Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Evviva il coltellino!

Sacrificium - The Art of the Castrati
Cecilia Bartoli - mezzo-soprano
Il Giardino Armonico
cond: Giovanni Antonini
CD released 12th October 2009
DVD released 1st March 2010

The Sacrificium project tells the story of the castrati in all its complexity; its beauty, glamour, controversy and cruelty. The album focuses on the Neapolitan school, which produced superstar castrati including Farinelli and Caffarelli.

‘The age of the castrati’ inspired some of the most virtuosic repertoire ever written for the human voice; elaborate coloratura showpieces and beautiful slow arias, written for the extraordinary vocal abilities of the leading castrati.

Following the international success of Opera Proibita, Cecilia Bartoli uncovers more lost jewels of baroque music, with an album almost entirely composed of World Premiere recordings. For the first time since their record-breaking Vivaldi Album, Cecilia Bartoli is reunited with leading Italian period instrument ensemble Il Giardino Armonico and their director Giovanni Antonini.

The age of the castratos was one of the most dazzling and remarkable in European music history. Seldom has there ever been such a complete fusion of sensuousness and splendour, form and content, poetry and music, and, above all, such a perfection of vocal virtuosity, as was achieved in the glory days of the Baroque era. The legendary art of the castratos continues to exert its fascination even today, and, despite the great human sacrifice it exacted, a new assessment of this extraordinary period is surely justified.

For over two hundred years in the musical capitals of Europe, it was unthinkable to do without the virtuosity of the omnipresent castratos: men who, in early youth, had been surgically robbed of their sexuality, and thus of their identity and emotional equilibrium, as well as any chance of leading a 'normal' life, by those dedicated to creating musical instruments of unprecedented beauty out of mutilated boys.

In order to recreate the sound of that world for today’s listeners, we must resort to a little theatrical trickery and make modern interpreters (of both sexes) assume the musical guise of castratos. Thus several exponents of the flourishing early music scene, and especially countertenors, have produced valuable documents about a number of these figures (including Senesino and Carestini). Women’s voices, too, now regularly appropriate the repertoire of these artists who sang in the soprano and alto range, but paradoxically, even in the heyday of the great castratos, it was widely held that female singers, with their particular vocal capabilities, were worthy competitors:

“Thus, for example, I believed that no woman’s voice in the world could compare with those of Farinelli or Caffarelli; and yet here before me, blooming and dazzling in her sumptuous beauty, is the living refutation of that view” (Wilhelm Heinse, 1795).

Until now, however, there has been no comprehensive presentation of the art of the castratos in music, word and image. In our attempt to portray this musical phenomenon as fully as possible, Naples and its inestimably rich musical culture have served as our model. Thanks to its historical, demographic and cultural situation, this city developed towards the end of the seventeenth century into the centre of the Western musical world -the true capital of European music, as it were -and its influence extended well into the eighteenth century.

The pivotal character in this story is the Neapolitan composer, composition teacher, vocal pedagogue and impresario Nicola Porpora {1686-1768}, who quickly attained a reputation as the foremost voice trainer of the eighteenth century -"premier maitre de chant de l'univers" (George Sand). Porpora achieved renown through his singing pupils: Farinelli, Caffarelli, Salimbeni, Appiani and Porporino, an illustrious quintet which includes the most famous castratos of all time. Besides these singers, Porpora also taught the great opera librettist Pietro Metastasio and, to a certain degree, the composers Johann Adolf Hasse and Joseph Haydn.

The present compilation of arias - both typical and colourfully varied - has been drawn from several hundred works {operas, cantatas and sacred pieces} written as repertoire for graduates of Porpora's Scuola dei castrati {school for castratos}. By virtue of their stupendous virtuosity, cultivation of piano singing, protracted melismas, endless coloratura chains, lung-bursting challenges to breathing and phrasing, and tessitura - stretching from the contralto register via the mezzo-soprano range right up to that of the soprano, they represent some of the most demanding music ever composed for the human voice. May these arias, in all their rich variety and exploitation of every conceivable Baroque affect, succeed in recreating for our senses the sound-stage of a vanished era in all its magnificence and extravagance.

