MUSIC FOR SINGING MACHINES…?
The mistaken belief that castratos were nothing more than heartless, brainless singing machines needs to be quashed once and for all! Immediate evidence to the contrary can be found in three highly diverse arias — “Cadrò, ma qual si mira”, “Profezie, di me diceste” and “Qual farfalla” — all of which were sung by Carlo Broschi (Farinelli).
Francesco Araia, a Neapolitan who spent most of his life in St Petersburg, created in “Cadrò, ma qual si mira” (3) a “rage aria” of incredible difficulty, containing coloratura passages of almost thirty bars in length, full of descending intervals to highlight key words such as “cadrò” (I shall fall), “monte” (mountain) and “precipitando” (plummet), while the unsteady motion on violins and abrupt accents emphasise the precariousness of the terrain described. In its demands on speed, breath control and range, this is probably the most difficult Baroque aria ever written.
The prayer “Profezie, di me diceste” (2) from Antonio Caldara’s oratorio Sedecia is, by contrast, entirely introspective. It depicts the imminent heavenward ascent of the prophet’s soul, emphasised by the bass instruments dropping out as soon as the voice enters. This prayer and the aria “Quel buon pastor son io” (12) from Caldara’s La morte d’Abel — with a libretto by Farinelli’s old friend Metastasio — exemplify Italian church music, which for three hundred years was shaped by castrato singing. In these little-known works composed for Farinelli in Vienna, the qualities of Caldara’s contemplative music are clearly apparent: equality in treating the individual orchestral and vocal parts, which are artfully interwoven; pulsating rhythm; and the purity and clarity of the stile antico, the old polyphonic style.
From the opera Zenobia in Palmira by Leonardo Leo, the great rival of Vinci and Hasse in Naples, comes the light-as-a-feather aria “Qual farfalla” (8), accompanied by muted strings and harp. Here Leo achieves a unique effect in the voice and orchestra, that of making audible something that is usually only visible: the erratic flitting and fluttering of a butterfly in flight — symbolising the beating of a loving heart. Apparently no less versatile than Farinelli was the castrato Caffarelli, known for his often outrageous behaviour as well as for the refinement of his singing. In the lively aria “Come nave in mezzo all’onde”(1) from Nicola Porpora’s opera Siface, string figures form the crests of the billowing waves in the vocal part, which naturally also features the wide leaps and prominent high notes typical of this singer’s artistry.
Another, contrasting piece by Porpora for his pupil Caffarelli, “Parto, ti lascio, o cara” (4) from Germanico in Germania, is a large farewell aria of rare beauty, with long phrases and extreme leaps in the vocal line. The prominent chromaticism and the halting text-setting of the opening line, “Parto, ti lascio, o cara” (I go, I leave you, o my love), as well as the heightened sense of suffering that comes from the repeated notes on the word “pena” (pain), all suggest a deep sorrow that is then transformed by the slowly rocking 12/8 siciliana metre and by the beauty of the phrase at the word “amara” (bitter) into a kind of pain that, in spite of everything, is sweet.
Also from Porpora’s Siface and sung by Caffarelli, “Usignolo sventurato” (5) is an example of the “simile aria”, a type that enjoyed great popularity in the Baroque: imitating the melancholy song of the nightingale, the voice and flute compete in a witty contest while the orchestra depicts the buzzing, chirping and murmuring of a balmy summer night.
The “simile aria” derives from a concept in Baroque musical aesthetics that generates imagery using rhetorical figures of speech — in this case, the simile — to represent an emotion, or affect, in an abstract but memorable fashion. Along with bird and hunting arias, a popular genre was the nautical storm aria, such as the aforementioned “Come nave”. Also dealing with an aquatic metaphor is Porpora’s “Nobil onda” (9) from the opera Adelaide: the more narrowly confined has been the source of the mountain spring, the more freely it gushes and bubbles to the surface. So with its correlative: the more the soul is plagued by fate, the stronger it becomes. The eighteen-year-old Farinelli sang in the Rome premiere, where he assumed the female title role, as was the normal practice with talented young castratos. Once again the composer Porpora’s art, sorely undervalued by posterity, is astonishing. With a Baroque orchestra, he creates an almost impressionistic tone-painting that is far ahead of its time. The crescendo at the beginning, during which the winds gradually enter, is incredibly lofty, while the wild play of the water finds its expression in countless horn and oboe trills, in surging runs, and in the voice’s staccatos and trilled scales.
For a number of years, Porpora and Leonardo Vinci, another native of southern Italy, were played off against one another as great rivals, their operas being performed concurrently, first in Rome, later in Venice. The “furies” aria “In braccio a mille furie” (7) from Porpora’s Semiramide riconosciuta and the heroic aria “Chi temea Giove regnante” a from Vinci’s Fornace again attest to Farinelli’s virtuosity. In Porpora’s aria the vocal line makes audible the thousand tortures of the afflicted victim, while in the orchestral part the furies mercilessly torment him with repeated pin-pricks. “Chi temea Giove regnante”, by contrast, is a splendid example of a large-scale Vinci aria, reflecting the lightning in jagged coloratura, then imitating rolling thunder in punched-out staccato notes. This effect is intensified by the use of a Baroque thunder machine (a revolving case partly filled with stones, combined with a large metal sheet, shaken or struck to produce the required sounds).
Greatly contrasting with this aria are the two items by Carl Heinrich Graun, court Kapellmeister in Berlin. There for decades two famous Porpora pupils sang in his operas: Felice Salimbeni and Antonio Uberti (Porporino) — often together. Both were especially praised for their soulful adagio singing. The largo “Misero pargoletto” (6) from the opera Demofoonte achieved notoriety when the wilful Prussian king Frederick II (“the Great”) got it into his head to replace the aria with another by Hasse. After protests from the indignant audience, its darling, Salimbeni, was once again allowed to sing this extraordinarily beautiful piece. Along with its chromatic, pathos-laden melismas, one is struck by the rich string writing, then by the play with various types of dotted notes — for halting sobs — as well as the piano chromatic run that recurs like a leitmotif, interrupted by abrupt forte accents. “Ov’è il mio bene?” m expresses anxious anticipation. It is an arioso with an unusually open form and comes from Graun’s opera Adriano in Siria. It has no actual da capo or real ending. Graun obtains a quite strange sonority with flutes and violins playing in unison while the elegiac vocal line is supported in the orchestra by a pulsating, agitated figure of semiquavers (sixteenth notes) against quavers (eighth notes).
Three Legendary Castrato Arias
Coupled together on this disc are three exemplary castrato arias that have never lost their place in the repertoire: “Son qual nave” (1), the best-known Farinelli aria, composed by his brother Riccardo Broschi; “Ombra mai fu” (2) , perhaps the most famous of all opera arias (though hardly anyone today knows that Handel composed it for the castrato Caffarelli); and “Sposa, non mi conosci” M, which was sung by both Farinelli and Caffarelli, made world-famous in Vivaldi’s adaptation, but originally composed by Geminiano Giacomelli.
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