This is not, however, the typical film soundtrack of a sort of overture, perhaps a song or two, and various musical cues that don’t convey much out of the context of the film. Disc one consists of eleven complete performances of arias and overtures, from composers as famous as Handel and Pergolese (as the Naive booklet spells it) to the relatively obscure, such as Broschi and Idaspe (a particularly lovely piece, Ombra fedele anch’io).
A brief booklet note titled “Reinventing a castrato’s voice” details the unique feature of this soundtrack: the producers, in conjunction with the Institut de Recherches et Coordination Acoustique Musique, found a way in the studio to meld the voice of a counter-tenor (Derek Lee Ragin) with that of a soprano (Ewa Mallas-Godlewska). The intention was to capture something of what a true castrato sounded like, with an extraordinary range and a timbre that, at least supposedly, retained masculine authority while climbing stratospheric heights. Technically, IRCAM produced a seamless blend; it is not easily apparent when and where the two voices separate or shift primarily to one or the other singer. Nonetheless, there are many moments where Ragin’s counter-tenor, a somewhat reedy instrument, clearly predominates, and others where the feminine sound Mallas-Godlewska produces come to the fore. As an aural experience, then, your reviewer did not find the vocals suggesting any true sense of a castrato sound — with the big caveat that it is not entirely possible to know what that sound might have been, especially in the case of a superstar of his time, as Farinelli was.
The two tracks of arias from Handel’s Rinaldo exemplify the problem of the recording. In music as familiar as “Lascia ch’io pianga” or “Cara sposa,” listeners may well have heard superior versions by singers such as David Daniels or Maria Bayo. The innovation of a recording process that ostensibly captures a castrato sound can’t make up for the fact that the vocal performances captured here just aren’t all that special.
Rousset and his band play immaculately, and listeners who prefer the leaner, tauter sound of historically-informed performances will surely enjoy their efforts. While respecting the musicianship, your reviewer often longed for a richer string sound and more body overall.
Somehow, the selections on the second disc, covering many other Rousset and Les Talens Lyrique recordings, didn’t produce the same dissatisfaction. Overtures and other brief instrumental pieces by Lully, Johann Sebastian Bach and his son Carl Philip Emanuel, Purcell, Salieri, and others receive joyous, exuberant performances. Naïve makes its reason for the inclusion of this disc along with the Farinelli soundtrack clear, with the last pages of the booklet dedicated to cover shots of the CDs from which the music was taken.
In your reviewer’s memory, Farinelli was a very entertaining film. If a high-quality DVD of the film were available, that should receive due consideration, as the performances work very well in conjunction with the visuals. But the set does offer handsome packaging and that enjoyable second disc of material.