The Lost Glories Of The Great Castrati

by David Yearsley, December 7, 2011

There is no such thing as old music. Regardless of when a piece was composed, it comes to life only at the moment when someone plays or sings it. Music only exists as sound, even if imagined in the head of someone recalling an unrecorded jazz improvisation or scanning a Gregorian chant notated on parchment. Unlike that strictest of musical ontologists, Roman Ingarden, I think that all those manuscripts hidden in libraries or attic chests that haven’t been seen for centuries are not really music until someone gets a hold of them. Music is the tree, the performer the faller, the instrument the ax. If the tree falls on its own in the middle of the forest and no one is there to hear it, it may make a sound but that sound is not human music unless someone, say John Cage in his grave, is there to appreciate the sonic event.

At its best, dusting off music that was composed a long time ago, say nearly three centuries ago in the case with Wednesday night’s thrilling performance of heroic Handel arias by the French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky with the Freiburger Barockorchester in Berlin’s Philharmonie, leads to an enrichment of the present through creative engagement with the past. Reclaiming earlier works can also spawn a sense of profound difference with earlier musicians and their music.

No difference is greater than that between the voices and bodies of present male sopranists and the male castrati of the 18th-century opera stage — those same heroes for whom Handel wrote hundreds of arias. That the voice of the Musical Enlightenment should have been achieved by the barbarous means of castrating tens of thousands of young boys in hopes that a few would become great singers, was a paradox not lost on commentators of the period. Yet princes and patricians could not wean themselves of the addiction, even as it emptied their pockets. In the 18th century the budgets for singers dwarfed that allocated to composers and librettists, and these outlays bankrupted countless opera concerns, two of them led by Handel himself.

The voice that resulted from castration can only be guessed at since, with one interesting but feeble exception, it went extinct before the advent of recorded sound. But according to surviving accounts, the great castrato voices had huge power and dynamic range. They were trained from an early age not only technically, but also in performance, especially in the crucial art of ornamentation that ran from the refined and slight to the gloriously flamboyant, even excessive. These singers were the Euro-idols of their age: Senesino, Carestini, and above all Farinelli.

Senesino premiered many of Handel’s titanic roles before jumping ship from Handel’s listing Royal Academy for its rival Opera of the Nobility, then paddling away from both behemoths as they went down thanks to the holes his mammoth fees had made in both their hulls. The haughty Italian then sailed home with more than enough gold to build his own villa whose motto was to be read over the entrance: “This house was built on the folly of the English.”

Jaroussky’s voice does not have the heroic power one assumes emanated from Senesino’s large chest, overgrown as it was due to the effects of the hypogonadism from which so many castrati suffered, and which often made them fleshy, tall, and disproportionately top-heavy.

Jaroussky is tall and a bit gangly, but slender. He has an open face and a bright enthusiasm. When he plants himself in front of the twenty-piece Freiburger band his height and solidity recall something of the 18th-century physical presence of his theatrical forbears. Where Senesino was praised as a great singing actor, Jaroussky is rather awkward with his arms and posture: his main pose is elbows out and thumbs up, adopting a slight crouch when he’s tackling the trickiest of Handelian scales, arpeggios, and trills.

As for the sound that comes out of Jaroussky’s throat, it is angelic and pure rather than charged with the sensual and timbral complexity that descriptions of Farinelli and Senesino evoke. It’s a kind of perfection that the Baroque specialist Jaroussky has deployed in his recent recording of the Fauré Requiem and heard to full effect in his spotless account, as if perched on a cumulus cloud, of the oft-trampled Pie Jesu.

I’d guess that Jaroussky can sing as fast and as precisely as Handel’s Italian stars, but his lightning-quick virtuosity lacks the necessary voltage. The penultimate of the evening’s three encores, greeted with rapture by the nearly sold-out hall, was a blinding rendition of Venti turbini clocking in at what could well have been a world record. It comes from Handel’s first London opera, Rinaldo, of 1711, and is both a show-stopping aria and a concerto for violin and bassoon. The Freiburg ensemble’s first violinist and director Petra Müllejans bolted out at blinding speed and the other instrumental soloist, the phenomenal Eyal Street followed her with shocking ease and blazing fire on the much more unwieldy bassoon. After the blistering ritornello Jaroussky sped along with the pair, and when things began flagging ever-so-slightly in the midst of the race, Müllejans pushed things ahead again. It is impressive and entertaining, but Jaroussky racing in front of the Freiburg Express is a bit like watching fireworks in brilliant sunny daylight — his voice at maximum velocity is not strong enough to shine through this dazzling band.

