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Sunday, January 6, 2013

Farinelli: The Great Castrato


The great castrato Farinelli, one of the most famous opera singers of all time, was born Carlo Broschi, in 1705, in present day Apulia.  His family was aristocratic and well to do.  Further, they were largely a family of musicians.  Farinelli's social class and "connectedness," therefore, were an important factor in a great career.  The social and economic realities of the day did not at all favor those of the lower strata of society as far as any kind of musical career was concerned, or for that matter any kind of career at all. Society at that time was still largely medieval in its structure, which is to say a tri-part division into clergy, aristocracy, and laborers.  While exceptional talent did make it possible for some promising artists to rise above their birth, it was rare.  This is important to bear in mind in Farinelli's case, because the whole vexed issue of castration has cast something like a pall of titillation, awe, and, to be blunt, just plain silliness over the biography of this great artist, whose success owed essentially to fortuitous birth, remarkable talent, early inspiration from a musically gifted family, and social and political connections.  There were  many castrati; most had only slight talent.  In discussing such singers, one needs always to be guided by a sense of dignity and decorum, and to hold rigorously to the sensible and the obvious.

Little Carlo, who was precocious, demonstrated real talent for singing at a young age, and was introduced in 1715, when he was a mere 10 years of age, to the famous teacher Nicola Porpora, who had important connections in Naples. The major turning point in young Carlo's life came unexpectedly in 1717 when his father Salvatore Broschi died unexpectedly.  Largely because of potential economic problems for the family— and probably great talent on the part of Carlo— his family (likely his older brother Riccardo) made the essential decision that was to determine 12-year old Carlo's future life.  While it might be tempting to want to blame his family for so drastic a decision, one needs also to remember that it made possible his extraordinary achievement, which is recognized even today, over 200 years later. 

Progress was rapid, as the talent was great, and the young singer made his debut three years later, at age 15.  Success was near instantaneous,  and the boy undertook the portrayal of many roles, often female.  To come to a quick biographical close, Carlo Broschi rose to became the most famous singer in Europe, and was written about, painted, adulated and generally admired by a huge audience.  He became wealthy.  It was a stunning success story that is still celebrated today. His biography is very easily found, and there is a fairly recent movie that  dramatizes (and sensationalizes) his life and career. 

So, the question becomes, what did he sound like?  And that is tricky indeed.  He was often painted, and very well, so we know what he looked like.  He was quite tall; that was demonstrated by a fairly recent disinterment.  Male growth in the absence of testosterone tends to exaggerated skeletal development.  In his case, this meant height and lung over-development, and, likely, the effecting of some laryngeal structures.  People of his day often mentioned  his ability to sing very long phrases at considerable volume.  Music that was written for him indicates that he had the ability to sing very florid and complex musical lines.  Let me try to give some idea, according to my own modest understanding, of what the voice might have sounded like, and why.  This is simple and short, and merely suggestive, as I have not the expertise to go on at any length on this highly specialized subject.

We can hear what one castrato sounded like by listening for a moment to the only castrato who was ever (knowingly) recorded, Alessandro Moreschi.  He was not a talented singer; in fact, he was a poor singer.  But we can at least hear what one known castrato sounded like:

This makes the point fairly clearly that once we dispense with all other matters, it all comes down to artistry, talent and musicianship; exactly the same factors that determine what constitutes a fine singer today.  The fact that he was a castrato is essentially irrelevant.  This is not the sound or the singing that would inspire one to lay down his or her hard-earned  money for a concert ticket.   So why was it ever recorded?  Well, because he was a castrato.  I stress this for one reason only:  de-mystification.

There are some modern singers who probably come close to being a natural castrato—although the word "castrato" would be not be appropriate.  I speak of those males who because of one endocrinologic disorder or another never produced testosterone.  Such a singer, it is said, is the male soprano Radu Marian.  In his case, we move to a man who is a gifted soprano; very musical, well educated, and with what I feel safe in calling a lovely voice.  This may move us significantly closer to the goal of discovering the "authentic" castrato voice:

Now that, to my way of thinking, is a legitimate  voice, and a very beautiful one at that.  This is the kind of voice that one would pay to listen to, and people in fact do. It is not based on falsetto.  This is Radu Marian's real voice.  He normally speaks in the high "female" register.  Marian is enjoying a respectable career, and has earned the respect of serious musicians.  The beauty of his voice is also spoken of and appreciated.  I will go to bat, as it were, for this voice.  Of the increasingly larger number of male sopranos and altos singing today, Marian is my own personal favorite.  This is a fine voice, very beautiful, and authentically soprano.  The last note in "Lascia ch'io pianga" is a soprano B natural, and it is well within his range.

