This has been a difficult blog to start formally, like an essay. I tried three times.
Farinelli - the greatest castrato of all time. The voice of an angel in the body of a man:
But realities first: what is a castrato?
In Byzantium (c. 6th century), it was discovered that eunuchs retained the beautiful singing voices of their boyhood. By the 16th century in Italy, it was a common (but clandestine) practice to castrate boys before they reached puberty, for service in the church. This was not a mere chopping off of the testes, though it was often done with special scissors. Some more sophisticated, and surprisingly modern, procedures snipped the tubes through a tiny incision which was cauterised with a special rod.
Why? Because the soprano voice was necessary, but women were prohibited from singing in the church - a literal interpretation of St Paul's admonishment to keep women silent. (He actually meant they shouldn't hang around gossiping during the service!) As it was forbidden, parents usually plead "hunting accidents" and the like, as excuses for castration.
Lacking the rush of hormones, the castrati skipped puberty. They had softer skin and little body hair, but the bones were prone to osteoporosis. On the other hand, they had longer life spans than most men of the age. (Less testosterone equals less physiological stress, and their high salaries ensured the best medical care.)
Castrati had overdeveloped lung capacities and large chests. They could sustain long notes, and these notes were produced through boy-sized larynges. As the body grew, the voicebox remained the same.
The age of the castrato reached its zenith in the 18th century, when many famous Baroque composers wrote especially for the castrato voice. There are many operas from which certain parts, have since been excised or adopted by sopranos...poor substitutes.
We cannot truly know what the castrato sounded like. Today we have male sopranos, or sopranists, but these are often men who can reach falsetto scales, but at the same time the listener can hear the deeper male timbre on their lower notes.
This is not the case with the true male soprano. My best example would have been Michael Maniaci, a young American who I think has the voice of an absolute angel, and who may be reviving the role of the male soprano. (Unfortunately, his video has been removed from YouTube within the last week, probably because the theatre found someone had videoed a rehearsal, and castrati are popular this summer thanks to the Exhibition at the Handel House Museum and the run of related documentaries on BBC4.)
Michael Maniaci is a natural, or endocrinological, soprano because his larynx did not grow with his body. (I did a bit of research and found that this could be thanks to the broken X chromosome syndrome, in which his voicebox has completely different genetic material to the rest of his body - in other words, it's female.)
Michael was on this documentary which sought to recreate the voice of the castrato. How to combine the purity of a boy's voice in the head and sinuses of a man...They recorded a male tenor and boy sopranos. Digitally superimpose the tenor on the soprano scale, or the soprano on the tenor scale?
Soprano on tenor sounded too boyish, and they settled with the tenor on the soprano. "The voice" performed Ombra mai fu (written by Handel for the castrato) with a chamber orchestra.
I watched the film Farinelli: il castrato tonight. (A bit confusing, a French film about Italians in England. The brothers switched freely between French and Italian in the same conversation, but everyone else spoke French. When they first arrived in London, I thought they were staying with a French family living in exile! But it was hilarious to hear some of the English nobles speaking French with posh English accents.) I will not base my facts on the film. Although it was exceptionally beautiful, it was impressionistic and used a great deal of creative license. Interestingly, to create Farinelli's voice, the sound technicians combined the voice of a soprano with that of a tenor. (In my opinion, still sounds too womanly.)
Despite the depiction here and their Casanova-esque reputations (there was plenty of lovin' in the film), low testosterone levels would have resulted in a low libido.
Anyway, Farinelli, or Carlo Broschi, and his elder brother Riccardo, were born into a family of minor nobles near Naples. In about 1713-14 at the age of 7 or 8, Carlo was castrated to preserve his special voice, and his brother composed a great deal of music for him over the years.
He sang at royal courts all over Italy, and his reputation was such that he performed for France's Louis XV to great acclaim. It is a rare honour to receive a portrait of le roi in a diamond-studded frame!
The brothers then went on to conquer England - it was at this point that he stopped singing in the fussy continental style. Before, he was celebrated for singing 1,000 notes a minute, and sustaining one note for more than a minute. With Handel's music, he became sublime. Less became more. Instead of showing off technicality, he conveyed passion.
Ladies swooned during virtuoso performances, and as the castrati were the rock stars of their day, they were often throwing themselves at his feet. (Castrati were great objects of desire for wealthy ladies, as there was no danger of "unwanted results", ie. pregnancy.)
At the height of his popularity in England, Farinelli retired from the public eye and took an appointment to sing for King Philip of Spain who was prone to bouts of deep depression. Like David did for Solomon, only Farinelli could lift the king out of his dolor, and his 3 year contract stretched to 25!
At the end, laden with riches and the title of Cavaliere, he turned down a royal Spanish pension and returned to Italy, living his last years in peace and prosperity in a castle near Bologna. Even Mozart and the Emperor Leopold II went to visit him.
Always a kind and generous donor and patron, at his death in 1782 (nearly a decade before Mozart), Farinelli distributed his wealth where it was most needed.
His tomb was later destroyed by Napoleonic troops in an age that no longer revered the castrato. By then, they were considered freaks. In the mid-19th century, the Catholic Church banned the use of castrati for singing church music, though the practice hung on.
The last surviving castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, a chorister at the Sistine Chapel, recorded the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria for the gramophone in the early 1900s. He was a mediocre singer, but the novelty is that this grainy recording is our only remaining link to a lost art, if I may call it such.
As we can no longer hear Michael Maniaci online, there is another sopranist called Joerg Waschinski who has sound on his website. Click here to hear him sing a composition by none other than Riccardo Broschi. He is rather a hottie, so click here if you want to hear AND see!