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The last castrato

<strong>Moreschi: the Angel of Rome</strong>

Nicholas Clapton <em>Haus, 265pp, £16.99</em>

The castrato craze was one of the most bizarre phenomena of the European Baroque period. In the middle years of the 16th century eunuchs began to be prized in the courts of Italy for their peculiar vocal power and brilliance. By 1600, Pope Clement VIII could solemnly declare that "the creation of castrati for Church choirs is to be held to the honour of God". A century later the gelded male, whether soprano or alto, dominated the Italian operatic scene. Stars such as Senesino, Caffarelli and Carestini earned huge salaries in the course of glittering international careers, while the legendary Farinelli, by singing the same five arias nightly for 23 years to two schizophrenic kings of Spain, became their éminence grise and, as some believed, unofficial ruler of the Spanish empire.

"Long live the knife!" bawled Italian theatre audiences, and for many an impoverished family the operation seemed like a passport to financial security. Documented cases exist of boys actually petitioning Italy's various princes and dukes for permission to be castrated so as to save a fine voice. Even when changing tastes at length dictated that operatic heroes should begin making the sorts of noises produced by a fully endowed adult male, there was still room for castrati in the choir of the Sistine Chapel. Boys had not sung for the pope since 1441, and though falsettists formed part of the choral establishment, the unique resonance of its ensemble, heard to exceptional advantage in its signature piece, Gregorio Allegri's "Miserere", was determined by the dominant voices of emasculated males.

Most famous among these, if only because we have some idea of what his voice actually sounded like, was Alessandro Moreschi (1858-1922), who joined the papal choir at the age of 13, having been castrated in circumstances which are still obscure. Under the direction of the energetic and pugnacious Domenico Mustafa, the choristers were expected to master the art of ornamenting their Gregorian chant in a style not unlike that of Hebridean psalm-singers or American gospel choirs.

The same technique, known in the Western Isles as "lining out", was applied to performances of the "Miserere", a work shrouded in mystery because issuing copies was punishable by excommunication, and its various decorations by soprano soloists, tightrope-walking among stratospheric leger lines, were treated strictly as trade secrets.

Had Moreschi's career as a sacred eunuch been confined to liturgical music, celebrity might have been slower in arriving. Fashionable Rome, however, flocked to the salon of Mrs Charles Bristed, an American convert to Catholicism, to hear him sing "O mio Fernando", the heroine's aria from Donizetti's La favorita, or the "Jewel Song" from Gounod's Faust. "He has a tear in each note and a sigh in each breath," enthused the Danish ambassador's wife, who had earlier perched on a camp stool at vespers in St Peter's to hear his "almost supernatural" rendering of Pergolesi and Rossini. Afterwards, meeting the ecstatic audience, he "paraded himself among the crowd like a peacock, with a long white scarf, to be congratulated".

A recording engagement soon followed, masterminded by the ever-enterprising Fred Gaisberg of the Gramophone Company. The results were hardly ideal. To an untutored ear the vocal quality is that of a worn-out falsettist. The 19th-century singing style lays tiresome emphasis on scoops and glissandi, and whatever Moreschi's musicality, there is more than a touch of the pantomime dame about these performances.

Nicholas Clapton, a professional countertenor and musicologist, invites us to reappraise Mores chi as the final avatar, though by no means the least distinguished, of a historic tradition. His book is put together as more than a simple biographical record, if only because the castrato's life, led almost exclusively within the orbit of the Vatican, was relatively uneventful. Clapton offers a detailed and generally admiring evaluation of the recordings, rightly preferring the various operatic numbers or the yearning intensity given to Paolo Tosti's "Ideale" to the sentimental piety of canticles and hymns.

Elsewhere, the electronics expert David M Howard contributes a chapter on castrato acoustics and Paul J Moses presents a paper delivered to "the 11th Congress of Logopedics and Phoniatrics" on the psychology of the castrato voice. Whether or not we endorse his view that the castrato voice was "the wish-fulfilment of hermaphroditic dreams", a vehicle for "sex-unrelated vocal abstractions", the Moreschi sound, however distorted by crackling phonograph cylinders, continues to cast its spell over the listener.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, After the Terror