But there is another way to approach trying to imagine an 18th-century castrato voice, and that is through a female singer.  It is, after all, largely a "female" sound that we are dealing with here, even if hypothetically.  What about an intense, powerful, flexible female voice, essentially soprano, but with a kind of heft that at least suggests, albeit slightly, another kind of almost-male voice?  How about Ann Hallenberg?  I freely admit that this is not my idea, although I agree with it.  It was suggested to me by a gentleman I have come to respect as probably the ultimate authority on this subject.  Here she is, in suggestive garb, singing a song that was actually written for Farinelli by his own brother.  (It is the first song she sings, "Son qual Nave..." ) Clearly, she is trying to give a "Farinelli impression," evidence that the potential for comparison  has occurred both to her and to others.  If you close your eyes as you listen, I think you may hear it—I believe I do:

Isn't that something!   The fact that she is singing a song written for the great castrato by his own brother, who certainly knew his abilities,  gives us an excellent idea of what he was capable of.  I can do no more than suggest that there is a significant likelihood  of  this being reasonably close to the Farinelli sound!







JDHobbes said...

Well, sigh. This is such a difficult subject. Marian's voice is so far distant from that of Moreschi. It reminds me of the old videos of olympic athletes compared to those of today. There is just no way to compare them. I looked at another clip online about the castrati done by Cecelia Bartoli. How can anyone compare with her? I have to admit my ignorance. Perhaps you can share a thought about the history of castrati. How much of it was a sincere attempt at artistry or how much of it was the aristocracy's attempt to create "freaks" for their own amusement and snide jokes?

Edmund St. Austell said...

Do not feel alone. It is not easy to find well-informed opinions on this subject for reasons I refer to in my article. The subject is much studied but unfortunately many of the studies generate more heat than light. As for Bartoli, I consider her an excellent singer, and a significant scholar of 17th and 18th music. I would only add that Ann Hallenberg does an excellent job on "Son Qual Nave." RE: 18th century aristocratic taste, I think much of it driven by the omni-presence of boy sopranos in religious music, coupled with laws in many Latin countries against women performing on stage.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this, Edmund! God, what a relief to read a dignified and intellectual treatment on this subject!

R. Crosby

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank YOU, my friend!

Anonymous said...

If that picture of him is a fair representation, and if Ann Hallenberg's rendition of Son Qual Nave is close to what he sounded like, I can see why he was such a big deal in his day. Fascinating!


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thanks, Martha. Nice to hear from you again. You put it very simply and very well. I like that actually, because it cuts to the core reality that I have been trying to stress. Yes, well said!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the most interesting article on this ‘mysterious’ subject. Your point “it all comes down to artistry, talent and musicianship” is quite original, because usually people emphasize extraordinary natural qualities of castrati’s voices. Besides, it seems to me that ‘hype’ that surrounded names of great singers of that period, makes modern people believe that castrati were “gods” and “angels” of singing, unlike modern , more ‘human’ performers .Another point you made about Farinelli’s social origin is very interesting too.
His brother was a very talented musician; and it seems to me that in those years there were more talented musical families than now; or maybe the system of musical education was more effective. As I remember , Galli-Curci’s voice teacher was her own brother, and he was a brilliant teacher. Another famous family, that comes to mind is the Garcias, which consisted of famous singers and teachers.

I liked Moreschi’s voice:) It is wobbly, but the timbre is bright and interesting.The voice seems big. Radu Marian has a phenomenal timbre.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you for a very interesting comment, Natalie. I really appreciate it. You raise points that I had not thought of. There are musical families in all ages, I think, but it might well be the case that in the l7th and 18th centuries particularly, people born into a musical family were destined, socially, to become musicians. It would have been expected. This was the age of professional guilds and social classes, when choices of profession were prescribed, to a large extent. One thinks of the Bach family, and of course the Mozart family. As for the particular nature of the castrato voice, it has been described in many ways, and it certainly invites many kinds of reactions, some positive, some not. One of the really big differences between the 18th and the 19th centuries was the prevalent musical style. The coming of early Romanticism and, certainly, verismo, meant the demise of male altos and sopranos. One cannot imagine such voices in that kind of music drama. Romantic realism defaults instantly to standard and socially acceptable gender portrayals. But not to go on....I admit my own limitations in this unusual area of classical singing and music drama. Thanks again for a great comment!

Darren Seacliffe said...

If I remember correctly, the castrati first came about because women weren't allowed to take part in choirs. How they eventually stepped into the opera house from the church, I don't exactly know.

When talking about baroque opera, we can't describe their artistry as sincere in the modern context. They have plots which are even more ridiculous than later operas and the vocal displays, ornamentation and mannerisms exhibited by the castrati were excessive. Yes, some people may find the music and the singing therapeutic since baroque, after all, is classical music at its purest and simplest. However, others, like me, don't. An aria 10 minutes when it takes a counter-tenor forever to sing a sentence seriously wears out my patience. Still, we must be grateful that baroque opera existed. It was what gave rise to opera as we know it.

I feel that the castrati and opera seria was a baroque fad. In the early 18th century, you see hundreds of these opera seria. Quite a number succeed. As time goes by, you see fewer of them. Most hardly succeed. Maybe the baroque audiences came to realize the above things I mentioned. Mozart didn't even cast a castrato in the penultimate opera seria, Idomeneo. Rossini would later write them out of opera altogether with his innovations. One of these would be the musico, the mezzo playing the role of a male lover. You can find this in Rossini's Tancredi and La Donna del Lago.

