Scugnizza, with text by Carlo Lombardo and music by Mario Costa, is undoubtedly the greatest of Neapolitan operettas, with its candid melancholy and its entertaining working-class setting.
The backdrop is the splendid city of Naples, uncaring of its own poverty and the war; the characters are genuine in their simplicity, with real feelings and lofty ideals. The music in Scugnizza is exceptionally catchy, with melodies that speak of a world that’s a combination of spontaneity and nostalgia (Salomè, Una rondine non fa primavera, Napoletana come canti tu); while others evoke Verism, reminiscent of the best of Puccini’s romances (In riva al mare tutta bianca una casetta).
In the cheerful setting of the Gulf of Naples, two street urchins, Totò and Salomè are in love, and lead a carefree life with their friends. Also in Naples are some American tourists, including wealthy widower Toby Gutter, his daughter Gaby and his secretary Chic, who is courting her in vain. The urchins bring a breath of happiness into the Americans’ lives, and when Mr Toby meets Salomè he’s dazzled, and loses no time on asking Zi’ Grazia, Salomè’s colourful guardian, for her hand in marriage. The girl is bewildered, but her aunt sees the possibility of a profitable arrangement for herself and her niece, and agrees to the marriage. Totò, meanwhile, cannot accept this, believing he’s lost his lover.
One evening, when the wedding date has already been fixed. Totò turns up at the American’s villa to see his ‘scugnizza’ one last time; but, mistaken for a burglar, he’s arrested. The ‘scugnizzo”s innocence is soon proved and Totò can hurry to Salomè’s side. Toby realises that no-one will ever be able to separate the girl from her city, her friends and her songs, and decides to give her up.
But there has to be a happy ending: as he drowns his sorrows in Zi’ Grazia’s delicious pastries, he falls in love with her and proposes.
So Salomè and Totò can continue to live happily in their beautiful Naples, and Zì Grazia embarks on a wealthy new life.