Join 3,375 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


The Sound of Sacrifice
November 9, 2009 11:13 AM   Subscribe

Few men can reach the notes, and few women have the lung capacity to manipulate them. Most of these arias have not been heard since the deaths of the castrati for whom they were written. Mezzosoprano Cecilia Bartoli has released an album entitled Sacrificium. The album is a compilation of 17th-century arias written for castrati--male singers who were castrated in order to sing in a higher register. Commentaries on the work are favorable; commentaries on the history of castrati and Bartoli herself are just as interesting.
posted by jefficator (44 comments total) 70 users marked this as a favorite

 
Fascinating. Haven't read everything yet, but wanted to say great post.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:21 AM on November 9, 2009


I can't wait to hear this! Several years ago, I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Ms Bartoli in Rossini's La Cenerentola, and her voice and acting were sublime. She has a thoroughly delightful bel canto voice. Great post.
posted by dbmcd at 11:24 AM on November 9, 2009


We listened to that scratchy, sad Moreschi recording (linked in the wikipedia article) on the first day of a music theory class in high school. I think Mr. Frezzo's was trying to impress upon us that music is big, powerful, that a whole lot of human weirdness is tied up and expressed in it.

It totally derailed the class; we talked about nothing but castrati and the mechanics and business of church music and the way it drove secular art and different faces of human tragedy and 18th-century Neapolitan demographics and politics for weeks. We couldn't learn enough about it. Even for a bunch of blase, attention-deficient suburban high school kids, that shit was haunting.
posted by peachfuzz at 11:28 AM on November 9, 2009 [15 favorites]


I cannot wait to get home to listen to this.
posted by strixus at 11:37 AM on November 9, 2009


Son qual nave is extraordinary!
posted by Cranberry at 11:54 AM on November 9, 2009


If you're fascinated by both castrati and alternate history (like me, so shut up--I know I'm Queen Dork of Nerdsylvania), I cannot recommend Kingsley Amis's book The Alteration highly enough.

Also, I think Cecilia Bartoli is cool.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:04 PM on November 9, 2009 [4 favorites]


Awesome. Thanks for the post!
posted by Go Banana at 12:04 PM on November 9, 2009


Quite a testament to her singing skill.
posted by HTuttle at 12:10 PM on November 9, 2009


SO ... would a MTF transgendered person be able to hit those notes? Or does the operation have to happen pre-puberty?
posted by kanewai at 12:24 PM on November 9, 2009


The orchestra (Il Giardino Armonico) is doing a really good job too. They add a lot of energy to the recording. I thought they deserved some recognition in this thread.
posted by spaghettification at 12:25 PM on November 9, 2009


This is really amazing. I have been wanting to hear some of these arias since I first read about them as a kid.
posted by annathea at 12:32 PM on November 9, 2009


The 2008 Detroit Lions would make an excellent chorus for singing these.
posted by brain_drain at 12:35 PM on November 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


Wow – that takes balls!

No wait...
posted by Kabanos at 12:46 PM on November 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


kanewai: No, of course not. There are (unaltered) recording male sopranos around, though.

For one thing, the change in the hormones limited the hardening of bones, so with rigorous training a castrated boy would grow into a man with an expanded ribcage and tremendous lung capacity. It had to happen pre-puberty, obviously, and there were no guarantees that the adult man's voice would stay as lovely as the boy's. The awful "sacrifice" was made even more tragic by its wastefulness: poor families might castrate one of their sons if he showed even a little talent, although there was no way to know. It was a terrible gamble. And even if by some incredible long shot he did become one of the superstars of the day - or even a moderately successful local singer - the difficulty of that life was nothing to sniff at.
posted by peachfuzz at 12:47 PM on November 9, 2009 [5 favorites]


Or does the operation have to happen pre-puberty?

The first link in this previous post about castrati has some good information about the process and history.
posted by Kabanos at 12:59 PM on November 9, 2009


peachfuzz: We listened to that scratchy, sad Moreschi recording (linked in the wikipedia article) on the first day of a music theory class in high school.

Direct link.

That was pretty remarkable, does any one know any place to find recordings of these guys? Preferably something higher fidelity than a 68k mp3, but either way.
posted by paisley henosis at 1:03 PM on November 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


The Moreschi recording is widely available, but the sound is craptastic--it was remastered from poor-quality 1902 recordings.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:16 PM on November 9, 2009


Thanks, jefficator. La Bella Bartoli has outdone herself with these magnificent recordings.

Sacrificium succeeds both as an hommage to the tragic castrati of yore and as a virtuoso performance of fiendishly difficult vocal music. This success is a tribute to Bartoli's uncompromising artistic vision: one could hardly imagine a less commercial program than baroque castrato arias.
posted by rdone at 1:16 PM on November 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Rhapsody has 1 Alessandro Moreschi track, Petite messe solennelle: Crucifixus. It's in better shape than the Ave Maria linked to, but the source is still from a previous age.

