant and delightful operetta. To my mind, it portrays all the severe elegance of Germany during the Belle Èpoque. Its plot is extremely complicated, consisting, above all, of intrigue and misunderstandings. I play Njegus, the character who more or less sums up the whole story. Though taking action, solving or, at least, trying to solve a series of issues, he always ends up in comic, grotesque situations.

Which Italian city boasts the oldest tradition of operettas?

In the past, I have performed in many operettas, above all in Palermo, at Teatro della Verdura. In Naples, during the Fifties, the tradition of operettas was very strong, the Neapolitans staged lots of them. Nowadays, they are only staged at famous theatres like the San Carlo in Naples, the Petruzzelli in Bari or La Fenice in Venice.  

How much ‘Neapolitaness’ will you bring to your Njegus?

I hope to infuse my character with lots of Neapolitan traits. The director and I discussed the matter at length: I believe that he is going to have me recite the part with a Neapolitan accent. Njegus is a very adaptable character and The Merry Widow is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful operettas of all times.

Apropos of the Neapolitan accent what do you think of our language?

Unfortunately the Neapolitan language has changed for the worse. Young people no longer talk the musical, harmonious language of times gone by: they only emit ugly, guttural sounds. Only a few Neapolitan actors have managed to retain the harmonious beauty of our language when they talk. The introduction of a certain type of comedy has ruined everything.

When did you make your first appearance at the San Carlo Opera House?

I was about six. My diction and acting teacher, Lea Maggiulli Bartorelli, known in the world of showbiz as Zietta Liù, used to put on important performances for children at well-known theatres. I took part in a show entitled ‘Tredicino’ at the San Carlo Theatre. It was a beautiful show with incredible stage sets, based on a fairytale resembling that of Tom Thumb. I played a leading role as one of the seven little brothers.

Will this be your first performance at the opera house since then?

I returned last year to receive a career award, it turned out to be a very unusual occasion. I turned up in all of my finery, dressed to the hilt, but I hadn’t seen the props that were being used on stage. When I walked onto the stage, I slipped and ended up falling onto the apron. it all caused a lot of amusement.

Out of all the characters that you have played, which did you feel the most empathy for?

The stepmother in Cinderella. I studied really hard to portray her character and I really enjoyed myself. This was forty years ago and it was a great experience. First, we rehearsed for months – it was staged at a prominent theatre – we studied, and, when the opening night came around we were extremely well prepared because we had studied the music and analysed the characters in depth. Things no longer work this way.

How have audiences changed from the time that you first started working?

Unfortunately, the tastes of audiences have changed for the worse. Most people no longer appreciate what I call ‘elegant’ theatre. Sadly, nowadays, it’s all about vulgarity rather than culture.  

What about the San Carlo Theatre? Has it changed over the years?

San Carlo is a temple of opera, it is one of the most important theatres in Europe: it continues to remain a bastion of Neapolitan culture. Moreover, this year, it’s offering a fabulous playbill. However, it’s no longer the same as it was forty years ago: nowadays, people attending its opening nights tend to dress much less formally than they did in the past. It didn’t use to be this way:  it would have been considered a sort of violation of the rules of etiquette.  

From 22 January to 3 February

Teatro San Carlo. Via San Carlo, 98, Naples. T: 0817972331 www.teatrosancarlo.it

Where is it?

More in this category: « La Traviata Falstaff »