Wednesday, December 14, 2005


Opera from Monteverdi to Rossini contains a dirty little secret: the castrato. Dramatic presentations in Rome in this period, whether operas or oratorios, used all male casts, because of the church’s complete oppression of women. For some reason not clear to modern minds it was felt better to castrate men than to allow women to appear in public performances. The Roman opera from its origin in the 1620’s performed with all male casts, with castrated men playing the female roles.

In my discussion of the unknown opera composers I left out Landi, Mazzocchi, Marazzoli and the two Rossis, the composers of the Roman school, from my list. My apologies.

Cecilia Bartoli’s Sacrificium goes into detail about when, how and how frequently the castration took place. The sources for this data seem a bit sketchy.

Outside Rome, though, the castrati generally played most of the male roles and women sang the female parts. That means that throughout the entire period from Monteverdi to Rossini major male parts are assigned to sopranos and altos. This is not usually the case with comic operas, which explains why we are so familiar with Mozart’s comedies. There are no castrato parts. Cherubino is part of another tradition—assigning young men’s parts to women. Castrati were big guys. They just had high voices and no beards, like any eunuch. Cherubino needs to appear pre-pubescent and harmless, and a woman is better for that. Mozart intended Cherubino to be sung by a woman.

Why castrati? The only possible explanation is the sound. Early opera must simply have meant the sound of castrati singing.

This is a huge body of opera and encompasses all of opera seria, including all the operas of Handel who composed only opera seria. Mozart, Gluck and Rossini all composed for this genre and all wrote major roles for castrati.

Over the last year I’ve written about:

L’Incoronazione di Poppea, Monteverdi
Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Handel
Mitridate, Re di Ponto, Mozart
Idomeneo, Mozart
Semiramide, Rossini

All included roles for castrati, and to present them to modern audiences this problem has to be solved. Just using the videos listed above we know easily which solution has worked the best: the Marilyn Horne solution. She can be seen in all her glory on the Bel Canto Society’s Semiramide. For years the San Francisco Opera only presented opera seria when Marilyn was available. In my memory the stunning Orlando Furioso of Vivaldi stands out. As long as Marilyn was still singing, this was the preferred solution.

One solution is to transpose the role down an octave and give it to a tenor or baritone. This was the solution in Maria Ewing’s performance of Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea. The role of Nerone is supposed to be sung by a castrato. To accept the tenor solution you must accept that the music now sounds very different. A duet for two sopranos is quite a different sound from a duet for soprano and tenor. It is also difficult to find coloratura tenors capable of executing the ornamentation. This solution is not preferred.

Contrast with this.

Now that Marilyn has retired we have to move on. In Mitridate there are three castrato parts. In the video I reviewed two were assigned to women and one to a falsettist. I prefer that term to countertenor. If the castrato was a true soprano, it is difficult to find falsettists capable of singing that high. In Mitridate the part assigned to a falsettist is the lowest of the three.

Let’s talk about him for a while. Jochen Kowalski is his name. To my ears he represents the English male alto tradition, quite a strong and vital tradition on its own. They sing the alto parts in Handel oratorios, for instance. They use a very high larynx position and sound really whiny.

One curious fact about falsettists is that they’re usually baritones. Maybe it’s easier for a baritone to slip completely into falsetto at a lower pitch. This is key, because the whole role has to be sung in falsetto, not just the high parts. Here is an excellent discussion of how falsetto works. It explains why the tone is so uninteresting.

In Idomeneo the castrato part is sung by Cecilia. In Julius Caesar Cecilia sang the heroine, and the three castrato parts were sung by two men and a woman. Julius Caesar was sung by a man—Franco Fagioli. He was actually quite good for a falsettist, but slipped occasionally out of his falsetto on the low notes.

So those are the three solutions: transpose it down, give it to a woman, give it to a man singing falsetto. None are ideal. Transposing it down violates the musical intensions. Giving it to a woman creates a certain amount of gender confusion. Marilyn was not very tall, but wore big hats. Susan Graham plays men more often than not and is quite convincing. She was excellent in Alcina. Giving it to a falsettist means putting up with that sound.

This is strictly from my imagination, but a castrato voice has to have sounded very much like a powerful woman’s voice. Marilyn was probably not too far off. The one thing we can be absolutely sure of is that they did not sound like falsettists.

I don’t like to hear men singing falsetto, I generally think they are taking work away from a mezzo soprano, but these days they are everywhere. David Daniels is less annoying than Jochen Kowalski, but he’s still annoying. It is a trick they are doing. Crucial to doing the trick is to keep your voice from going out of falsetto. This means that is their primary focus and not the search for expressive variety. It’s an odd sound. If they take the whine completely out, they go back to sounding like tenors and baritones.

For a discussion of the male soprano Michael Maniaci and a film of him singing see here.


Paul said...

You might be interested to note that the last major role written expressly for a castrato was contained in the opera "Il Crociato in Egitto" by Meyerbeer, the final Italian opera he composed before heading to Paris. The singer in question was Velluti, long renowned as a star at La Fenice and elsewhere. Two interesting points: Opera Rara recorded it a few years ago, and a mezzo (Diane Montague, I believe)sings the castrato role; also, Fenice is reviving the opera this season, the first time a fully staged "Crociato" will have been performed since the late 1800s.

Anonymous said...

The Opera Rara 'Crociato' is a gorgeous recording, Diana is excellent and her leading lady ain't bad either...

But I'm rather fond of a good countertenor myself.

Dr.B said...

I've just learned that I will be spending 3 months in London in the Spring on business. Perhaps I could pop over to La Fenice on a weekend.

Dr.B said...

Isn't this fun. I am writing about castrati, and the ad at the top is for an animal castrator. Oy.