The Sacrificium album is interesting to listen to so far. I would not have realized the arias were meant for castrati just listening to them, but I don't speak italian, so maybe the lyrics make it more obvious.
posted by nomisxid at 1:16 PM on November 9, 2009


A modern male soprano, Radu Marian (I think this is probably his best recording) self-identifies as someone with endocrinological issues that resulted in his voice never changing.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:21 PM on November 9, 2009 [4 favorites]


does any one know any place to find recordings of these guys

There aren't any. The last castrato died long before high-fidelity recording came into existence.

And peachfuzz is right: there is no garantee that any given castrated male will be a virtuoso. The culture of castrati created a critical mass of performers out of which only a few dozen achieved notoriety. Precisely how highly they were regarded is evidenced by the sheer number of castrations that took place, despite the unlikelihood of any given individual achieving greatness. This created a feedback loop that caused greater and greater numbers of castrations to occur. Likely only the economic opportunities surrounding the industrialization of Europe finally caused the practice to organically die out.

Since such a culture is unlikely to arise again--and rightfully so!--the standout castrato performers will not come into existence. These lo-fi recordings and sparse modern reconstructions by females are likely the closest your ears will come. Its like the roar of a dinosaur. The sounds is now gone. You will never hear it.
posted by jefficator at 1:22 PM on November 9, 2009 [6 favorites]


There was a movie made about the most famous 18th century castrato, called "Farinelli". For the soundtrack, they digitally combined an actual male and female voice into a single voice, supposedly simulating what a castrato would have sounded like at full power. I have the album on cassette tape, but as far as I know, it's never been released on CD. Which is too bad, since it's really worth listening to -- in fact, I really, really like it (and I speak here as a keen afficionado of the 18th Century aria). Unfortunately, the movie itself (which is available on DVD) bites the big baloney. The only cool part is the fact that Handel is a character, and there's one wonderful scene of him walking around in the machinery high above the stage. Unfortunately, they play him as kind of the bad guy.
posted by Faze at 1:23 PM on November 9, 2009


But wait, Amazon to the rescue ...

You've your choice of Farinelli: La musique du filme or Farinelli: Il Castrato.
posted by grabbingsand at 1:35 PM on November 9, 2009


Brings to mind Anne Rice's 1982 novel 'Cry to Heaven.'
posted by ericb at 1:36 PM on November 9, 2009


Previous related FPP: 'There are those who in soft eunuchs place their bliss / And shun the scrubbing of a bearded kiss.'
posted by ericb at 1:39 PM on November 9, 2009


kanewai: Other than a few singers with hormonal abnormalities, some listed here, Kim Petras would be the closest we have to an answer to your question.

I would say not though. While it incidentally involves removal of testicles, modern MTF transgender change makes much more changes to the body than castration, because of the extensive hormone treatments involved, and many of these changes are oppositional to the process of becoming a castrato.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 1:40 PM on November 9, 2009


Previous related FPP: 'There are those who in soft eunuchs place their bliss / And shun the scrubbing of a bearded kiss.'

What Kabanos said above!
posted by ericb at 1:45 PM on November 9, 2009


You've your choice of Farinelli: La musique du filme or Farinelli: Il Castrato.

Excerpts from the film (which was the Best Foreign Language Film -- Golden Globes 1995) -- 1 | 2 | 3.
posted by ericb at 1:52 PM on November 9, 2009


Since such a culture is unlikely to arise again--and rightfully so!--the standout castrato performers will not come into existence. These lo-fi recordings and sparse modern reconstructions by females are likely the closest your ears will come. Its like the roar of a dinosaur. The sounds is now gone. You will never hear it.

I would not be too shocked to find sometime in the next 100 years or so that technology develops that allows substantial bodily resculpturing (ie, lie down in this vat of nanogoo and wake up with a new body), and that at least a few people use this tech to give themselves the vocally relevant physical characteristics of castrati (or go beyond that into the realm of clearly superhuman vocal capabilities).
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:20 PM on November 9, 2009


Another Bartoli fan here—thanks for the post.
posted by languagehat at 2:41 PM on November 9, 2009


A little Wikipedia searching led me to this recording of Michael Maniaci, a male soprano whose voice did not break in the normal fashion.
posted by jedicus at 3:45 PM on November 9, 2009


Several years ago, I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Ms Bartoli in Rossini's La Cenerentola

Me too! In fact that was the first opera I ever saw. It was around 1995, with the Houston Grand Opera. I got her autograph the next day at some CD store. Not many other people were there--it hadn't been hugely advertised. I'm still a little bit in love.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 3:50 PM on November 9, 2009


One of the many things that set castrati apart was their breath control. From the Wikipedia entry:
As the castrato's body grew, his lack of testosterone meant that his epiphyses (bone-joints) did not harden in the normal manner. Thus the limbs of the castrati often grew unusually long, as did the bones of their ribs. This, combined with intensive training, gave them unrivalled lung-power and breath capacity. Operating through small, child-sized vocal cords, their voices were also extraordinarily flexible.
With his big ribcage and small larynx, a well-trained castrato could sing for a full minute or longer on one breath. Few modern singers can manage half that. Music written for castrati is full of long coloratura passages designed to show off this ability, which modern singers have to interrupt with pauses for breath. So unless you're digitally editing (as they did for the soundtrack of Farinelli), that's another thing we'll never hear again.

