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Bring Back the Sun

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Submitted By ChuckHarris3
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“Bring Back the Sun”:
The Historical Significance of the Castrati

Chuck Harris

Music 425
Dr. HM Lewis
December 15, 2009 The Castrato has long been a subject shrouded in controversy and mystery. Castration has been used in many cultures and religions since the dawn of time (Eunuchs). We don’t know exactly when castration started to be used specifically for the voice but we have records dating back to the 16th century. These documents hint towards it being done because of Christianity. This paper will look at one Castrato in particular, Carlo Broschi more commonly known as, Farinelli. I will use the film Farinelli and other historical and educational articles and books to help discuss this paper.
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 jolt 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. The King is shrouded in another kind of darkness: his famous, chronic melancholy (we would call it 'clinical depression'). He pronounces the whole earth a tomb, makes the sign of the cross, then calls for a dose of his personal pain reliever - the voice of Carlo Broschi, known as Farinelli: 'Bring back the sun', he demands. Without hesitation the singer intones in a thin soprano the mournfully exposed opening phrase of 'Alto Giove', an aria from Nicola Porpora's Polifemo. Farinelli is known to have performed the work at the Haymarket Theatre in 1735, a few months after his London debut. An unseen orchestra enters as if from that other, distant theatre, pulling the castrato and his song into a brighter place, an illuminated region beyond the eclipse, an imaginary world of music. The whole, lush scene serves not only as welcome interlude but also as telling reminder, in the midst of a self-consciously 'historical' film, of the problem of history itself, of how frightfully dim it can be for those who would glimpse it. The sight of so many spectators straining to view one of nature's aberrations through clouded lenses seems to comment on the very obscurity of the film's historical narrative, not to mention our own peculiar status as viewers peering into the past it represents.
Indeed, the image of the eclipse - according to its etymology, a moment when something 'fails to appear' - stands as a symbol for the history offered in this film, the 'true story of a world-famous castrato', as it has been billed. For the story of the castrato, that figure eclipsed almost two centuries ago, is certainly a shadowy tale in the history of music, a story that must always be about something that 'failed to appear'. If the truth of history can reside in such empty spaces, those impossible gaps that separate present from past, then the figure of the castrato offers a kind of chilling embodiment of that truth, a poignant testimony to things that can never be recovered. One of those unrecoverable things is music. The very genre of opera seria, not to mention its composers, depended on the castrati as a kind of raison d'etre. No wonder Corbiau's Farinelli makes such an issue of the relationship between these star performers and the men who wrote for them. The film presents the charged collaboration in two complementary case studies. We witness on the one hand the disgust of a self-assured Handel, who resents the attention paid to all such male divas, and on the other the envy of the singer's insecure brother, the composer Riccardo Broschi. To be fair, Corbiau's invented scenario is plausible, at least from a modern perspective. After all, who today (besides musicologists) has ever heard of Riccardo Broschi, let alone the other early eighteenth-century authors of Italian opera? Hasse, Leo, Vinci, Porpora were eclipsed as completely as the singers they serviced. Just how much this was the case we can see by comparison with opera of the early nineteenth century. It is now possible, for instance, to think of, say, Rossini, or Meyerbeer without giving a thought to Giovanni Battista Velluti - one of the last castrati trained in the eighteenth-century tradition, heard by a squeamish Napoleon and by an admiring Stendhal - who performed in Rossini's Aureliano in Palmira (1813) and appeared opposite the Spanish mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran in Meyerbeer's I crociato in Egitto (1824).(1) Yet it is simply unimaginable to mention the name Riccardo Broschi without lavishing attention on his much more illustrious brother, Farinelli.
Probably the most famous singer of his generation, Farinelli was a prominent media figure, both satirised on the London stage and regularly lampooned and caricatured in the press. The beloved singer was treated in one full-length biography published as early as 1784, and even served as an informant to Dr Burney, who interviewed him for his treatise On the Present State of Music in France and Italy (1771). In the century after his death (long before Corbiau ever had the idea) at least half a dozen playwrights and composers used his life as a source of inspiration for operas, comedies and historic plays in French, English, Spanish and German. (3) In other words, the Corbiau film had a good number of precedents, and a good deal of information from which to construct a plausible picture of this curious historical figure. The plot does present, in a kind of deliberate jumble, a number of the more important episodes. The last quarter of the film, for instance, offers a brief glimpse of Farinelli's semi-retirement to Spain where - the story goes - David-like, he cured King Philip of his depression, singing him to sleep nightly with the same four songs. This familiar anecdote is not actually enacted in the film, but merely hinted at. So is another odd fact of Farinelli's long stay in Madrid (1737 to 1759). It is reported that the aging castrato became involved in the business of importing Hungarian stallions for the improvement of the native breed. He oversaw, that is, a kind of stud farm - a detail the screenwriters were so delighted with (and so anxious to impart with deep psychological significance) that horses run wild throughout the film. Other stories receive fuller exposition. An early scene offers a version of the famous singing contest between Farinelli and a trumpet player. In Burney's version, the seventeen-year-old singer, recently arrived in Rome, finds himself in nightly battle with a German trumpeter who happened to be featured in one of his arias. Their competition seems to have centered on the cadenza. Burney tells of a certain triumphant evening on which Farinelli, appearing to be spent, faked out his opponent, leaving him defenseless as he pulled off a display of even greater virtuosity. The excess of notes and divisions not only thrilled the audience but, Burney concludes, won him 'the superiority which he ever maintained over all his contemporaries'.(4) Corbiau's slightly altered version transposes the scene to an outdoor street fair, and makes the moment of leaving the trumpet player in the dust the occasion of an original myth: the singer pulverises player and instrument into flour, farina. Voila, the birth of his never-explained stage name.
