The Castrato: Joyce Pool

★★

When I saw that this book was available for advance review, I jumped on it immediately. In theory, this story of a young castrato studying in Florence in the twilight years of the Medici dynasty couldn’t have been further up my street if it had tried. The protagonist is even offered the lead in a Scarlatti setting of Arminio! I looked forward to being immersed in the sensual splendour of Florence circa 1698, rich with art and texture and music, but alas that didn’t happen. In fact, the book turned out to be such a slog that I doubt I’d have finished it if I didn’t have to review it. More unfortunately, I suspect that the real problem here is that of the translator, not the author.

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Black Opera: Mary Gentle

★★★

Conrad Scalese is in trouble. It’s around the year 1830 and we meet him in Naples on the morning after he’s watched his new opera Il terrore di Parigi enjoy a stellar success at the Teatro Nuovo. Until just a few hours ago, security, fame and fortune as a librettist beckoned. But since he’s woken up everything has gone wrong. He has a crippling migraine. It turns out that the Teatro Nuovo has been struck by a freak blast of lightning and burned to the ground. People are blaming him for calling down the wrath of God. And the Inquisition are at the door. But all this is just the beginning.

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A Year in the Life of Handel: 1738

Roubillac: Handel

 (Handel House, until 4 January 2015)

In January 1738 an amateur theatre critic reported on the premiere of Handel’s new opera, Faramondo: ‘On Tuesday last, we had a new opera of Handel’s… It is too like his former compositions, and wants variety – I heard his singer that night, and think him near equal in merit to the late Carestini, with this advantage, that he has acquired the happy knack of throwing out a sound, now and then, very like what we hear from a distressed young calf.

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The World of the Castrati: Patrick Barbier

★★★½

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Europe, from their beginnings in the church choirs of Byzantium, Spain and the Vatican, up to their twilight years as outdated anomalies, and the departure of the last few castrati from the Sistine Chapel choir at the beginning of the 20th century.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.

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The Castrato and his Wife: Helen Berry

★★★★

I’ve had an unintentionally Baroque-themed summer, so you’ve got a series of posts on countertenors and castrati coming up. (I was going to apologise for it in advance, but I’ve changed my mind: if one person discovers Leonardo Vinci or Franco Fagioli because of these posts, I’ll be happy.) It’s all because I’ve spent the summer shuttling back and forth across Europe for work, which sounds glamorous, but actually just means that I’m more familiar with the layout of Schipol airport than anyone could really desire. It’s been hard to concentrate on books so I’ve been trying to teach myself about music instead. You’ve already had my Artaserse post and there’s plenty more where that came from, although I will start reading more novels again soon, I promise.

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Cry to Heaven: Anne Rice

★★★★

First things first: just in case you jump to conclusions on seeing Anne Rice’s name, or the design of the current book cover on Amazon, this is not about vampires. This is one of her earlier books, published after Interview with the Vampire but before the rest of the Vampire Chronicles, and it is pure historical fiction. Moreover, it deals with a subject that (as far as I know) has been very rarely covered in fiction, with the one notable exception of de Balzac’s Sarrasine: the tragic and breathtaking phenomenon of the castrati.

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