I don't think the castrati sounded like females. If I remember correctly, Senesino was described as having an exaggerated falsetto. I think Farinelli would probably have such a voice. This falsetto should be a really beautiful one.
After all, Farinelli would later quit the opera house to sing the King of Spain to sleep. He would also have amazing vocal technique.
That was one thing which the castrati were really good in even if their singing is questionable. I recently found out that several of the top singers during Rossini's and Bellini's time were trained by castrati.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Darren. Yours is a most interesting comment. Thank you very much. I cannot personally say yea or nay to any speculative observations, because we simply cannot tell what the great castrato singers sounded like. I think the fact that Senesino sang alto, and Farinelli, as we can see from the song his brother wrote for him, could sing high soprano, indicates a difference between the voices. From accounts of the day, Farinelli's voice seems to have been uncommonly powerful (he was a big man) as well as very high. Radu Marian seems to me to be an example of how genuinely high and soprano-like a voice of this kind can be. The outline you draw of the history of opera during that period is essentially correct. I could add there that one of the reasons Mozart quit using castrati was that he did not personally like them. They tended rather to prima donna antics. Also, the best ones were extraordinarily well paid. Thanks again.

Hildegerd said...

The castratis of the past is the sad fundament of the art and music we love and the way of bell canto singing.

It came something good out of the horrible abuse of the children. And they should be honoured, because of them, none of the singers we love had been around.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article.

Stephen said...

Those music lovers familiar with the life of Farinelli know that he was no mere singer. Perhaps most importantly, he possessed an admirable character. One would be hard-pressed to find historical evidence of anyone, from stage-hand to king, who disliked him. In addition, his generosity extended to helping others, especially in Spain, such as assisting new young singers and musicians, raising funds for orphans, and building a hospital for the poor.

His intelligence, education, and loyalty resulted in his becoming the primary advisor to both King Philip V and, later, King Ferdinand VI. In 1750, the king granted Farinelli (at the age of 45) the Order of Calatrava, which brought Farinelli into the ranks of nobility.

Around January 20, I shall upload to my own channel a birthday celebration of Farinelli with a contemporary description of his singing voice, both authoritative and detailed. Stephen.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you so much, Stephen, for such an informative commen! I urge all readers interested in Farinelli to subscribe to Stephen's Youtube channel:

Check the comment above and try to catch the special around January 20!

Stephen said...

For another female singer who approximates the castrato voice better than most singers (especially women), I recommend listening to Marie Cristina Kiehr. There a several videos on YouTube, including my own channel. Her voice has a rare touch of male timbre, plus she avoids the breathiness, heavy vibrato, and looser technique common to many sopranos of the 20th and 21st centuries. Her voice is far more clear, focused, voci bianché. Most recordings that I have heard are from early composers and in Latin. I have yet to hear her sing an opera aria from the golden age of the Baroque, such as Handle or Hasse.

Edmund St. Austell said...

I will listen to her right away. I am keen to know what her sound is! Thank you very much!

Stephen said...

Here is the YouTube link for the short video with the description by a contemporary authority of Farinelli's voice:

(It took only 88 hours for YouTube to finally correct and accept the portrait image for the main thumbnail and to include the subject tags.)

Stephen said...

The biography of Farinelli by Patrick Barbier, “Farinelli, Le castrat des Lumieres” was published in 1994 and is in French. To my knowledge, there is no English translation. In the past, I have written and posted on-line a short biography of Farinelli in English; however, it was intended as an introduction to first-time readers. The posting above by La Prima Ragazza accurately describes additional facts about the singer and gives a hint as to how interesting a complete biography would be.

The Austrian musicologist and author Franz Haböck released in 1923 “Di Gesangskunst der Kastraten” with part A. “Die Kunst des Cavaliere Carlo Broschi Farinelli”, and part B. “Farinellis berühmte Arian.” The text is not generally available to the public, but the contents have been placed on-line.

I believe that a new Italian biography may be in preparation by il institute per lo studio di Farinelli, Bologna; however, I am not aware that it has been released yet.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Many thanks to Stephen and Prima Ragazza for fine and informative comments!

Anonymous said...

You dismiss Moreschi rather quickly; despite the strangeness and flaws in the recordings of him, apparently (according to the liner notes of the CD with his recordings) was considered to have an extremely beautiful and exceptional voice by his contemporaries when he was just a bit younger. The thing that I find most exceptional about him as a true castrato is the absolutely bizarre and unique sounding lower register and the real power of the higher register which doesn't sound either womanish or childlike. Taking stock of some of his best moments in these recordings (during which he was apparently so nervous that he was shaking in his shoes!) I feel like one can begin to imagine something like Farinelli's voice must have been back in the day, or even what Moreschi's must have been back in its prime. Also, Wagner sincerely considered Moreschi's teacher (also a castrato) for the role of Klingsor in Parsifal (before he realised that the anatomical details of that situation didn't suit up to a castrato singing the part!), so even in that second to last generation of castrati there was still something unique and beautiful, though maybe not at the level of the supreme Farinelli.

Edmund St. Austell said...

That is an extremely good and interesting comment Thank you very much!