15 January 2010

Like a butterfly crazed with love...

Like a butterfly crazed with love,
the hope I harbour within my heart
flutters forever around the flame.

And scorching its wings,
is buried where it dies in its ill-fated birthplace.
This lovely lament about the fatal nature of love is sung in Act II of the Baroque opera, Zenobia in Palmira, to music by Leonardo Leo (1694-1744) When I first heard it, I assumed that the haunting woman's voice was that of Zenobia, however unlikely that the historical queen of Palmyra was ever a love-struck victim. Still, opera is opera, or so I thought, but the truth is more fantastical.

No woman sang this aria when it first was staged in 1725 . Rather, as I was flabbergasted to discover, the singer is Decio, the (entirely fictional) Roman general, whose part is played by a castrato. Not just any castrato either -- but Farinelli, the most famous singer of his century. It must have been decidedly odd -- even in Naples in 1725 -- for a rough Roman soldier to be played by an androgynous eunuch, one of thousands of men who were mutilated at or before puberty when their families hoped they had enough talent to become great singers of women's roles -- and therefore very rich.


The price paid by the boys was castration while their voice was still high and before they knew what had hit them. The instruments used for the sacrifice would have done the Spanish Inquisition proud.

But audiences flocked to hear these singers with the lung power and volume of men and the range of women; gelding them, you see, stopped their voices from breaking while their bodies continued to grow. The special talents of the greatest castrati -- rapid coloratura, trills, long-breathed phrases, deep bottom notes, and so on -- made them the highest-paid singers in the world. They were superstars to be adored, reviled, mocked, all at the same time.

The opera castrato era is a grotesque phenomenon of the 17th and 18th centuries (in Rome running even through the 19th; although castration was legally punishable by death, church bigwigs were great opera fans: there are existing recordings of the last of the castrati, made in the Sistine Chapel in 1902 and 1904).

Never mind the bollocks, here's Cecilia Bartoli

Her new album Sacrificium, La Scuola dei Castrati is devoted to the art of the castrato. On the cover, Bartoli's head has been Photoshopped onto an antique marble torso complete with fissures but lacking breasts, whose stone genitals have been knocked off. More gender-bending photos of Bartoli as pseudo-castrata dot the pages of the accompanying booklet.

Bravura stuff, all the arias concern love, death, honour, and trembling.

But who cares what the words say?

If biology is destiny, opera is genderfuck, and Bartoli relishes her self-determined opportunity to showcase a vocal whipsaw technique in the only repertoire ever designed to give it free range. This is singing as extreme sport, coloratura trills pushed to the max and beyond, to rapid-fire melismas straddling fourths, fifths, or octaves, scales running from rich chest up through piercing head with a devil-take-the-hindmost abandon ..., all of it riding on Olympic-style lung power and technique.*

The music is another story entirely.

The composers range from the slightly known (Porpora, Graun) to those almost forgotten (like Leonardo Leo, whose Zenobia in Palmira had to be resurrected from the dead), along with names I had never heard of before. And I'll bet you've never heard any of the music either (12 world-recording-premieres!) except, perhaps, “Ombra mai fù” from Handel's Xerxes. No matter. Bartoli's performance raises these pieces which are mere musical stepping-stones to the level of high art.

Could the castrati have sung this music better or with more feeling? I suspect not:

As it is, Sacrificium sparkles with colors and details like a Baroque Italian church – the kind of thing that has you completely overwhelmed if you look at it for too long. Listening to the entire “Sacrificium” album without a break after every other aria may make your ears feel that kind of blind after a while – there is too much there to catch, to take in and to appreciate.**

You wouldn't want to live in a Baroque church; would you? But you wouldn't want to miss visiting it either. Leonardo Leo is from Naples: take a moment to hear his very Neapolitan "Decio" with Cecilia Bartoli taking Farinelli's role and singing Qual farfalla innamorata ("Like a butterfly crazed with love"). You can almost smell it.

Brava (or Bravo?) La Ceci!

* From Erin Blackwell, Baroque Sex Crime, at Bay Area Reporter

** From Bertoli: Sacrificium. A Review, at

Illustration: Cecilia Bartoli as castrata. Photo: Decca/Uli Weber


  1. Fascinating! thanks for posting and for the links.

  2. Anonymous31/1/10 22:28

    Thank you! It's rare that I would have a chance to hear Baroque opera. The article about the San and the cave drawings was fascinating. d:)

  3. This is a great blog - always interesting and well researched. Are you going to tell us more about Zenobia? Did she actually fight in her battles or was she an inspirational figure on the side? I read somewhere that partially clothed Arab women warriors were often on the side of the battle as an inspirational reminder to the men of what they were fighting for.


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