The World of the Castrati (1996): Patrick Barbier


The History of an Extraordinary Operatic Phenomenon

I should really have kicked off my Baroque reading project with this book by Patrick Barbier. It’s a useful introduction which offers a broad survey of the history of the castrati across Europe, from their beginnings in the church choirs of Byzantium, Spain and the Vatican, up to their twilight years as outdated anomalies, and the departure of the last few castrati from the Sistine Chapel choir at the beginning of the 20th century. Barbier’s focus though, predictably and gratifyingly, is on the heyday of 18th-century opera and, to my relief, he prefers anecdotes and colour to the technicalities of musical vocabulary.

Barbier delves into every aspect of life for a young ‘virtuoso’, as the castrati were called by contemporaries. He considers a singer’s likely family background; his training; and the rigours of the music schools. Bit by bit he builds a picture of their support networks of teachers, older castrati and patrons; their debuts, often in female roles in Rome; their constant travelling between courts and cities; the rivalries, friendships and personalities; and their lonely but often charitable old age. Throughout he takes care to show that the period was far from united in its admiration of these singers. Some of the division was down to national preferences (the English couldn’t get enough of them; the French, who had their own operatic traditions, looked down on them). However he also makes the important point that it grew increasingly difficult to reconcile enthusiasm for the castrati with the ‘natural’ philosophy of the Enlightenment. This, compounded by the Romantic movement – with its distaste for the frivolities of the ancien régime – spelled the death knell for the operatic castrati at the start of the 19th century.

It’s a thorough book but it never descends into dryness, although the translation I’ve been reading isn’t always as smooth and elegant as it could have been. However, there are so many good stories and flashes of colour that it’s very hard to put down. There are some remarkable characters: Atto Melani, who moonlighted as a spy for Cardinal Mazarin (I’ve just heard about a recent biography of Melani); the endearing Filippo Balatri, who left us the only autobiography by a castrato, which I’d love to read in its entirety; Caffarelli, who seems to have swaggered around Europe irritating almost everyone; and the unfortunate Siface, who fell in love with a young widow and pursued her even into the convent where her family had hidden her away, only to be ambushed on the road and assassinated by her brother’s henchmen. Even our friend Tenducci makes an appearance, although without the depth of detail uncovered by Berry in her book.

In fact, Barbier devotes some time to looking at the incredible impact the castrati had in Britain, which interested me greatly. He explains that, after a relatively late start, two castrati performed within months of each other in London in the first years of the 18th century. One was the talented Nicolino, whose ‘performance struck them like a bomb, and from then on the English swore only by castrati’. (At least I can flatter myself that I’m continuing a venerable tradition in finding this music so wonderful). Barbier continues:

It was a real shock to them… The attraction of novelty and the pronounced taste for the exotic among the English, as it was said at the time, cannot explain everything. These voices surpassed all that they were used to hearing… in future no expense would be spared to bring the most famous castrati over from Italy.

The book throws a lot of light on Baroque music (and furnishes me with plenty of excuses to watch Artaserse again). I’d already spotted for myself the way that an aria would be progressively more ornamented with each repetition, but I hadn’t quite realised how central this was to the singer’s performance, nor the extent to which such decoration was taken back in the 18th century. The singer could do exactly as he pleased, for as long as he pleased, and the arias could go on for ages, becoming increasingly complex. I wonder – does anyone know? – to what degree singers nowadays have such freedom in their ornamentation? I would imagine that no one really wants a single aria to go on for half an hour, but in terms of the ornamentation: is it already specified in the score or is it up to the singer to add as much or as little as he wants?

I was also enthralled by Barbier’s stories about costumes. Apparently the primo uomo would damn well make sure that, regardless of his role, he’d be turned out in fine style: high heels, beautifully tailored clothes and a very flattering wig. If the castrato was playing a female role, the demands were no less stringent. Barbier notes one singer, playing the role of Dido, who ‘demanded a hairpiece built up into a pyramid, decorated with feathers, flowers and birds’. This delicious vanity was taken to extremes by the gloriously absurd behaviour of Luigi Marchesi, one of the last great castrati, who had immense stage presence and beauty… and knew it.