Part of the problem has to do with another of the big differences between then and now: the venues Senesino sang in were smaller than the Berlin Philharmonie which, in spite of its celebrated acoustic, here joins forces with the German orchestra against the French countertenor. I was sitting little more than half way up, and I’m sure that closer to the stage the pyrotechnics carried much more firepower.

For all his up-tempo technical accomplishment, it is in the slow movements that Jaroussky becomes truly compelling. In the 18th century, slow, affecting arias were the true test of musicianship and the essential forum for moving listeners, even to tears. Jaroussky’s vocal purity, with the careful application of vibrato on long notes, may well be very different from the 18th-century’s, but he has a unique ability to find the absolute center of a long-held note and then swell with the most subtle gradations. In spite of his lack of 18th-century power, Jaroussky would have been justly rewarded for his mastery of the crucial adagio by the princes of yore: his heart-rending manipulation of single tones and his creative and tasteful ornaments on the obligatory repeat of the open section of these arias serve the vital function of intensifying the emotional state — the pathos — often of a brooding melancholy, filled with sighs of loss and whispered promises of vengeance.

The breathtakingly long note, shed even of the encumbrances of any accompanimental underpinning, was a specialty of the great castratos, showing how they could hold the orchestra at bay and draw attention haughtily or pathetically — or, more often, both at the same time — to the essence of their sound, and therefore their appeal and wealth. It is a conceit that Jaroussky exploits with theatrical verve and true expressive power, not only in slow movements but even more dramatically in ripping arias like Venti turbini and at several other moments across the evening, where massed musical momentum was suddenly stopped in its track by a single tone.

It is at such intimate turns that Jaroussky is at his most persuasive and elevates himself to a world-class musical phenomenon that has to be heard to be believed; he more than made up for any lack of strength at maximum velocity with the touching simplicity of his last encore, perhaps Handel’s most famous aria, Ombra mai fu and even more affectingly in the first encore Alto Giove  by Farinelli’s singing master and Handel’s London rival, Nicola Porpora. This is a piece that confirms a truth known to the best 18th-century musicians and largely forgotten by the “masterpiece” mentality of the 19th century: that the best vehicle for moving an audience often looks unpromising on paper. But paper isn’t music.

Organic Turkeys

My Thanksgiving offering commemorating the first expatriate Thanksgiving in London in 1863 contained a passing reference to “George Bush’s plastic turkey.” Ever-vigilant defenders of Bush’s culinary and presidential honor were duly notified by Google alerts at this apparent misstep, and then, thinking I had accepted the New York Times’ myth about the bird, I began storming my digital embassy. I was at the time gorging on a Brandenburg Bio-Bird in the countryside outside Berlin, far from my internet connection and three-Hummer garage. That part of Brandenburg reminds me of North Dakota, where my Norwegian ancestors settled in the late 19th century after the state was stolen from the Sioux.

Like the Great Plains of North America, Brandenburg’s Oberprignitz offers endless views, not over Indian lands but over the former collective farms of the GDR; wheat, corn, and cattle are raised, and there are a few trees, to which are fixed hunting blinds and perches. The already sparsely inhabited area will soon have lost a quarter of the population it had at German Reunification, and will also have to sustain a 60% decrease in people under the age of 20.

One of the ways some of the locals try to attract money from booming Berlin is through eco-tourism: convince the overstressed city folks to spend a weekend on a broken-down farmstead eating only organic foods and traipsing over the sandy ground while admiring the clumps of rural junk that run from vintage socialist farm machinery to ancient organic kid’s toys. Organic? you ask. Some might call it “plastic” garbage, but I have recommended that in the rebranding of Brandenburg — its reBrandenburging — from socialist dystopia to ecotopian paradise, this rural statuary be referred to as “organic.” The substance generally known as “plastic” is an organic compound. The equation works in both directions. What I meant in my “plastic turkey” remark was “organic” since I know Bush would never serve a bird pumped with hormones and antibiotics to American soldiers. Military health is a matter of national security. I can personally testify that I feel a thousand times more fit after enjoying Brandenburg’s finest plastic turkey.

David Yearsley s a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at dgyearsley@gmail.com.

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