Dario Vanni Neopolitan


Sample Songs

Canta Pe' Me
Santa Lucia Luntana
Pec' Che
Senza Nisciuno

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Great Neapolitan Folk Songs, Volume 1


Introduction by Clarkspur Emden, Critic-at-large

For all musical intents and purposes, many of the Neapolitan folk songs of Italy evolved into mini-operatic arias. They weren’t, however, always the domain of the operatic tenor. In earlier centuries, this kind of music belonged to the troubadours who serenaded their sweethearts or were paid to serenade someone else’s amor. The Italian street singers evolved from this wonderful musical world and, by the close of the 19th century, plied their trade on street corners or little cafes, etc. It is also true, much of the repertoire did come from Napoli, Sorrento, and the wonderful Amalfi coast. There I have personally witnessed the warm breezes coming off the sea, gazed out to the blue-green waters toward Capri, or wandered the side streets of small towns, listening to the guitar or mandolin accompaniment as a singer charmed the environs with his melting, high lyric voice. This was the true Italian folk song in its natural environment, created from a romantic and musical culture.

In the early part of the 20th century, the acoustic recording industry came into being. The fledgling companies, Fonotipia, Pathe, and the like sprouted up in Europe whilst, in America, the Victor Talking Machine Company, Edison, and Columbia began their long history. Now came the problem of what to record and who could sing on the bee’s wax masters through a limbuto (a wooden horn serving as an acoustic microphone) and actually be clearly heard? Enter the acoustic tenor. Well trained operatic voices were well known to penetrate this medium with great focus and resonant beauty. But not everyone was an out-and-out opera fan. What about “the peoples’ music”? Early in the 20th century, the tenor Enrico Caruso, a fresh import from Italy on his way to international fame via the phonograph and opera house, recorded de Capua’s O Sole Mio. Caruso’s incredibly resonant and focused voice made even the cheapest wind-up machine sound good. The song was a household mega-hit. Caruso was the first million-seller recording artist. The rest is history. What Caruso proved, however, was that the tenor voice (only some sopranos, a few baritones, and even fewer basses penetrated exceptionally well) sounded best on the new medium. This stimulated a boom in the Neapolitan folk song composing industry and literally thousands of these songs were written over a forty-year period. Some, however, were distinctly unique, powerful, moving, simple, but well crafted. These wonderful musical gems have become the classics we know today.

This first CD volume contains some of the most celebrated (and challenging to sing, I might add) songs of that era. The ‘teens, 1920s, and 30s were a veritable waterfall of new Italian folk songs, not all Neapolitan, but, nonetheless, tossed into the same bag to be purchased and enjoyed on both sides of the Atlantic. For example, Core ‘n grato has a definite Sicilian flavor to it, while Piscatore e Pussilleco is the very heart and soul of the passionate Tuscan/Neapolitan legacy.

The Songs in this Album

1. Canta Pe’ Me (De Curtis-Bovio)

It seems that the genetic pool that produced a Caruso also found its lineage in Vanni. This lively and charming song in original E-minor has a tango-like flavor and its lilting passages seem filled with Italian sunshine. “Sing for me, please!” the ardent tenor intones. Sung in his prime here, Vanni’s voice soars to the high-Gs with fervor and youth, yet remains secure, mature, and well seated in its technique. Vanni seems very comfortable in this medium. Even though the style is decidedly operatic, he does not overbear on the music and the high-A at the end is truly thrilling. The voice is warm and present in the recording while the orchestra dispatches itself with most excellent vitality.

2. Senza Nisciuno (De Curtis-Barbieri)

As many of the songs of this genre, Senza Nisciuno (“without anyone”) is about loss of love or the longing for love. The inherent pathos is picked up immediately by the singer via the G-minor key signature; the cry within the lyric is amplified many times by De Curtis’ marvelous melody, climaxing on a high-G, stepping down to F, and then to D with equal passion. Vanni spits out the verses with true turmiento and returns twice to the chorus “Che mala sciorta ahi me!” He sounds like a man probably on the brink of jumping into the sea. Written in 1915, this gem of a song requires a true operatic technique to do it justice, otherwise there’s not enough voice to carry the weight of the lyrical drama. Vanni delivers on all accounts and the mandolins added with the orchestra give the song the necessary feeling of authenticity.