Almost all history comes packaged in a similar way. Corbiau spins the historical 'facts', necessarily limited, into densely woven, fantastic fictions meant to be the source of the film's pleasure. A case in point is Farinelli's collaboration with Riccardo, who did indeed provide material his sibling would make famous on the operatic stage. The screenplay cannot resist turning what was at the very least a practical artistic relationship into a complex sibling rivalry. The struggle among brother musicians repeats, too predictably, the supposed jealousy between Mozart and Salieri that fuelled Peter Shaffer's Amadeus. In music as in life, there just aren't that many new stories to tell. In a similar way, the film psychologies the well-documented story of the competition between two opera companies, one directed by Handel at Covent Garden, the other - the so-called Opera of the Nobility at the Haymarket Theatre - led by Farinelli's former teacher Porpora. When Farinelli came to London in October 1734 to sing in Porpora's troupe, it is said that he caused a sensation with his debut as Arbace in Artaserse, an operatic pastiche with music by Hasse, Porpora, as well as brother Riccardo, who, according to Burney, had composed the opera's celebrated aria 'Son qual nave'.(5) Farinelli's performance of that aria featured an opening note sustained so long that the crowd became ecstatic, inciting a certain Lady Rich to shout the blasphemous 'One God, One Farinelli!' The presence of Farinelli at the Haymarket Theatre (together with the equally famous Senesino, who had recently deserted Handel's company) thus gave the Nobles a distinct advantage, and poor Handel a run for his money. The whole competitive business continued for about three years, at the end of which Handel apparently suffered a stroke, both companies folded for lack of funds, and Farinelli shipped off to Spain. Corbiau's apparent goal is to transform the conventional link between composer and singer into a drearily complicated, co-dependent relationship (constructed as father-son, master-slave, abuser-enabler: take your pick) whose ultimate crisis will serve as the explanation for Handel's demise and Farinelli's eventual escape from the London opera scene. Indeed, the narrative strategy of the entire film exhibits the same, obsessive tendency again and again. This is, to put it simply, the need to shift attention from what is recoverable to what is necessarily unrecoverable - from the innocent, even cheerful surface of history's anecdotes to its darker, guilty secrets. This relentless search for the unknown, for the missing parts of familiar tales, seems to emerge as a profound consequence of the very history on which the film is based, a history that undeniably revolves around two 'missing things' whose story could never be told. It is this original, repressed narrative of castration - a ghoulish testimony of missing testicles - that the film ultimately seeks to put before the ears and eyes of its twentieth-century witnesses. The resulting 'true story' puts music history on trial, transforming a musical drama about musical drama into an eighteenth-century mystery story, a kind of whodunnit about an original, unsolved theft.
So, how was it done, anyway? The question reflects a long history of enquiry reaching back at least to the beginning of the eighteenth century. The issue of surgery, for instance, was addressed as early as 1707 by Charles d'Ancillon in his Traite des eunuques,(6) which offered a description of one of the standard procedures - the severing of the spermatic duct leading to the testis. In order to reduce the pain of cutting, the child was usually drugged and then soaked for a time in a scalding bath. The whole procedure, sometimes referred to as a 'partial' castration, caused the withering and eventual disappearance of the testicles. (There is a strangely affecting account of the operation - told in graphic detail from a child's point of view - in the opening chapter of Anne Rice's historical fantasy on the castrati, Cry to Heaven.)(7) Yet the surgery itself tells only part of the story, inevitably raising other, more vexing questions - where, for instance, the deeds were done and under whose authorisation. Such mysteries certainly distracted the intrepid Dr Burney when later in the eighteenth century he travelled through Europe to chronicle the musical habits of his exotic French and Italian neighbours. In Italy, repeated enquiries about exactly where castration was practised always elicited the same response: not here. The most common of these cover-ups, as Burney himself noted, tended to link castration to the circumstance of some extraordinary accident. Surgery then became (if it figured in the story at all) a necessity - a secondary, emergency measure taken to benefit a child who had already sustained serious injury. John Rosselli reports the frequently cited 'bite of a wild boar' as among the more unlikely tragedies suffered by hapless boys in the middle of the eighteenth century.(8) The standard explanation for Farinelli's castration, as we learn from his eighteenth-century biographer, Giovenale Sacchi, relied on the slightly more plausible - though still naggingly incomplete - story of a 'riding accident'. In the Corbiau film the subtext of this chute de cheval gains considerable narrative significance. It seems that the potential connection of the incident to Farinelli's later Hungarian stallion business was just too suggestive. And so we find the singer haunted by horses all through the film. Indeed, the recurring nightmarish image of bolting steeds - a fragment, I suppose, of the castrato's disturbed unconscious - interrupts the story to such an extent that we begin to see poor Carlo as the prototypical victim of some kind of repressed memory syndrome. Early in the film, it is a grown-up Farinelli, struck by fever and hallucinating on opium, who begs his brother to tell the oft-told tale. Riccardo's version is credible though formulaic: little Carlo, gravely ill after their father's death, climbed from his bed one night, went out to the stable and, delirious with fever, attempted to ride his horse. There the story ends. The horrifying ride and tragic fall (like the proverbial tree in the woods) had no witnesses. 'I got there too late', is all Riccardo can say. The alibi is narrated, incidentally, in Italian, a linguistic touch that lends a quality of authenticity to the Broschi brothers' off-stage relationship in the context of this predominantly French-language film. But the shift also makes us hear the narrative itself as something undeniably 'other', as if to suggest that castration was, well, an Italian thing; we really wouldn't understand.