He insisted that … [he should] make his first appearance, whatever the opera, at the top of a hill, carrying a sword, a gleaming lance and wearing a helmet crowned with white and red plumes ‘at least six feet high’.

As if this wasn’t enough, he also invariably made his entrance with the words ‘Where am I?’, followed by a trumpet fanfare, after which he would always sing his favourite aria (which presumably was virtually never appropriate in the context of the opera). Only then, once he’d processed down to the front of the stage, could the opera actually carry on. By this point, if I was the conductor, I’d have had a nervous breakdown and would have to be retrieved from a crumpled heap beneath my harpsichord. However, the theatrical impresarios of the 18th century were presumably made of sterner stuff – not least because you had to cope not only with the massive egos of the primo uomo and prima donna, but also with horses, hecklers, potentially malfunctioning stage machinery and, in one case, an actual elephant. Good God. Going to the theatre in Italy in the 18th century must have been absolutely incredible.

Despite all the tantrums and colour and drama, however, I was most struck by what Barbier had to say about Farinelli (for whom he obviously has great affection, since he’s also written his biography). The man seems to have been a complete paragon. He wasn’t just tall, good-looking and well-built, with the most splendid voice of the century, but he was modest, compassionate, generous and loyal. He had a lifelong friendship with the poet Metastasio, who’s responsible for so many of the libretti I’ve been hearing, and he seems to have charmed everyone he met.

There’s a wonderful portrait by Jacopo Amigoni showing Farinelli with his friends, who include Metastasio, the singer Teresa Castellini and Amigoni himself, with Farinelli’s servant and dog stepping into the picture from the right. (If you’ve got sharp eyes, you’ll notice that a detail of the portrait was used on the cover of Berry’s book.) No doubt it’s a little idealised, but it’s a warm and appealing image nevertheless. The portrait was painted in Spain, where Farinelli spent much of his later life. He’d given up his glittering operatic career to answer a request from the Queen of Spain, who’d asked him to see if his singing could relieve the King’s crippling depression. Farinelli’s beautiful voice worked its magic and drove away the king’s darkness – for a time – and eventually he became just as valued in Spain as an adviser and minister as he was as a musician. It’s a remarkable story, almost like a fairy tale (incidentally the Globe will stage Claire van Kampen’s new play Farinelli and the King early next year.

Amigoni: Portrait of Farinelli

Jacopo Amigoni, The singer Farinelli with his friends: the poet Pietro Metastasio, the singer Vittoria Tesi, and the artist himself, c.1750, National Gallery of Victoria

The book has energy and scope… but it does feel a little out of date. Barbier is quite an old-fashioned historian and, through not wishing to be salacious, he steers away from some of the more colourful questions that more recent scholars would probably tackle with more openness. Moreover, he was writing at a time (1989) when the revival in Baroque music was clearly still something rather new, and he is quite dismissive of countertenors and ‘falsettos’ tackling these arias (how is a ‘falsetto’ different? Can someone tell me?). Generally he seems to feel that female sopranos offer the best contemporary parallel for castrato voices; though he acknowledges that it’s a moot point, since we have no idea of what we should be trying to replicate.

But is that really still the case? Yes, I’m a newcomer to this field, but I remember hearing countertenors on the radio when I was growing up, and I have the impression that the last ten years have completely changed the lay of the land. Baroque operas seem to be being cast, staged and sung in an entirely new way; and the countertenors of my generation are rising to the challenge with flair, vocal power and incredible virtuosity. It’s very exciting. As someone who spends most of her life trying to imagine what it was actually like to live in the past, I’m completely beguiled by this, and it’d be fascinating to know what Barbier – with his deep knowledge of the music and the field – makes of the current situation.

So: a very good introduction to the subject, full of tantalising stories and also with a rich bibliography at the back which should offer plenty of new pathways to explore. I learned a lot and I feel that I’ll have a much better grasp of the context when I watch my next opera on DVD or when I go to Covent Garden in November for Idomeneo. On the books front, one of the decisions I have to make now is whether or not I have the courage to tackle Barbier’s biography of Farinelli in the original French (since there seems to be no English translation).

Buy the book


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