3. ‘A Vucchella (P. Tosti-d’Annunzio)

This “arietta di Posillipo” dates its poem-lyric from 1892, but the song wasn’t copyrighted until 1907. F. Paolo Tosti was a famous and revered composer. His Italian art songs are as well known as the folk tune here. This arrangement is a wonderful duet between flute and voice, its gentle, warm breezes flowing through us as we listen. A young man wishes a lovely young thing to talk to him, flirt with him, take a walk with him. But she’ll have none of it in the end and walks away.

Vanni’s approach to this song is sotto voce until the bridge where he crescendos the high-G (“nu vaso piccerillo”), but soon returns to the softer dynamics with the flute in unison and duet. The orchestration is wonderfully intimate: piano, acoustic bass, and flute. Nothing else is necessary as this lovely piece resolves to a lilting pp high-F ending.

4. Passione (Bovio, Valente, Tagliaferri, Vanni)

As far as I can tell, this wonderful selection comes from a 1934 Italian movie of the same name. Set in the commonly used minor-to-major key format, it is a beautifully constructed song with lots of straight-forward, but memorable melody. For this occasion of recording the song, Vanni uses both an English verse he had written from earlier live performances and, interestingly, enters into the Italian only on the second verse (“e cammino, e cammino”) of the A-minor section. Vanni did tell me that the reason behind this arrangement was allowing accessibility of truly understanding the pathos behind the sentiment of the song. In love, nothing ever goes perfectly and, in passion, even less so. It is a love song, to be sure. On top of the piano, somber, crying strings in the singer’s octave begin the verse. Soon the strings octave up and one can hear the subtle mandolins in the background. The orchestration is modest, but effective, never distracting from the singing, as is often the case in contemporary audio mixes. The short mandolin solo at the beginning of the second ending is lovely and, when Vanni re-enters, the voice is flaming and goes for a knock-out punch on the verissimo ff high-A ending. We get it: “We found love, we shared love, we left love….”

5. Santa Lucia Luntana (Versi e musica di EA. Mario)

I consider this rendition to be the definitive recording of the song. First of all, it is a beautiful song with disarming simplicity; secondly, it is very difficult to sing well. There are many things about this performance worth noting. In the beginning, we feel we could be casually in someone’s parlor on a Sunday afternoon in 1919 (when the song was copyrighted) as a simple piano introduces the main melody. Vanni enters in the original E-major key with meltingly lovely tones, “Partono ‘e bastimente…” but, eight measures later, the voice begins to show its silver and gold colors in crescendo. The tenor enters the chorus lovingly, constantly coloring and shading the notes of the music. Then, again, we are stunned by an Oooo! vowel at the top of “ma quanno sponta e luna.” As in other Vanni works, I do not know where these sounds come from, a tone of such intense purity as to have nothing else contained in it except pure and beautiful resonance.

The next surprise blows me totally out of the water: the orchestra goes back to the verse, but, when the singer comes back in at “cantano pe’tra”, OUT OF NOWHERE A DAZZING HIGH B-NATURAL is summoned from his bag of magical notes on the phrase “’o golfo gi-AHHHH scumpare!” I’m totally putty, glued to the singer’s next trick. He delivers it in the most delicate contrast as he barely intones, “Santa Lucia, luntano a te…” Softly, he carries the vocal line—but, then, zowie! that incredible ascent again to the high G-sharp Oooo! Then, with utmost professionality, he concludes the very last note on a ppp, barely audible. Now I am spent with admiration and awe. Is it just me? Or do you hear it, too? This is a singing experience that I shall be privileged to hear, perhaps, once in a lifetime. One begs the question, does tenor singing get better than this?