This incomprehensibility emerges as perhaps the truest dimension of the so-called true story the film presents. In scene on historical scene, what Corbiau ultimately manages to show is just how much we - like audiences and critics who came before us - can fail to understand about the whole, shady business. In the face of historical scrutiny the castrato will always remain somehow inscrutable, a figure enshrouded in mystery. Such mystery, which tints the historical process, certainly extends to the single most colorful aspects of the castrato's story. I refer, of course, to the mythic sexual prowess of the eunuch, a fable that has assumed many elaborate forms through history (the Corbiau film proving no exception). An unusually level-headed version of this mythology comes to us, interestingly, by way of the nineteenth-century surgeon Benedetto Mojon, in a little French treatise on the 'physiological effects' of castration published in 1804 - just a few years, that is, after the French invasion of Italy initiated political changes that were said to have brought about the end of the castrato tradition.(9) The enlightened French of the previous century had, in fact, always looked down on the strange practice their Italian neighbors enjoyed, and Napoleon was no exception. As he explains, a eunuch castrated at around six years of age will retain, at eighteen, the penis of a six-year-old. But when the operation has been performed closer to the age of puberty, his equipment - or what's left of it - will more nearly resemble that of a normal man, with one notable exception: 'erection takes place much more frequently than in the case of non-castrated men'.(10) This piece of so-called data is meant to serve as partial explanation for tales of sexual promiscuity, which Mojon goes on to provide: from Juvenal, who critiqued the excesses of the Roman eunuchs in his sixth satire; to an account related by the forensic doctor Johann Peter Frank in 1779, in which four castrati managed to 'know' all the women in a single small town, causing a scandal of such proportion that police intervention was required. Of course, the real privilege enjoyed by such altered men was that they left behind no lasting trace of sexual misconduct. It was presumably this libidinous advantage that posed such a threat to a fully endowed man, who knew that with a castrato a woman might enjoy sexual pleasures - as Mojon and others put it - 'without risk'.
In the age of AIDS, the sentiment may strike us as somehow intensely nostalgic, something that Corbiau makes us feel powerfully by imaging Carlo and Riccardo in an impossibly Baroque sexual liaison, a ménage trois that willfully reinstates the risk. Sex with Farinelli is, as the singer explains to one potentially interested party, 'never without danger'. Riccardo's somewhat incomprehensible role ensures that the woman in question will always be fully inseminated. But there was a flip side to all these vicarious tales of sexual excess. The same physiological condition that accounted for the castrato's supposedly enviable position behind closed doors also made him the object of public ridicule. The operation, after all, caused physical deformities that could not help but make the castrated man appear like a kind of monster. The principal defect - the castrato's unnaturally high voice - was of course not visible at all, resulting from a larynx that failed to grow to adult size. Other parts of the body, however, more than made up the difference. The arms and legs, and sometimes even the breasts, of the adult male castrato tended to develop to larger-than-normal proportions, making singers tall and ungainly. As they grew older some of them (like the latter-day 'fat ladies' of opera) grew obese. If in the eighteenth century such physical distortions invited public scorn, in the nineteenth they were more likely to provoke a kind of dreadful sympathy. With the waning and eventual disappearance of the castrato tradition, these mutilated creatures slowly and perhaps inevitably came to be viewed through another sort of distorting lens, as beings whose very disfigurement recalled that other, more typical Romantic figure, the diseased and suffering artist. Seen from this angle, the castrati were, so to speak, turned inside out; no longer simply monstrous, they became pathetic, endowed with feelings.
To speak of their condition was, then, to imagine - in the anterior mode - the pain they 'must have endured'. Who has not been touched by the portrait painted by Balzac in his tragic tale Sarrasine (1830), which recounted the supposedly true story of a French sculptor who sexually pursued the Italian castrato Zambinella? Into the singer's mouth Balzac puts the following bleak confession: 'For me the world is a desert. I am an accursed creature, condemned to understand happiness, to feel it, to desire it, and, like many others, forced to see it flee from me continually.' Something like this Romantic voice whispers, to be sure, in the background of Corbiau's Farinelli. But Corbiau pushes this ethos of the sad social outcast even further, by supplying the plot with a secondary character - a little boy named Benedicte ('blessed'), whose obvious vulnerability is meant to form a counterpart to Farinelli's own pain. For Benedicte is also wounded (blesse), a victim of some childhood trauma that has prevented his body - like Farinelli's precious, hidden larynx - from growing to normal size. In one too touching scene the boy appears without his leather brace, his tiny deformed body exposed to the harsh world. 'Are you in pain, my child?', the castrato asks in predictable empathy. The boy, who has presumably known nothing but pain, describes his condition as that of an escargot sans coquille. In the next scene we find this quaint and otherwise forgettable metaphor developed to grotesque effect. At a banquet, servants are shucking oysters as fast as they can be consumed. A long, almost pornographic close-up offers one of the still-living creatures for our scrutiny - sans coquille. Quivering from a perfect silver fork, the shelled mollusk is either a fragile vocal cord or a horrible, missing genital. The sick-making spectacle of oyster and knife hardly puts too fine a point on the mystery of the 'missing thing' this film seeks to resolve.
