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June 30, 2006

Christopher Peachment makes a modest proposal... Handel and the Castrati at the Handel House Museum

Posted by Christopher Peachment

Handel and the Castrati
Handel House Museum
25 Brook Street, London W1K 4HB
29th March - 1st October 2006
Tuesday - Saturday 10am - 6pm (Thursdays until 8pm)
Sunday 12pm - 6pm

The deed was done with device like a sheep-shearer. The boy was first placed in a bath of warm milk, which was thought to be relaxing, and then drugged with opium or alcohol. This had its own dangers, and many died from an overdose. Some surgeons would also use half-strangulation as a sedative, and many candidates were lost from too tight a pressure on the jugular. It seems that about 4,000 boys underwent this operation in the 17th and 18th centuries, lured by the prospects of the huge rewards for a good castrato singer. The most famous, Farinelli, earned more for an opera performance than Handel's fee for writing one, and by the end of his career was able to buy a Dukedom in Italy.

If the boy survived the operation, there was then still no guarantee that he would be a good singer. Of those 4,000, perhaps only a dozen in any one generation went on to fame and riches.

As this small but fascinating exhibition explains, the castrato retains the purity and vocal range of a pre-pubescent boy, while the rest of his body expands in the normal way and thus provides a grown man's lungs, throat and mouth, although the larynx and vocal chords stay small. You thus get a singer of great purity combined with the power that a boy could not manage.

According to the show's curator, Nicholas Clapton, who also wrote a biography of the "last castrato" Alessandro Moreschi, they also could perform extraordinary vocal tricks, with an ability to exceed a trumpet in range, and notes coming out of their mouths at the rate of a thousand a minute.

What this exhibition makes clear is just what a castrato could do, and you can soon see why Handel wrote arias requiring such virtuoso singing. Though, sadly, Farinelli never performed for Handel, much as the composer tried to woo him. Guilio Cesare and Orlando, were both created for the equally famous Seneso, whose off-stage histrionics drove Handel to distraction. "Damned fool" was his verdict on the singer. I have heard worse backstage in two opera companies and two ballet companies, so nothing changes in the world of performance artists.

In spite of what had been done to them, castrati were nonetheless in great demand among women of fashion. They were handsome in an androgynous sort of way, with luxurious hair, and soft skin. And castration was no hindrance to sexual performance. It also had the benefit of being the 18th century equivalent of safe sex, since obviously no child would result from a night spent with a castrato.

And all night was what was frequently spent, if you were lucky to catch the eye of Farinelli. If the 1994 film about his life is to be believed, (and I am not sure it is), he was famous for his staying power. He even used to operate in tandem with his intact brother, taking over when the lesser man was spent. One woman's famous cry of "One God, one Farinelli," was not prompted by the beauty of his voice alone.

As far as I can remember, the film imitated the castrato voice by electronically combining a tenor's voice with a soprano's. This passed well enough, and certainly sounded strange, if a little piercing.

Though nothing like so strange as the recording, on a CD at this exhibition, of Alessandro Moreschi, the last known castrato, who was based at the Vatican until 1922, and who made a few recordings during his life. His voice, as you would expect, sounds child-like, but also has a timbre which I can only describe as unearthly, even alien. There seems to be a sob in each note, as if lamenting his condition. It certainly sends the authentic shiver down your spine, but that effect is not entirely aesthetic. I suspect that the male listener can never entirely banish from his thoughts the methods used to gain such artistry. He might not have been the greatest singer, but he was the last castrato and he's the only one we've got, so he is worth treasuring.

And artistry it certainly was. Much as I admire Sarah Connolly…
Let me pause there.

I do more than admire Sarah Connolly. In Alcina, and later Xerxes, she reduced me to a state of abject adoration. It was not just the beauty of her voice, although that would be recognised as world-class if she widened her horizons beyond the ENO. It was also the frisson of seeing her in the "trouser" role. Not only does a knee-length waistcoat and tie wig make her look extremely attractive, but she also bothered to learn how to make the right moves as a man. And one of the right moves was on the heroine, which further increased my pleasure.

To continue… much as I love Sarah Connolly, and could happily watch her perform all of Handel's 50 operas in an endless cycle, I have a modest proposal.

Let castration be revived. With the current taste for period instruments and scoring, we would finally be able to appreciate Handel with much closer authenticity if only the main roles were sung by castrati. It might even break the stranglehold which these absurd tenors have had over opera, for the past 200 years.

If the Green Party is to be believed, the world is vastly overpopulated, so castration would be a small but effective lessening of the problem. And what makes the idea surely defensible is the advent of modern anaesthetic and surgical skills. No boy now need fear either pain or early death. True, there might be some small ethical considerations concerning the age of consent, but this government seems only too willing to create new laws to suit itself. The main attraction for reviving the practice, though, is that it would restore an old truth of stoic philosophy, now lost to us in an age of cheapened art. Beauty has its price.

Christopher Peachment is the author of Caravaggio: A Novel (Picador, 2002) and The Green and The Gold (Picador, 2003). He has been Film Editor at Time Out and Arts and Books Editor at The Times.


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I suppose this article is written tongue-in-cheek. But just in case it ain’t . . .

Let me remind the author that at least two other authors have recently reminded us of the 19th century Arab trade in African slaves. If the author seriously considers reviving a practice, the existence of which gave us a bit of moral high ground in waging war against the Arab slavers, then let him not complain if today the Neo-Saracens are banging increasingly loud at the door of the West.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at June 30, 2006 09:41 PM
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