I recently sang the title role of Handel's Giulio Cesare, a role written for the castrato Senesino. It is very challenging music, but the number of people who can sing it is not as small as the quote at the top of the post suggests.

Almost every Handel work contains music written for a castrato, including the alto solos in the Messiah. Castrato voices ranged from deep alto to high soprano, just as modern countertenors' and mezzos' voices do. A woman singing a Farinelli role or a countertenor singing a Senesino role won't sound like a castrato, but they can sing it, and sing it well.

(While preparing for Cesare, I was lucky enough to get some coaching by Nicholas Clapton, one of Britain's foremost experts on castrati and their music. Here's a clip from a BBC documentary he did on Farinelli.)

Bartoli deserves kudos for bringing obscure works to light, but she's not the only, or the uncontested best, modern performer of the castrato repertoire.

Andreas Scholl: Al lampo dell'armi
David Daniels: Venti, turbini
Rachid ben Abdeslam: Chi perde un momento (bonus silly dancing)
Vivica Genaux: Quell'usignolo (scary jaw wobble)
Bejun Mehta: Dove sei, amato bene?
Jochen Kowalski: Va, l'error mio palesa
Sarah Connolly: Dopo Notte
Joyce diDonato: Sta nell'ircana

...and bonus article on the sex appeal of castrati.
posted by Pallas Athena at 4:48 PM on November 9, 2009 [25 favorites]


Pallas Athena brings up another key point about why modern-day male singers with variant endocrinology still aren't going to sing like the castrati of old: these guys trained for hours and hours every day from the time they were little, little kids. It may well, as hypothesized, have actually changed the shape of their bodies in ways that produced their distinctive sound.

Nobody today is going to train a little kid like that; even the most pushy stage parent would be unlikely to go to that length for the vanishingly small potential that their child would have a career in opera or pre-19th century sacred music.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:14 PM on November 9, 2009


> The sounds is now gone. You will never hear it.

Expected in autotune v6
posted by jfuller at 5:40 PM on November 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


1. This post indirectly acquainted me with the 78's on the Internet Archive. (Rhapsody In Blue from 1924 = pure awesomeness)

and

2. After Pallas Athena's comment, and specifically the link to Vivica Genaux, I am now obsessed with mezzo-sopranos in general, and Vivica Genaux specifically.


So thanks MetaFilter. Thanks sarcastically, because I don't really have time for for any new interests, and thanks earnestly, because this shit is awesome and worth making time for.
posted by patrick rhett at 10:33 PM on November 9, 2009


That is to say, Rhapsody In Blue from 1924 = pure awesomeness.
posted by patrick rhett at 10:36 PM on November 9, 2009


Wow, great post and great thread.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:44 PM on November 9, 2009


2. After Pallas Athena's comment, and specifically the link to Vivica Genaux, I am now obsessed with mezzo-sopranos in general, and Vivica Genaux specifically.

My work here is done.

(I saw Genaux sing Rosina in DC many years ago. She was ace.)
posted by Pallas Athena at 3:22 AM on November 10, 2009


How could I forget:
Philippe Jaroussky: Come nube chi fugge del vento

Jaroussky, Andreas Scholl and Vivica Genaux have albums out based on the repertoire of a specific castrato: Carestini, Senesino and Farinelli respectively.

I'll stop now
posted by Pallas Athena at 4:24 AM on November 10, 2009


I've always struggled with my intense desire to hear those songs sung as they were meant to be sung and my sorrow over the incredible human suffering which was required to create that beauty.

Great post.
posted by winna at 7:32 AM on November 10, 2009


I've always struggled with my intense desire to hear those songs sung as they were meant to be sung and my sorrow over the incredible human suffering which was required to create that beauty.

Winna, I have as well. I was overcome by joy when I heard the piece on NPR last week. Even an approximation is more than I thought I would hear.

This is tragic but true: most real beauty comes through suffering. We should never increase suffering to artificially generate beauty, but I nevertheless consider often whether our noble and important efforts to ease suffering on earth may have the unintended consequences of lessening the beauty that comes as a result of it.
posted by jefficator at 7:45 AM on November 10, 2009


I've heard countertenor Gerald Thompson twice in Handel's Rodelinda and Cavalli's La Calisto in roles that, I think, were originally for castrati. I'm not sure where his voice range fits in against a male tenor, but he was very good at his job.
posted by turbodog at 1:17 PM on November 10, 2009


I've been a fan of Cecilia for quite a while. Thanks for the post I just ordered today.
posted by bannana at 2:26 PM on November 10, 2009


« Older Hacking is a Baltimore phenomenon that allows citi...  |  Brynn Metheny is a freelance i... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments