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Commentary

Michael Maniaci during recording for the programme.
23 Jun 2006

"Castrato" — In Search of a Lost Voice

Nestling artistically in a bowl, carefully arranged and lit to suit the camera early in the programme, the testicles seemed to glow softly with their hidden history, their inherent potential and, now, their very lack of future.

One might say they reflected rather neatly the subject of this film recently made for television by BBC Producer Francesca Kemp: those fabled creatures of the 17th and 18th centuries, the Castrati. These singers were such artists, such performers, such celebrities in their heyday of the mid baroque, that our musical folk memory is still full of them — they have never really died. It seems that each new generation of music lovers is re-discovering their story, is enraptured by the myth, and fascinated by the reality of their lives as we know it today. But the greatest fascination of all is the voice itself — what did it sound like? Would we recognise it as the marvel it was then considered? We are still chasing that holy grail, that rainbow’s end, with ever more sophisticated methods, and this film sets out to try to illuminate, if not answer, some of the questions we still have about it.

If you are wondering just why people might be tempted to watch, Kemp herself has no such doubts. “We're so much more interested in their repertoire now, especially the operatic; it’s a natural extension of the recent explosion of interest in the countertenor voice. And we're so much more aware of issues around period style — we know how exciting and revealing it is to hear Mozart concerti played on a fortepiano, and I think there's an equally valid interest in getting closer to understanding what this particular vocal quality might or might not have been.” She adds: “And more broadly, it's a fascinating model for understanding our eternal obsession with the humanly bizarre or unusual, and our current preoccupations with a whole host of socio-cultural issues such as fame at any price/body alteration/gender models/child abuse and so on.”

The film’s central scientific thrust is one of the attempted regeneration of the voice electronically, and unlike the well-known attempt to do this for the feature film “Farinelli” whereby the engineers rather crudely morphed a soprano and countertenor voice, here the professors and scientists seek to try to match electronically on a computer certain elements of what is probably our only recorded history of a castrato voice, that of Alessandro Moreschi, with elements of a tenor and treble voice. How they do this, and what they base their ideas on, makes for interesting viewing and listening. Whether the final result satisfies, or merely frustrates, will be up to the viewer to decide — certainly there is no definitive answer here even if intriguing pathways are opened up for exploration. As presenter Nicholas Clapton (author of works on the castrati) says: “In the recordings of Moreschi, which I do not believe are as bad as many people do, we have “documentary” evidence of the castrato sound. There is a strong tenor element in his voice, although because of his child-size vocal tract it is a tenor sound “up an octave”, with what sounds rather like a super-charged treble above that.”

During the experiments, we hear examples of several voices: boy treble, soprano, countertenor (Clapton himself,) and perhaps most exciting of all, that of the young American operatic male soprano Michael Maniaci. Excerpts of his rendition of the Alleluja from Mozart's motet “Exultate, jubilate”, K. 165, written in 1773 for the famous castrato Venanzio Rauzzini, certainly raise the musical temperature of the film many notches and were impressive. (As a footnote, Mozart also created the role of Lucio Cinna for Rauzzini in his opera “Lucio Silla” — a role that Maniaci has recently sung at Santa Fe Opera).

In contrast to the music made by this male soprano, the electronic experiments seem only to have produced some, frankly, unattractive sounds so far and I asked for Francesca Kemp’s view. “Yes I agree Michael is completely wonderful. But I do wonder whether we're right to think that he's “closer” to the castrato sound than the other electronic or human examples ………we don't know what the end result should be, and as is pointed out in the film, we absolutely don't know that we'd like the sound of an 18th century castrato voice any more than we tend to “like” that of Moreschi”. Clapton agrees: “My hunch is that modern listeners would find the voice, manner and whole performance of a castrato like Farinelli extremely strange, indeed alien, much like we would find the conversation of Handel, Johnson, or George II extremely peculiar today”.

If so, despite our enduring fascination with these long-dead superstars, perhaps this is a reason for letting sleeping voices lie?

S.C. Loder © 2006

(The broadcast is scheduled for screening on BBC 4 television in the UK, on July 5th at 2100hrs.)

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