Evviva il coltellino!” (“Long live the little knife!”) Physical exploitation as a prerequisite for fashion trends, fine art, sizzling eroticism and lucrative business remains a familiar phenomenon in the twenty-first century. But it would surely cause a scandal nowadays if, during an exclusive prêt-à-porter show in Paris or Milan, an onlooker were to call out “Evviva l’anoressia!” (“Long live anorexia!”)

Not so in the theatres of the eighteenth century: the fervent shout of “Evviva il coltellino!” probably rang out thousands of times in Baroque opera houses. And yet the gulf between the vocal artistry of the castratos and the cruelty perpetrated on them could hardly be conveyed more poignantly than by this cry.

As early as the fourth century AD, a biased interpretation of St Paul’s words — “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak”1 — has banished women’s voices from churches. At first, boys and falsettists take over the function, but they “often produce unpleasant sounds”.2 Thus in parallel with the constantly growing demands of polyphony and virtuosity, castratos are brought in with increasing frequency to fill the gap. In Rome from 1600, for nearly three centuries, it becomes the rule for soprano and alto parts in church to be sung by castratos.

By 1668 at the latest, when Pope Clement IX decrees that “on pain of severe punishment, no female person shall deliberately learn music in order to be employed as a singer”, women’s voices are also banished from early Baroque theatres. This ban is adhered to exclusively only in the Papal States; in the rest of Italy and Europe it is never strictly enforced.

The historical fact that, along with the illustrious castratos, famous female singers also had brilliant careers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries — not to mention the contemporary remark that “a female voice is far more beautiful than the best castrato voice”3 — suggests that the predominance of castratos on the opera stage is not simply attributable to the prohibition of women or a prevalent attitude of misogyny (as evidenced in education and the dissemination of knowledge).

The castrato’s pre-eminence has more to do with the fact that a freshly gelded boy can be introduced to voice training at once, whereas an otherwise comparable girl must wait until the end of puberty, when the mutation of her voice is complete, before serious vocal training can be considered. Thus a castrato’s professional activity can commence some ten years earlier than a girl’s, a fact of decisive importance, given the length of a career and the earnings claimed by parents, patrons and teachers. Another competitive advantage for the young castratos and their “producers” is that a child can be subjected to far more rigorous pressure than a young woman whose character is already formed.

And so, from the end of the seventeenth century, the assembly-line manufacturing of castratos, those “victims of musical sensuality”,4 becomes a sort of trump card in the pursuit of power, fame and wealth, bringing with it an all-important commercial advantage: the availability of an endless supply of talented vocal virtuosos who, because of the hopelessness of their situation, will focus their entire energies on a singing career and strive for unparalleled glory. There is no way out of this cul-de-sac: a career in the Church, politics or the military is denied them by discrimination or prohibition, not to mention the option of private fulfilment in marriage and family: “I’d surely never hear that sweet word that I otherwise might one day have heard: Daddy.”5

Alessandro Moreschi, member of the Sistine Choir
in Rome and 'last castrato', who died in 1922
In the seventeenth century castratos are compelled to fight for their monopoly on high voices, but in the eighteenth the demand for superbly trained, versatile singers grows by leaps and bounds until as many as four thousand6 boys are castrated each year in Italy alone: “I was born in Naples, where they caponise two or three thousand boys every year.”7

With its impoverished hinterland, the Kingdom of Naples becomes a musical dream-factory, the most successful castration facility of the eighteenth century: “Most castratos come from the Neapolitan factory, where poverty and the unfortunate lure of profit make people cruel enough to mutilate children in this way.”8

For shrewd profiteers, resourceful impresarios and ambitious singing teachers, the desperate dreams of penniless parents prove a never-ending source of wondrous creatures who, by means of their unprecedented virtuosity and splendid display, can satisfy the addiction to increasingly exotic pleasures shared by aristocrats, opera fans and Church dignitaries: “Only the Italians got it into their heads to practise music at the expense of their progeny.”9

Soon Naples is supplying the entire West with a precious vocal commodity in the form of these beardless singing eunuchs: “Castratos are distributed from here throughout half the world and provide the foreign courts with amusement.”10

