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The castrato as history

  • Katherine Bergeron

One of the final scenes of Farinelli, Il Castrato, dir. Gerard Corbiau (Sony Pictures Classics, 1994), shows a solar eclipse witnessed, eighteenth-century style, by members of the court of Philip V of Spain around 1740. Restless spectators squint through pieces of tinted glass prepared in the smoke of a small fire. It is a precious visual detail, a jot of history in this sumptuously though often inaccurately detailed film that offsets the melodrama to follow. Without warning, a wind, helped along by corny, time-lapse photography, ushers in a sea of Goya-like clouds. A murmur passes through the entourage; eerie blackness falls on the court.

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1 Herriot, Angus, The Castrati in Opera (New York, 1974), 189–99.

2 Heartz, Daniel, ‘Farinelli Revisited’, Early Music, 18 (1990), 430–43.

3 To name a few: Barnett, John, Farinelli, a serio comic opera, in two acts (London, 1839);Breton, Tomas, Farinelli, opera en un prologo y tres actos (Madrid, 1902);Dupin, HenriFarinelli, ou La pièce de circonstance (Paris, 1816);Saint-Georges, Henri, Farinelli, ou Le bouffe du roi, comedie historique en trois actes (Paris, 1835);Vazquez, Mariano, Farinelli: zarzuela historica en tres actos (Malaga, 1855);Zumpe, Herman, Farinelli: Operette in 3 Aden (Hamburg, 1888).

4 Burney, Charles, The Present State of Music in France and Italy (London, 1771), 206.

5 From a look at the sources of Artaserse, Robert Freeman concludes that ‘the attribution of this aria by Burney and others to Riccardo Broschi is probably in error‘. See ‘Farinello and his Repertory’, in Studies in Renaissance and Baroque Music in Honor of Arthur Mendel, ed. Marshall, Robert (London, 1974), 327, note 69.

6 Translated by Samber, Robert as Eunuchism Display'd, Describing All the Different Sorts of Eunuchs (London, 1718).

7 Rice, Anne, Cry to Heaven (New York, 1982).

8 Burney (see n. 4), 301–2.

9 Rosselli, John, ‘The Castrati as a Professional Group and a Social Phenomenon, 1550–1850’, Acta Musicologica, 60 (1988), 143–79.

10 Mojon, Benedetto, Mémoire sur les effets de la castration dans le corps humain (Montpellier, 1804).

11 Mojon, 16.

12 Illustration reproduced in Heartz (see n. 2), p. 431.

13 The story is related in Moore, Jerrold N., A. Voice in Time: The Gramophone of Fred Gaisberg (London, 1976), 6670.

14 Barthes, Roland, ‘The Romantic Song’, in The Responsibility of Forms, trans. Howard, Richard (New York, 1985), 286–92.

15 A full performance history is presented by Burrows, Donald in Handel, Messiah (Cambridge, 1991).

16 One can hear performances of both versions of the aria on an extremely innovative recording, produced in 1991 by Mundi, Harmonia and featuring the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, together with the Chamber Chorus of the University of California at Berkeley, under the joint direction of Nicolas McGegan and Philip Brett (Harmonia Mundi: HMU 907050–907052). The ambitious plan was to record, on to a single set of discs, all the extant versions of Messiah known in Handel's lifetime. With some skilful programming of a CD player, a listener can now compare the settings from different years and thus make judgements, purely by ear, about Handel's compositional choices. On this recording William Parker sings the 1742 version for solo bass; the countertenor Drew Minter does a more than respectable job playing the role of Guadagni.

17 According to Robert Freeman's statistics, this seems to be one work Farinelli never performed. See Freeman (n. 5), 324–30.

18 Cited in Barthes, Roland, S/Z: An Essay, trans. Howard, Richard (New York, 1974), 239.

19 See Heartz (n. 2), 441.

20 Legrand, Emmanuel, ‘Soundtrack for “Farinelli” Film Becomes Hit in France’, Billboard, 107, No. 17 (29 04 1995), 50.

21 The Crying Game may not be such a bad analogy, in fact, given that the ‘secret’ that circulated about its plot had something to d o with the mistaking of one character's gender identity. In Farinelli, of course, the mistaken thing is an unnaturally high male voice. That this unusual feature could inspire a similar curiosity is clear from the recent rise in popularity of countertenors – those rarified products of the decades-old early music movement. Such singers today attract a following beyond the typical early music audience, a fact that may have at least something to d o with the delicious compromise they reflect – as vocal cross-dressers. For evidence we need look no further than a recent issue of a popular American fashion magazine, which featured an ultracampy photo essay on six newsworthy countertenors decked out, à la Wilde, in silk smoking jackets and feather boas. Ragin himself, sporting a cane, was pictured with three dalmatians in tow.

22 A summary of the procedure can be found in a recent issue of IRCAM's house journal Resonance. See Depalle, Phillipe, Garcia, Guillermo and Rodet, Xavier, ‘A la recherche d'une voix perdue’, Résonance, 15 (1995), 1415.

23 On the subject of ‘passing’, it is worth noting that one of the tracks from the Farinelli CD actually makes it onto a legitimate early music disc also distributed by Auvidis. It is a 1994 anthology called La Musique au temps des Castrats (Astree E 8552) that features performances by the countertenors James Bowman and Gérard Lesne, among others. On the disc's final track, slipped in without any indication of foul play, we find the morphed Ragin–Mallas-Godlewska performance of the aria ‘Son qual nave’, offered as just one more early music voice.

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Cambridge Opera Journal
  • ISSN: 0954-5867
  • EISSN: 1474-0621
  • URL: /core/journals/cambridge-opera-journal
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