Vivica Genaux has a new album called Arias for Farinelli, a castrato who sang in the period most represented these days by George Frederick Handel. It was, however, the competition who hired him while he was in London from 1734-37. This album gives a picture of Italian opera in the time of Handel, a repertoire we seldom hear.
Represented are Nicola Porpora, Geminiano Giacomelli, Riccardo Broschi (Farinelli’s brother), Johann Adolf Hasse, and Baldassari Galuppi, listed here chronologically in the order of their birth dates. René Jacobs, the conductor, says in his notes, “The composers of our arias were themselves trained singers, and understood the human vocal instrument so well that they occasionally gave singing lessons; Porpora even made it his profession.” I didn’t think of that when giving advice to composers, but why not? Find out what Fach suits your own voice. Learn a few arias and perform them for your friends, preferably your singer friends. I would remove my prohibition that they compose for themselves if composers actually were trained as opera singers. Forgive me, as usual I have digressed.
Jacobs also speaks of “hermaphroditic dreams,” satisfied both by castrati in female roles and contraltos in trouser parts, sometimes together in the same opera. Gender confusion as a method for increasing pleasure is what we are talking about here. We have suspected as much.
Jacobs discusses at length the suitability of falsettists in replacing castrati and makes the statement, “…when it comes to replacing soprano castratos like Farinelli, unfortunately no falsettist in existence today fulfils [the] desire for full and rounded lower notes, combined with high notes that must be gently placed, unforced and capable of modulation.” Senisino yes, Farinelli no. How fascinating! He says in this period “…the voice should sound ‘large and powerful in the low register, of moderate volume in the middle register, and increasingly softer in the higher reaches,’” (a quote from a treatise written in 1474.) This is, of course, the opposite of modern practice where practically all high notes are blasted out as loudly as possible. You will have to read the whole liner note for yourself. As castrati gradually died out, they were replaced by women, not falsettists.
Farinelli’s range extended from a to d’’’. For Sarah I quote: “Farinelli’s public expected him to sing his arias in a new way, that is with new ‘graces’, each time he sang them: many opera fans attended every performance of a production!” There are still those who do it now.
I am supposed to be writing about Vivica Genaux’s performance of the selected arias. I like her voice a great deal. In the past I compared her to Marilyn Horne. I think Vivica is a true mezzo and would not have contracted as a soprano in her youth as Marilyn is known to have done. Her voice is placed ideally for the extravagant ornamentation beautifully performed here.
She misses only the miraculous flow of the phrase attained in my lifetime only by one singer. Whom I will not name. You know who I mean.
“Quell’ usignolo” by Giacomelli goes on for over 14 minutes on six lines of text about a nightingale. What fun this is. The cadenzas are wonderful. Vivica Genaux is one of the best people around today, and this is a great way to hear her.