The four Neapolitan conservatoires are transformed from charitable orphanages into de facto music factories. First the boys are tested for vocal and musical talent and, if that is found sufficient, they are taken to a castration site, usually secret. There are grounds for doubting whether this process is always carried out with due care and responsibility, “otherwise such numbers [of bungled cases] could never be found in every great town throughout Italy, without any voice at all, or at least without one sufficient to compensate such a loss”.11

Once his wound is healed, a pupil enters the conservatoire and receives his first “instruction, inseparable from the whip”.12 Only the most gifted are accorded a comprehensive musical and general education, which will forge them into the “greatest jewels in music”.13

The production of these priceless vocal treasures takes place throughout Italy, where, besides Naples, the major training locations include Bologna, Milan, Florence and, especially, Venice. From Italy the young singers are then recruited by noblemen and impresarios to sing at the great European opera houses and courts, most notably in Austria, Germany and England. Some are also engaged in Spain, Portugal, Denmark and Russia.

The castrato mania even rages in Rome and the Papal States, where indulgence in these rare flowers occurs in up to forty different theatres at one time. Although castration is forbidden there, on pain of death, thirty-two popes over the centuries delight in the singing of castratos in the Sistine Chapel. In the Holy City, ecclesiastical dignitaries frequent the theatres in droves. There is a famous legend that many Roman barbers and quacks hang up a sign, apparently tolerated, reading: “Qui si castrano ragazzi a buon mercato!” (“Boys castrated cheap here!”)14

For some two hundred years women are forbidden to tread the Roman boards, and falsettists are unable to provide satisfactory alternatives: “Think of an acteur with black beard and gruff voice … However intelligently and sensitively he plays, his whole figure and voice still remain displeasing.”15

This leads to the custom — first in Rome, then spreading to the whole of Italy — of entrusting women’s roles to young castratos: “In Rome, eunuchs are permitted to sing in hooped skirts only if they have trousers on under the skirts …They usually are more beautiful as women than women themselves.”16

Here, too, barely fifteen-year-old boys benefit from the head start in their training, because at this stage their bodies still possess a youthful, androgynous appeal, which they exploit so artistically as to transport audiences into a state of sinful excitement: “Rome the holy, which thus strives to make all men pederasts.”17

Some chroniclers succumb to the effect of this travesty: “He was enclosed in a carefully-made corset and looked like a nymph; and incredible though it may seem, his breast was as beautiful as any woman’s … one felt quite madly amorous of him.”18

Giaquinto Corrado, Farinelli
painted c.1750
The various attractions that stimulate the breathless public’s senses — the peculiar sound of the voice, the unimaginable virtuosity, the splendour of the costumes and the erotic gender-play — all make the castratos into idolised objects of desire and lend them a cult status comparable only with the pop stars of today. Everything revolves round them: theatre companies are created for them; composers tailor arias to their voices; whole operas are newly arranged for them; and productions are adapted to their wishes so that, for example, they can “make their entrance on horseback to sing their first cavatina or be placed up on a hilltop.”19

Some castratos actually rise to become influential impresarios; are ennobled or grow so rich that they can buy themselves a dukedom; become the lovers of princesses and queens, friends of the great intellects of the day, even royal confidants enjoying such power that their position effectively approaches that of the prime minister of a world empire.

Radiant brilliance and boundless admiration, however, cannot protect these lionised beings from rapid decline, derision and dishonour: in Italy singers are brought into such “universal disrepute” that Caffarelli himself “must be contented to be talked to in Voi or Tu [the familiar forms of “you”] by anybody who is one degree above a shopkeeper”.20

The physical attributes of castratos are cause for special mockery and caricature. Expected to embody an artistic ideal, they are clearly not forgiven for ageing as other mortals do: “Most of them become as big and fat as capons, with round and chubby hips, rumps, arms and throats.”21 Probably the outward aspect of the divine stars of the time is simply too similar to the appearance of their oh-so-critical audience, and the use of contemptuous expressions to describe castratos, such as “monstra humani generis” (“monsters of the human race”),22 may also be related to disgust at one’s own body or that of a husband or wife.

Boundless admiration for the castratos’ vocal artistry by no means rules out vile insults, and they are branded with “disparaging nicknames … geldings, eunuchs, capons, anthropological mutant misfits, homines tertii generis (men of the third sex), spadoes, nature’s rejects, nullities of known creation, satyrs of nature”.23

Yet the potential for extraordinary artistic, aesthetic and sensual experiences makes the musical sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of castrated men seem perfectly acceptable! Given that ultimately no more than some hundred singers truly succeed, this seems more than a bit cynical.