6. O Sole Mio (de Capua)

Probably the most popular Neapolitan song of all time. Perhaps even Torna a Surriento comes in a close second. In his late forties, Vanni met up with the great continental pianist, Mario Ferrari. In this practice session, we get to hear the two men ply their trade, getting used to one another. Perhaps this is more of a rehearsal track than one of pure vocal/musical delight. But we get the concept and Ferrari’s “rollicking” pianistic flair brings a new flavor to the old and staid interpretations. A special note: in 1958 Elvis Presley recorded a fine version of this song entitled, It’s Now or Never and the old melody saw new life. Dario honors everyone with the now-familiar English lyrics followed by the original Italian lyrics—surely, the best of both worlds!

7. Voce ‘e notte (De Curtis-Lardini)

Once again, the pen of E. De Curtis weaves a magical melody, taking us deeper into the heart of the Neapolitan spirit. This “voice of the night” selection, sung here in G-minor-major-minor motif, begins within the quiet of the night, when all can sleep except love. “Why don’t you hear my voice?” the singer cries out. Vanni dispatches this lovely tune as a mini-aria, climaxing the end into a Caruso-like crescendo on a high B-flat, descending to the tonic G note. For pure charm, this canzone appassionato is hard to beat, one of those gems that seem to stick out in our memories of an age long past, yet resonating with a beautiful vibrancy that time can never quell.

8. Pec che? (Pennino-Flaviis)

Have you ever tried to sing a high-A full voice, hold it, and get it to resonate while you were controlling its volume? Pec che? is an aria in and of itself, no simple song, this. The very high key of G-minor-major demands so much of the singer. Vanni begins with the secure and loving middle voice – dynamic within a lovely legato mp vocal line. When the key changes to major at the con anima section, there is no room for error or miscalculation. Almost immediately, the Eh vowel hooks into the “Carme” and the voice cries to a high A on “las-sa-to a mamma mia pe te” and continues so until the last two bars. The sad beauty of the vocal melodic line leaves us bereft: “I have left my mother’s side for you and made my youth a votive urn—ah, why will you not return?” The singers emotional range here is consummate. In 1917, when this song was new and popular, it must have reflected the same sentiments lovers experience today. It remains a classic gem of the Neapolitan repertoire.

9. I’ M’arricordo e’ Napule (Gioe’-Esposito)

In this marvelous folk song, we hear the true acoustic Vanni voice at its best. He is both serious and playful with this music and the acoustic sound (as opposed to “electronic” sound) is further enhanced by the original piano accompaniment. Written primarily in D-major (it ends in the minor key) this brisk and emphatic vehicle was written c. 1909. The bright Neapolitan sunshine shines through every page. Interestingly, from the first measures, we hear the “Caruso-bite” in Vanni’s voice. I used to think he was simply emulating his predecessor, but now I am more and more convinced that (a) it is Vanni’s genetics and that “acoustic sound” was and is simply the ingrained nature of the instrument; (b), it is a style of singing wherein the voice does not sing for the microphone, but for the live audience and must be heard clearly in the back rows, whether the voice is loud or soft; (c), Vanni’s technique is that of Manuel Garcia, the 19th century voice builder who contributed greatly to the golden age of opera. Perhaps Vanni is a “throw-back” to those yesteryears in his operatic technique. (Curiously, this does not hold true for his great legacy of popular music and, only rarely, can we hear it in English-language love songs or in big Broadway tunes.) We do, however, hear similar sounds in Francesco Tamagno, the DeReske brothers, Patti, Galli-Curci, Lauri-Volpi, Bonci, Ponselle, Pertile, Antonio Cortiz, Gigli, and a handful of others.

Getting back to the song, this lively visione Napolitana bristles with energy. In the main melody with its 32nd- grace-note turns, we hear the heart of southern Italy as Vanni caresses the lines “Rose d’ mese e’ maggio…” The feeling, execution of the music and vocal sound are probably the most authentic one will hear from one with the musical stature of someone like Vanni. As the song concludes in the D-minor, we hear the dramatic build-up to the three high-As, but the tenor does not overdo the sustaining of these notes, instead, he honors the composer to the letter. Great singing!

