“Le canzoni della Mala” are songs about the Milanese underworld, most of which originated in the 50s when the great Italian theatre director Giorgio Strehler realised that Milan lacked a tradition of songs about prostitutes and thieves. In order to give his adopted home a body of such songs, as his beloved Brecht had given Berlin, he started writing them himself with others, such as Dario Fo, later contributing to the canon.
The great Italian singer-actress Ornella Vanoni (class of '34) was Strehler's muse at the time and she made the songs her own. Now, after a decades-long gap, she has returned to the legendary Piccolo Teatro in Milan to revisit these songs.
Peppe Servillo, a Neapolitan singer and actor (all Neapolitans are actors!) brought songs that recount the malavita napolitana, of which there are many, and the songs of the north and the south were intertwined.
Giuseppe Ragazzini created a fluid graphic design which had on a giant screen Milanese orange trams crossing behind the singers, fog hanging heavy in front of Milan's iconic Duomo, Neapolitan houses crowding one on top of the other, cobbled streets and dingy corners. A dirty, dangerous world for the singers to inhabit.
But the star of the evening was Vanoni. Although best known for her heart-breaking intimate style, here she let rip with these boosey, angry, racy numbers which completely negated her age, with more than half a century on-stage. A miracle.
Vanoni also has great style. She never overplays her hand, plays irony to the full (“You're beautiful!” from the audience brought the speedy reply, “At my age better “You're beautiful” than “You're intelligent”.”), and brings the actress into every song.
Italy produced an impressive collection of unique female singers in the 50s, that post-war generation who weren't afraid to be original without resorting to drugs and alcohol: Mina, Milva and Ornella Vanoni are the three giants. They are slowly leaving us. Mina records studio albums but hasn't sung live since the late 70s; Milva has recently suffered from serious health problems which put her into retirement earlier this year, but Ornella Vanoni, the oldest of them all, is still wowing audiences. The crowd at the Piccolo Teatro were ecstatic!
Photo: Andrea Mariniello
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.