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COMMENTARY : The Castrato Sound: Real and Imagined : The film 'Farinelli' uses an electronic fusion of two voices to simulate the sound of an emasculated male soprano. So how does the re-creation compare to a recording of the last castrato?

April 02, 1995|Martin Bernheimer | Martin Bernheimer is The Times' music critic. and

Forget the Three Tenorissimi. Forget the Beatles. Forget Caruso. Forget Heifetz. Forget Toscanini. Forget Callas. Forget Michael Jackson.

If you want to know about superstar musicians who could really cause mass hysteria, who could really change the course of history and who could really earn the big bucks, think of the castrati.

Think of the male sopranos who excelled in Italian opera as early as 1607 and as late as 1830. Emasculated before puberty, they underwent rigorous musical training and, if fabulously talented and exceptionally lucky, went on to conquer Europe's leading opera houses. Those less talented and lucky ended up in church choirs, where women's voices were not allowed.

According to historical authorities, the best castrati could boast the sweetness and purity we now associate with female sopranos, bolstered by the lung power and aggressive force we now associate with male heroes. The great castrati--more politely known at the time as musici --sang both male and female roles with uncommon brilliance and flexibility. They commanded fabulous bravura techniques and cultivated superhuman breath control.

One of the most celebrated idols of the genre--Carlo Broschi, a k a Farinelli--exulted in a range that spanned more than three octaves, from C to shining D.


The name carries a familiar ring these days. The divo in excelsis, who lived from 1705 to 1782 and was equally adored by kings, commoners and composers, has become the subject of a lavishly gooey, liberally romanticized film biography.

Gerard Corbiau's "Farinelli" can now be seen--and, more important, perhaps, heard--at your friendly neighborhood art house. A succes d'estime at the very least, it was nominated this year for a best foreign film Oscar. The movie bears the subtitle "Il Castrato," but the secondary label has been delicately deleted from ads in this country.

The producers faced something of a dilemma when it came to creating a reasonable--or even unreasonable--facsimile of Farinelli's voice for the soundtrack.

"Until I had heard Farinelli," wrote librettist Paolo Rolli in 1734, "I had heard only a small part of what human song can achieve. Now I know that I have heard all there is to hear." We have no appropriate models for this sort of art in our presumably enlightened age.

In some contemporary revivals of Baroque extravaganzas, countertenors are drafted to sing music intended for castrati. Their timbre is wrong, however, and their volume often inadequate. So-called falsettists did indeed find work in 18th-Century opera, but these singers were considered inferior to castrati. The cultivated falsetto was regarded as unnatural, whereas the castrato tone was deemed true ( sincere , according to scholarly sources).

In some contemporary performances, women sing the roles intended for castrati. For all their pretty virtuosity, the female sopranos remain cast against vocal type--gender-impaired, as it were.

Corbiau and his cinematic team turned to modern technology to solve their problem, after an expedient fashion. Calling upon the digital geniuses at the IRCAM studios in Paris, they "morphed" a fusion of two dissimilar voices. One belongs to American countertenor Derek Lee Ragin, the other to Polish coloratura-soprano Ewa Mallas Godlewska.

The results can be sampled on a trendy soundtrack CD that already has broken sales records in France. It is released here by Harmonia Mundi on the Auvidis/Travelling label (K1005).

With Christophe Rousset, founder of the chamber ensemble Les Talens Lyriques, providing stylish musical direction, the immaculately conceived Ragin-Godlewska voice soars and ripples with unhuman ease through a variety of arias. These include incredibly ornate showpieces by Farinelli's brother, Riccardo Broschi; more reflective challenges by Porpora and the mighty Handel; and sacred solos by Pergolesi.

The phony dual voice created here is a thing of unearthly beauty. It sounds like a slender female soprano in the extended upper range, like a rich countertenor in the descending lines, like a well-oiled machine in the endless agitated passages. The artificial perfection is staggering.

In the film, the contradiction of reality is reinforced by a third force. Stefano Dionisi, the handsome young actor cast as Farinelli, mouths the words fastidiously during the generous operatic episodes. Unfortunately, no one told him to simulate the muscular control required to support athletic vocal feats. With his relaxed chest, loose limbs and casual visage, he might just as well be lip-syncing pop tunes.

The last musically active castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, died at the age of 64 in 1922.

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