10, Piscatore ‘e Pusilleco (Tagliaferri-Murolo)

Lamentably, the composers of these wonderful songs are not always recognized for their priceless contribution to the world of vocal music. Like De Curtis, Tosti, and many others, Tagliaferri was a wonderful melodist. Simply reference his Passione again, featured on this album.

The Piscatore ‘e Pussilleco is not only a classic, but was, for years, a staple in Vanni’s live performance repertoire. (I know of at least three different recordings he did of this piece). The story: This little fisherman in the town of Pusilleco has the lovely sea, his boat, romantic moonlight, but he’s got a problem with Maria. He sings, “Sleep, o sea, speak, speak, in your peace—but why, why am I so sad—I think I would rather die!”

In that marvelous mezza di voce of his, Vanni begins this haunting F-minor-major song, preceded by the unusual voice of a single acoustic guitar. The perfunctory mandolin joins him along with piano, acoustic bass, and low strings as he begins his song and he builds to the “Ma pecche’, ma pecche, me lassato!” with great passion. The second time he does this chorus, he nails a high-A on the second “ma” and owns the song completely. The ending is exquisite as he quietly sings a pp diminuendo on the last high-F. Where can you find singing like this today with that quality of sound? So what if the analog recording is a bit dated? Perhaps it adds to the historic value of a warmer, acoustic musical era.

11. Core’ ngrato (Cardillo-Cordiferro)

This tear-jerker classic has been around since about 1911 and remained a staple in the Italian tenor’s repertoire. Even though the “Faithless Heart” G. Ricordi & Co. sheet music reads Canzone Napolitana, it is rumored that it had Sicilian origins. No matter, it’s one hell of an arioso and not easy to sing well. Vanni tackles this whole problem of “Catari”, the faithless lover, with conviction and downright suffering. The voice is warm here, constantly changing colors with the dynamic markings. Strangely, the introduction begins with an Italian accordion, piano, and what seems to be either a high cello or viola or two. Somehow it works, the pathos setting up for what surely must come later when the voice takes over. Vanni does not over-sing this song; he carefully let’s the natural emotion carry him. The recording session seems to have taken place in a theatre, for the acoustics are interesting, even tho’ we don’t lose the tenor’s presence, there is an almost eerie quality about the chorus bridge before the voice comes in for the last time. Piano, bass, strings, accordion, and the violas/cellos stay with the whole song. The customary high B-flat is a ringer and the piece concludes most dramatically. Here is a warhorse given new breath.

12. ‘Na Sera ‘e Maggio (Cioffi-G. Pisano)

Although recorded in 1987 when the tenor was forty-six, this is the lyric Vanni at his best and the voice is wide-open. The very odd, but somehow effective, arrangement/instrumentation includes voices, an electric guitar, bass, mandolin, strings, and other miscellaneous instrumental sounds I cannot easily identify. God knows where he got the players, but they could be from the period when the tenor performed a tuxedo act in the better venues. But this recording was done on good equipment in a studio somewhere, more than likely. And we must remember, none of Vanni’s recordings at that time were ever intended for commercial use or sale. They were used as “guide demos” for live performance purposes. That said, however, it all works. This particular tune lends itself well to an authentic modernization without losing its essence. Perhaps this is because it was composed near the end of the great Neapolitan song era, 1937. Written throughout in B-minor, the sentiment is typical of the Neapolitan song: beauty with sadness. Vanni does not recognize the p/pp markings of the composer. His dramatic instrument pretty much keeps driving throughout, yet most effectively.

(Notes by Clarkspur Emden, September 2009)

13. BONUS SELECTION: Amor ti vieta from Fedora (Giordano)

The recording here demonstrates the power and beauty of the Vanni voice in its prime, accompanied by full orchestra. If you enjoyed this album of Neapolitan Folk Songs, then you may also enjoy V.1 of Dario Vanni’s The Great Operatic Arias.