The director, like an overzealous social worker, forces the spectator to confront, once and for all, the very thing that the castrati apparently never let their audiences forget. In the late eighteenth century, we are told, Italian spectators were heard to cry 'Ewiva il coltello!' (Long live the knife!) in appreciation of the primo uomo. It is another of those queer stories that makes us realize how unimaginably distant the people who populate the past really are - indeed, how much we tend to reject them when their history seems too strange to stomach. Corbiau, preferring the gut-level, wants to put the whole image right in front of our eyes, so we have no choice but to look.
Listening can have an even stronger effect. I admit to a distinctly squeamish reaction the first time I heard the voice of Alessandro Moreschi, the singer billed as 'the last castrato' from the Vatican choir, who was recorded on two occasions by the Gramophone Company just after the turn of this century. The recordings were essentially a novelty item cooked up by the company's London representative, Fred Gaisberg, who had travelled to Rome in 1902 with the intent of capturing the voice of the ninety-two-year-old Pope Leo XIII. When the plan fell through, Gaisberg apparently settled for the next best thing: the song of the 'angel of Rome', as Moreschi was sometimes called.(11) Between this and a second excursion in 1904 the company made more than a dozen records that preserved, in a few faded melodies, the castrato's profoundly moving swansong, the last gasps of a vanishing breed. This fact alone imbues the recording with that unique affect we sometimes find hidden in old photographs, the feeling that we are spying or eavesdropping on the dead. But the reaction provoked by Moreschi's voice is more intense. It is not so much the style of performance that disturbs (a near yodel - strange enough in its own right) as the timbre, the way the sound is produced. In Moreschi's performance of the Bach-Gounod 'Ave Maria', for instance, notes just above middle C sound, as with a boy soprano, like the very bottom of his vocal range, but they are belted with the force of a fully grown man. As the melodic line lifts, remarkably, to take a soprano's high B the voice seems to come more from his head, but again - recording quality aside - the sound is different: clearer and purer than the color of either a female soprano or a male falsettist, it seems to possess an odd, penetrating sweetness, the sharp taste of an unknown fruit. Voices, like flavors, are notoriously difficult to describe, but reacting to Moreschi goes beyond this sort of difficulty. For a singing voice also produces a kind of empathetic reaction in a listener, who will hear in a particular vocal quality the resonance of a body that is, in one way or another, familiar. If, as Barthes has suggested, the poignance of listening to Schubert Lieder (or other popular songs, for that matter) relates to a perception that, in some fundamental sense, we too are singing along, then the shattering emotion of an operatic scream must belong to an opposite phenomenon - a sense of identifying with, and losing oneself in, a sound and body that is not our own.(12)
Yet neither of these conditions accurately locates the feeling produced by Moreschi's singing. The uncanny (yes, hair-raising) effect of listening to his voice lies in something still more extreme - an utter lack of identification: I simply cannot fathom the body that produces those sounds. The voice, in its utter strangeness, cuts off the possibility of my forming any real or imagined connection with the singing body. And in that breach, I cannot help but be reminded of the uncomfortable lack that defines the castrato himself. It should go without saying that the schlocky music and yodeling vocals preserved on the Moreschi recordings would bear little resemblance to the sounds that would have issued from a singer of the eighteenth century. Yet while it is relatively easy to evaluate stylistic differences in the music Moreschi sings - the aesthetic divergence between Gounod and, say, Hasse - it is next to impossible to judge how that same difference in aesthetic preference might have manifested itself in a vocal noise. However we might try to project the image of this rare recorded voice backward in time, to conjure up the sound of a castrato from an earlier age, we will always fall far short. And if the faded, scratched patina of Moreschi's twentieth-century voice gives us chills, who knows what effect Farinelli's might have had? Before the age of the phonograph, of course, the only recorded traces of the castrati were those left in writing, not just in biographical anecdotes but in passages of music we know to have been composed for specific stars on specific occasions. In a few cases, we even have evidence of the same aria written twice over - conceived by the composer in one instance for a castrato, and, in another, for a fully endowed singer. It may be useful to examine one case in some detail in order to see what we can make of this evidence, to get a feel for this phantom presence (what Barthes might have called the 'grain') of the castrato. Let's take one of the best-known pieces of dramatic music from the early eighteenth century, Handel's Messiah. It is well known that the work was revived - which is to say, recomposed - half a dozen times during the composer's life, each time for a completely different cast of performers. The oratorio was, of course, not exactly an opera; but since in part it relied on the same type of generic operatic music that Handel would have employed for his opere serie, if offers us, I think, an oblique window through which we might make out the shadowy presence of the castrato on the eighteenth-century musical stage. It was not until Handel's 1750 revival of the work for a performance at Covent Garden that this figure comes reliably into view. For this occasion, Handel engaged the services of the popular castrato Gaetano Guadagni, the singer who a decade or so later would make the role of Orfeo in Gluck's 0rfeo ed Euridice .(l5) Since the earlier performances of Messiah had done without a castrato soloist, Handel set about re-scoring some of Charles Jennens's libretto to music that would best display his new singer's skills. One of the arias thus transformed was 'But who may abide the day of his coming', from the first part of the oratorio, a heavy and somewhat brooding song originally conceived for the opposite end of the vocal color spectrum, a solo bass. In Handel’s early version of the song, written for the first Dublin performance of Messiah in 1742, the grave affect is produced in part by the relentless iambic thrust of the music's siciliano rhythm. A persistent, limping declamation permeates the two sentences from the Book of Malachi that together make up the aria's two parts - the first part based on the long question, 'But who may abide the day of his coming, and who shall stand when he appeareth?', and the second on the inconclusive answer, 'For he is like a refiner's fire'. Handel underlines the difference between the two parts by contrasting the simple declamation of the opening questions - sung