What happens to that preponderance of inferior castratos is hard to determine. Their families from the impoverished provinces cannot afford to support them. Physically demanding labour is out of the question on account of their hormonal configuration and poorly developed physiques. Socially marginalised and reviled, many of them are taken on by the Church, either as members of the numerous church choirs, as musicians, or simply as monks: “Indeed all the musici in the churches at present are made up of the refuse of the opera houses.”24

From Rome the story is handed down that castratos are thrust by their common destiny into forming a sort of vagabond beggars’ chorus, earning their living from serenades: “Twenty beardless men and twenty fiddlers appeared to give a concert for him.”25

Always lurking behind the activities on stage is prostitution, which in Rome is written off with the excusable name of peccato nobile (noble sin) whenever it involves the higher social classes or Church circles and their publicly solicited castratos. Literary sources report such pleasures with bawdy delight: “There were seven or eight girls, all of them pretty, three or four castratos … and five or six abbés … The company rose from table, and then began a foul orgy … A castrato and a girl … proposed to strip … lie on their backs … with their faces covered. They challenged us all to guess which was which.”26

With the advent of musical Romanticism at the beginning of the nineteenth century and its demand for verisimilitude, the castratos disappear from the opera stage, not least because their condition is increasingly perceived to be unnatural and inhuman. The public, it is proudly remarked, now regards human values and respect more highly than a cruel sacrifice in the name of art, even if, as the following quote reveals, one detects a certain regret that the castrato voice is forever lost to the stage: “Although it is a triumph for morals that humanity is no longer subjected to this shameless castration, for art it is a misfortune to be deprived of the magnificent voices.”27

1 Corinthians 14:34
2. Rodolfo Celletti, Storia del belcanto (Florence, 1983, 2/1996; Eng. trans., 1991)
3 Giovanni Battista Doni, De praestantia musicae veteris (Florence, 1647)
4 Gabriele Fantoni, Storia universale del canto (Milan, 1873)
5 The castrato Filippo Balatri, cited in Christine Wunnicke, Die Nachtigall des Zaren (Munich, 2001)
6 Franz Haböck, Die Kastraten und ihre Gesangskunst (Berlin/Stuttgart, 1927)
7 Voltaire, Candide, chapter 12
8 J.J. Volkmann, Historisch-kritische Nachrichten aus Italien (Leipzig, 1770)
9 Jean-Jacques Sonnette, Le brigandage de la musique italienne (Amsterdam 1780)
10 Volkmann, op. cit.
11 Charles Burney, The Present State of Music in France and Italy (London, 1771, 2/1773)
12 Johann Wilhelm von Archenholtz, England und Italien (Karlsruhe, 1791)
13 Pietro della Valle, cited in Doni, op. cit.
14 Max Marcuse, ed., Handwörterbuch der Sexualwissenschaft (Bonn, 1925), cited in Hans Fritz, Kastratengesang (Tutzing, 1994)
15 Volkmann, op. cit.
16 Sonnette, op. cit; François Raguenet, Parallèles des Italiens et des Français (Paris, 1702)
17 Giacomo Casanova, Memoirs (Eng. trans., London 1894, rev. 1902/1940)
18 Ibid.
19 Jacques de Biez, Tamburini et la musique italienne, cited in Haböck, op. cit. (Paris, 1877)
20 Giuseppe Baretti, An Account of the Manners and Customs of Italy (London, 1768)
21 Charles de Brosses, L’Italie il y a cent ans [letters 1739–40] (Paris, 1836)
22 Paul Münch, Homines tertii generis (Essen, 2000)
23 Ibid.
24 Burney, op. cit.; the term “musico” (musician) then referred to a castrato
25 Voltaire, La Princesse de Babylone (1768).
26 Casanova, Mémoires, cited in Fritz, op. cit.
27 F.J. Fétis, Curiosités historiques de la musique (Paris, 1830), cited in Haböck, op. cit.

Recording made in 1902 of Alessandro Moreschi the 'last castrato', the only ever recording made of a castrato's voice.
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