Opera and Romanticism
Sounds Romantic: The Castrato and English Poetics Around 1800
J. Jennifer Jones, University of Rhode Island
I wish to thank both the Center for Humanities and the Arts at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation for generous support during the period this essay was written. I also wish to express my gratitude to Timothy Morton, Paul Youngquist, and particularly Jeffrey N. Cox for their comments on drafts of this essay.
2 In his study entitled The World of the Castrati (1996), Patrick Barbier describes this frenzy, arguing that it was particularly rampant in female listeners: "ladies displayed boundless transports of delight: they threw tributes on to the stage, laurel wreaths, couplets or passionate sonnets, and went nowhere without a portrait of their favorite castrato over their hearts" (137). He also recounts a famous incident relating to Farinelli, in which a female audience member spontaneously cried out during a performance, "One God, one Farinelli!" (183).
3 Giovanni-Battista Mancini (1714-1800), a castrato soprano contemporary with Farinelli, was also the founder of a Bolognese singing school based on the precepts of his teacher, Pistocchi. In 1774, Mancini published an influential treatise on vocal training entitled Pensieri e riflessioni pratiche sopra il canto figurato, which was revised in 1777. (Practical Reflections on the Figurative Art of Singing. Trans. Pietro Buzzi. Boston: Gorham, 1912. Compared, trans., and ed. By Edward Foreman. Champaign IL: Pro Musica, 1967.)
4 According to Angus Heriot, "one Spanish singer in the papal chapel, Padre Soto, first heard of in 1562, is referred to by Della Valle as one of the earliest of the castrati, but appears in the Vatican records as a falsettist, and another singer, Giacomo Spagnoletto (engaged in 1588), is in a similar position: but the first admitted castrati at Rome were Pietro Paolo Folignato and Girolamo Rossini, who appear in the books for 1599 (not 1601 as Burney has it)" (12). Pope Clement VIII, Heriot continues, was much impressed with these castrati singers; once sanctioned by the highest authority in Christendom, castrati rapidly became more numerous.
5 It is often supposed that the rise of castrati in Italy was caused by the rise of opera. According to John Rosselli, however, castrati were not so much caused by opera as coincidental with it, nor did the taste for the castrato’s voice immediately dominate the new form. According to Rosselli, "Chronology, if anything, might suggest that the popular taste for the castrato voice reflected in the singers chosen for opera was largely created by church practice. . . . A castrato sang the prologue and two female parts in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo at Mantua in 1607, but the lead part was sung by a tenor. Several decades were to go by before the custom became established of having a castrato singing the protagonist’s part" (147).
6 Castrati singers were heard in England as early as the last third of the seventeenth century but were confined at that time to private settings and did not seem at first to meet with great enthusiasm. Samuel Pepys, for instance, records having seen two Italian castrati perform at a party given by Lord Bruncker, but without much interest in 1667. He writes, "Nor do I dote on the Eunuchs; they sing endeed pretty high and have a mellow kind of sound . . . their motions, and risings and fallings, though it may be pleasing to an Italian or one that understands the tongue, yet to me it did not . . ." (Barbier 180). Interestingly, Londoner John Evelyn reported to have heard the castrato Siface in 1687 in Pypys’s own drawing room, which leaves one to speculate whether Pepys altered his opinion of the singers. It wasn’t until 1707 that the first castrato sang in public (Valentino Urbani at Drury Lane Theater), followed closely by the acclaimed Nicolino at the Queen’s Theater in 1708, which marks the English acceptance of the castrato.
7 According to Christian Gaumy, the last documented performance of a castrato in London was that of Paolo Pergetti in 1844, though according to Angus Heriot, it had been so long since London audiences had seen a castrato by that point (the last had been Velutti in 1829) that "by then he must have been almost a freak, a kind of abominable snowman or wooly mammoth" (21).
8 Up until recently, according to James R. Oestreich, the New York City Opera produced only one noted Handel opera ("Guilio Cesare" in 1966). In recent years, it has presented "Agrippina," "Ariodante," "Flavio," "Partenope," "Rinaldo," "Serse," and "Alcina," among others. Moreover, the "Handel boom" extends far beyond New York, including a great number of new recordings of Handel operas. One example among many are the two recent recordings of "Rinaldo," one conducted by Christopher Hogwood (sung by Vivica Genaux, a mezzo-soprano) and the other by René Jacobs (sung by countertenor David Daniels). There have also been a slough of recordings of music written for the castrato singer, including but not limited to Handel, including Music from the Age of the Castrato, Handel Arias for Castrato, Castrato Arias and Motets, Arias for Farinelli, Castrato Voice and the First Divas, and Art of the Castrato, as well as recordings by such countertenors as David Daniels and Daniel Taylor and female sopranists Ewa Podles and Stephanie Blythe. Finally, along with his film about the life of Farinelli (1705-1782), Gerard Corbiau released a sound track (Music Direction by Christophe Roussett) that includes the representation of the standoff between Farinelli and the trumpeter. To approximate the voice of the famous castrato, Corbiau combined the voices of soprano Ewa Mallas-Godlewska and countertenor Derek Lee, digitally remastering recordings of both voices singing the same music to create what Naomi André has termed "a new hybrid voice."
9 Useful sources to consider regarding dates and particular castrati performers of Italian opera in London include Frederick C. Petty’s Italian Opera in London 1760-1800 (1972, 1980); Angus Heriot’s The Castrati in Opera (1975); Naomi André’s Voicing Gender: Castrati, Travesti, and the Second Woman; and the New Grove Dictionary of Opera.
10 Youngquist’s work on monstrosity and romanticism is a recent contribution to a longstanding critical conversation on and interest in the idea of monstrosity, including such as Georges Canguilhem, Felicity Nussbaum, Barbara Johnson, Alan Rauch, Peter Brooks, and others.
11 Two of the "monstrous bodies" Youngquist analyzes are Caroline Crachami, a Sicilian dwarf, and Charles Byrne, an Irish giant, both of whom were haunted during their lifetimes and subsequently "acquired" for anatomical research by the anatomist and physician John Hunter upon their deaths.