to a halting melody interrupted by frequent orchestral 'punctuation marks' - with a more lavish melodic setting of the next sentence. Most significantly, he makes the line more continuous, radically extending the image of the 'refiner's fire', as if to extrude the striking metaphor through the heat of melody itself into a long, melting melisma that fully consumes the word 'fire'. Sung by the bass voice and accompanied by cello, the extended passage, flowing thick and smokey like lava, slowly drags the section to an uncertain close, before the final return of a now ornamented da capo. In Handel's 1750 revision for Guadagni, we find the aria's overall affect completely transformed. Where the 'grain' of the castrato appears most clearly is both in the song's level of technical difficulty and in its sheer scope. The aria conceived for the castrato is, in a word, a show-stopper. Its form, more than doubled in size, involves a dazzling mutilation of the standard da capo design, which, if nothing else, seems to increase the level of excitement. While it begins with an iambic tune vaguely similar in sound to the first version, it quickly diverges from the simple-minded bass melody to include more elaborate melismatic passages as well as a few long, sustained tones to show off the castrato's breath control. Then, without warning, the orchestra gets white hot, leaping recklessly into a refiner's fire of surging, tremolo strings that start the second part of the aria several beats ahead of schedule. If the melody Handel first conceived for bass rolled along like molten rock, this version is definitely more than a few degrees hotter. The long melisma on 'refiner's fire' is this time not just twice as long but at least twice as fast, bubbling with a fierce, hysterical intensity that seems to burn right through the words to release the essence of the Old Testament prophecy. After this barely controlled screaming, which ends as abruptly as it began, the aria returns suddenly, almost schizophrenically, to the calmer questions of the first part. But this too quickly breaks off, as if unable to withstand the force of the heat, and the aria - again breaking convention - erupts prophetically into an unexpected final refrain of the enflamed music, now completed by a cadenza, to send up the whole orchestra together with its possessed singer in a blaze of glory.
By exploiting the superhuman capacities of his singer Handel finally enacts the complete, messianic drama of the aria's prophetic text.(16) Interestingly, it was the later, more flamboyant castrato version of 'But who may abide', and not the earlier, more decorous aria, that eventually came, by erroneous 'tradition' (after the eunuchs were long gone), to be sung once again by solo bass - often to ridiculous effect. To hear these searing alto riffs lumbering along an octave lower than they were meant to sound creates an effect of sheer struggle, more sub- than superhuman. The considerably-less-than-spectacular effect of most modern performances of the aria serves to underscore a problem so frequently argued in debates about so-called historical performance that I need not belabor it here. Suffice it to say that even when trying our best, we moderns will never quite get it right. Yet this very problem - which visits even the most discerning performances of old music - acquires a peculiar resonance in the face of the castrato. For once we have recognized the 'grain' of Guadagni in the purposely extravagant, even queer, turns of an aria designed to celebrate the magnificent strangeness of its singer, we cannot help but become more aware of the inevitable problem of that singer's absence. Without the castrato this aria is, like so much of the music created for these lost singers, essentially unrevivable. This, in the end, is the stumbling block of history itself. Perhaps all precious things from the past take after the castrato in some sense: their best parts appear to us as if severed by the sharp blade of time. But it is that lost castrato himself who, stuck in a mise en abime of history, reminds us even more poignantly, even appallingly, of that separation - by never allowing us to forget the cut that originally created him.
The film Farinelli manages to keep in view something of the castrato's problematic grain not so much through the message as through the medium - the exploitation of surgical techniques proper to film itself. Indeed, cutting occurs so prominently, and so violently, in certain moments that the splice seems to form a subtext all of its own, the radical use of montage functioning to create a subliminal narrative whose form, like the chopped-up da capo Handel fashioned for Guadagni, puts the idea of the castrato directly before our eyes. In the film's opening sequence, for example, we meet a dissipated Farinelli doing opium alone in his bedroom. After one too many flashbacks, he reclines on his fur-lined cape, closes his eyes to the sweet memory of boys singing Scarlatti, and - bam! - wild horses thunder across the screen, cutting off the scene, and the music, so loudly that (especially in certain theatres) the unexpected noise makes the heart race. The next time horses happen, Farinelli is again lying down, now in the naked embrace of an aristocratic groupie. When the sexually curious countess reaches between the sheets to find his missing bits, the scene once again - joltingly - cuts to the stampede as she whispers the charged word that says what she has touched: 'castrato'. The severing of the film at these points seems easy enough to interpret - a bit too easy, perhaps, to hold all that much interest for the viewer. Stampeding horses, like exposed oysters, have all the crudeness of a music video: more or less empty 'symbols', they stand for interpretation without actually stimulating thought. What is compelling, in fact, issues not from visual imagery but from aural effect. The violence of the cut is conveyed through the soundtrack, sheer noise that suddenly damages the expected flow of events. We are caught unawares, surprised by sound, which may be the one remaining sensory dimension in our hyper visual culture that still has the power to shock. The film's most virtuosic bit of editing, a further taste of such power, presents a moment whose utter strangeness begins to capture the true flavour of the castrato phenomenon. It is, appropriately, a scene of music - no more than a soundbyte, really - about halfway through the film. We begin with an unprepared and unplaceable face shot of Farinelli, in full stage makeup, fiendishly executing the beginning of what turns out to be 'Generoso risvegliati o core', a bravura aria from Hasse's Cleofide. (17) The aria's breathless opening phrases yield quickly to the conventional display of vocal excess - a long melisma on an open syllable ('ah') heavy with trills and arpeggios. But almost as soon as it begins, the melody is sliced off - mid-arpeggio - replaced suddenly by another piece, in a distant key, on an entirely different instrument. The camera has cut to Handel, seated in an empty theatre playing (in fact, composing) the beginning of his F-major organ concerto. Now you hear it; now you don't. The cut reveals an uncanny connection between the two instruments, a comparison that explores the castrato's special status in the world of music. Heard alongside Handel's organ, the virtuosic passagework in Farinelli's aria sounds as if it too were rendered on a precision instrument, fashioning him, in this swift and symbolic move, as an unmistakable 'singing machine'. But the musical result of the splice also unsettles. The vertiginous shift from Farinelli's 'organ' to Handel's organ scores a near miss, creating a critical moment of instability on the soundtrack: it literally takes the wind out of the aria. And the effect gives the listener, if only for a moment, a tiny shock of pleasure.
It is, I would argue, through this kind of special effect - and not through the overwrought plot - that the film comes closest to capturing its arcane subject matter. For what the splice ultimately produces is a bit of deformed music, a wonderfully artificial fusion of sounds that gives pleasure precisely because it is so unrealistic. The fleeting moment on the soundtrack begins to suggest, at least by extension, an idea of what it might have been like to experience the artificial delights of Baroque opera, especially the allure of the castrato singer. Indeed, of all 'special effects' enjoyed by opera audiences of the early eighteenth century, the castrato was undoubtedly the most special, the most unreal. Corbiau wants to put this artificial wonder on the couch, to probe his pain, but, just like Madonna in Truth or Dare, the confessional scenes come across as empty decoration, Baroque filigree: the off-stage persona falls hopelessly flat in comparison with technicolor performance. What counts most, in the end, is the spectacle of singing itself. The film narrative is therefore most interesting (perhaps even most authentic) when it seeks to represent something of the thrill of the castrato on stage. For among the countless tales about these unnatural creatures, it is surely the stories of singing that still ring truest. Burney's account of Farinelli's sound-off with the German trumpeter, even with its eighteenth-century Anglicisms, conveys the enthusiasms of modern sports writing, the sheer enjoyment of physical spectacle. Such stories naturally modulate into others of bodily pleasure - that ecstatic listening which forms so important a part of the castrato's sexual mythology. Farinelli on the London stage, like Elvis on the Ed Sullivan show, had the power, they say, to make women swoon. Listening was another of those special pleasures - like sex with a eunuch - that could be enjoyed 'without risk'. I do not know whether Balzac ever had occasion to hear Velluti, who was in his prime just after the turn of the nineteenth century. Yet his story of Sarrasine, one of the most elaborate of all legendary tales of listening, suggests that he knew something about the power of the castrato's song. The prose becomes so steamy in places that it begins to read like a classic piece of nineteenth-century erotica. Here is the protagonist's first, blissful trip to the opera: When La Zambinella sang, the effect was delirium. The artist felt cold; then he felt a heat which suddenly began to prickle in the innermost depth of his being, in what we call the heart, for lack of any other word! He did not applaud, he said nothing, he experienced an impulse of madness, a kind of frenzy which overcomes us only when we are at the age when desire has something frightening and infernal about it ... This agile voice, fresh and silvery in timbre, supple as a thread shaped by the slightest breath of air, rolling and unrolling, cascading and scattering, this voice attacked his soul so vividly that several times he gave vent to involuntary cries torn from him by convulsive feelings of pleasure which are all too rarely vouchsafed by human passions. Presently he was obliged to leave the theatre. (18) The passage leaves us in no doubt - despite what is unsaid - of the connection between listening and sexual enjoyment. Later in Balzac's story, we even witness the seedy transformation of opera house into porn house as the protagonist returns night after night to repeat that unexpected (and presumably messy) moment of jouissance that first required him to leave his seat; in subsequent visits Sarrasine rents a private box so that he can listen - and 'enjoy' - without danger of exposure. Unfortunately for us, Corbiau's narrative, however indebted to Balzac, cannot claim any of the felicities of this nineteenth-century style. The authors of the screenplay are so afraid we will miss the point that they rush to fill the blanks Balzac invitingly leaves. So we must watch a scene between Farinelli and a sex-starved noblewoman who delivers the utterly pedestrian line: 'Last night I believe I experienced my first musical orgasm'. (Oh, I get it.) The sentence sounds a little better in French, but the film seems to fare best when it leaves music to speak for itself. Three scenes attempt to represent the pleasures of listening directly, putting Farinelli on stage to sing for an audience of eighteenth-century admirers. Two of these extended musical sequences come more or less out of Farinelli's documented performance history; the third is pure fiction. All but one feature appropriately truncated versions of the da capo arias he performs - the middle sections excised not for any symbolic purpose, I would guess, but for fear that a longer song might diminish the effect on film. How, indeed, was the director to get across the joys of singing in the eighteenth century to a musically uneducated movie-going public in the twentieth? There are two ways, I think: one that has to do with the soundtrack of the film itself, the other with what we might call the hype surrounding it. The first performance scene makes liberal use of the topoi of twentieth-century popular music. Farinelli, a star being born, walks into a chaotic theatre, beats off a frenzied crowd. Later we see him being lowered on stage from a chariot, like some heavy-metal artist (I was reminded of Robert Reiner's This Is Spinal Tap), with more cheers from his delighted audience. He sings the aria 'Ombra fedele', from his brother's Idapse, a Venetian opera he was supposed to have performed around 1730, just as his career was beginning to take off. To make sure we get a sense of the guy's popularity, he throws his scarf, like an Elvis impersonator, at the moment of the dominant cadence that ends the first musical period. But the best is yet to come, in the cadenza of the da capo: Farinelli's improvised line leads to a completely other- worldly, and unnaturally long, soprano high A. The sound is artificial, a technological manipulation that allows the note to be extended indefinitely in time, without variation in pitch or timbre (the aural equivalent of a freeze frame). The tone is suspended for just long enough, in fact, to create the delightful impression of time having stopped. At the same time, it conveys a clear idea of the superhuman quality attributed to the castrato, the very quality that accounted for the singer's much discussed charisma, his sexual magnetism. Penetrated by the sound, women in the opera house faint in their chairs. A countess seated alone in her private box - like the surreptitious Sarrasine, perhaps - ejaculates a single tear.
The musical feat seems to relate to that anecdote of Farinelli's 1734 debut on the London stage - the legendary performance of 'Son qual nave' from Artaserse during which it was said he held a note for longer than one minute. When a few scenes later the film presents its own version of this legend, the famous note is produced, like the top A in 'Ombra fedele', as a special effect of the soundtrack (though the duration is considerably shorter than the mythic minute). The result, however, seems a little less dramatic than before, probably because the note (a middle G) lies much lower in the singer's vocal register. Not surprisingly, the most spectacular of all these moments is reserved for the final staged performance. Yet, unlike the two previous instances of singing, this one has no basis in history. It presents Farinelli performing from Handel's Rinaldo, at the Theatre of the Nobility under Porpora's direction - this occasion of poetic license serving as a convenient resolution of the long- suspended story of castration that has driven the film's plot. In the scene, Corbiau has Farinelli sing two of the most famous arias from Rinaldo. The climactic final scene offers, in other words, 'real' music, as opposed to that other, gourmet variety known as 'early' music, consisting of the hard-to-find Baroque specialties the film has been serving so far. Farinelli's first number is Rinaldo's slow and plaintive 'Cara sposa', a lament full of shady, sighing strings. The title character sings the song in Act I to his absent lover Almirena, who has just disappeared into a cloud of sorcery ('My dear beloved, where are you? / Return to see my tears'). The relentlessly crying melody squeezes a tear from his own eye, if not from ours; after which Farinelli, having left the stage, returns to sing the film's last number, another song of sighs, this time from the second act of Rinaldo. But something has happened. The same voice that sang the virile Rinaldo now sings a very different tune, for a completely different character: it is 'Lascia ch'io pianga', a sad and noble saraband written not for the boy lover but for his girl - Almirena. This aria, moreover, is the only one in the film that we hear uncut, a fact that serves only to underscore the final, fabulous sound effect. A grief-stricken cry in the cadenza marks the most extreme instance of technological manipulation in the film: Farinelli sings an excruciatingly long high C, a note that penetrates - cuts like a knife - right through the listeners portrayed on the screen in order to prick us. It is a kind of chilling sci-fi effect: stunningly, colossally artificial. I not only feel it, but the action on screen, like a music video, makes sure I get the point. Handel suffers a stroke on the spot. Then, to the nobly loping accompaniment of the closing ritornello, a final, horrible picture flashes before us - the very image that has haunted the whole film. We see a little, pre-pubescent Carlo Broschi lying unconscious in a bloody bath. The words of the aria ('Let me lament my cruel destiny / and sigh for my freedom') ring heavy with irony, as if commenting on the cruda sorte of castration itself - a fate that has made this singer 'neither male nor female' in order that he might be both. The scene's bizarre enactment of bended gender is apparently designed to drive home this cruel truth. Yet, for most of us, the irony is probably lost, and for a simple reason: the film represses subtitles in all the scenes of staged music. The arias, it seems, are not meant to 'translate' anything. The sophisticated fantasy sequence from Rinaldo has to be understood, then, as some sort of private musical joke, made more for Corbiau's amusement than for that of his audience. The filmgoer, given only sound effects, is purposely left in the dark. This condition of ignorance seems to form an oddly striking parallel with that of Farinelli's eighteenth-century London fans - a group so universally dim that, as Heartz reports, Henry Fielding took the opportunity to satirise them in his 1737 play Euridice or The Devil Henpecked. It is the author himself who proclaims from the stage: 'for an English people to support an extravagant Italian opera, of which they understand nor relish neither the sense nor the sound, is certainly ridiculous, and much of a piece with an eunuch's keeping a mistress'. (19)
The historic film approaches its greatest authenticity, it would seem, where it is most incomprehensible - in these very scenes of musical performance. The operatic excerpts are hardly more comprehensible on the compact disc soundtrack, which was released simultaneously with the film by the French company Auvidis. The disc, which features the immediately recognizable publicity still of a costumed Stefano Dionisi with his mouth open ('singing'), offers 'uncut' tracks of the film's music. The record does very little in the way of educating consumers about its obscure Baroque performances. Aside from some informative liner notes about castrati and their composers, the disc tells us almost nothing about the numbers featured in the film, even less about the obscure operas from which they were drawn. And not a text or translation in sight. It is sound, not sense, that Auvidis offers. Just as the film narrative directs our attention to those moments that are most obviously artificial, so the soundtrack seeks to make an issue of its feats of technological wizardry. The film presents us with a performer who has, in some sense, knowingly lost his voice. However shadowy the historical facts that make up the Farinelli story, one thing we know with certainty is this: when Carlo Broschi reached puberty, his 'real' voice never developed. Our perception of the modern, re-created Farinelli thus relies on the very same phenomenon that shaped that other, historical Farinelli - the queer phenomenon of his missing adult voice, the other thing that 'failed to appear'. The historical castrato dimly returns to us through this very deficiency, the eclipsed voice we cannot re-create - which in the end may be just the thing we miss most.


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

(2)Daniel Heartz, 'Farinelli Revisited', Early Music, 18 (1990), 430-43.

(3) To name a few: John Barnett, Farinelli, a serio comic opera, in two acts (London, 1839); Tomas Bret6n, Farinelli, opera en un prologoy tres actos (Madrid, 1902); Henri Dupin Farinelli, ou La piece de circonstance (Paris, 1816); Henri Saint-Georges, Farinelli, ou Le bouffe du roi, comedie historique en trois actes (Paris, 1835); Mariano Vazquez, Farinelli: gar uela historica en tres actos (Malaga, 1855); Herman Zumpe, Farinelli: Operette in 3 Acten (Hamburg, 1888).

(4) Charles Burney, 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. Robert Marshall (London, 1974), 327, note 69.

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

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

(8) John Rosselli, 'The Castrati as a Professional Group and a Social Phenomenon, 1550-1850', Acta Musicologica, 60 (1988), 143-79. 171

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

(10) Mojon, 16.

(11) The story is related in Jerrold N. Moore, A Voice in Time: The Gramophone of Fred Gaisberg (London, 1976), 66-70. 174

(12) Roland Barthes, 'The Romantic Song', in The Responsibility of Forms, trans. Richard Howard (New York, 1985), 286-92. 175

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

(14) One can hear performances of both versions of the aria on an extremely innovative recording, produced in 1991 by Harmonia Mundi 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

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

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

(17) See Heartz (n. 2), 441.…...

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A Raisin in the Sun

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