Thursday, 6 July 2006

Castrati

I've not yet managed to get to the exhibition on Castrati at the Handel House Museum but last night's TV programme on BBC4 gave an excellent preview of the subject. Presented by counter-tenor Nicholas Clapton (who has curated the exhibition), gave a fine over-view of the subject but was prevented from being rather dry by the more gruesome aspects of the subject. We had a detailed description from Clapton about exactly how the op. could be done. A segment where Clapton visited Farinelli's grave was a bit unnecessary.


What made the programme fascinating though, was the inclusion of quite a bit of technical detail about the castrato voice. First they played the same piece of Handel sung by a treble, a mezzo-soprano and by Clapton himself. This was interesting, though throughout the programme the recording seemed to do Clapton's voice no favours, which was a shame. He has a warm voice, with a pronounced vibrato and it was this latter which came to the fore in the TV programme, though I'm sure heard live he sounds more relaxed.


The programme used a technical specialist from York University to describe the mechanism of the castrato voice and to attempt to synthesize the voice by combining recordings of existing singers.The recordings for these involved a treble and a tenor singing the same aria. The tenor first sang an octave lower and then bravely managed to sing the aria at pitch in full voice, no falsetto.


One interesting curiosity was a young American male singer whose voice did not fully develop at puberty so his vocal chords are not as thick or as long as an ordinary adult male. The resulting sound is rather feminine sounding, due to his training I expect, but he has rather more depth of colour at the higher end of his range than a falsettist.


At the end of the programme they played the synthesized voice, it did not quite sound like a live voice but it successfully sounded other worldly and strange, though a combination of tenor and treble it did not quite sound like either.


The subject of Moreschi, the only castrato to be recorded, came up during the programme and they played one of his recordings. He was quite old when the recording was made and his technique owed much to the 19th century way of doing things, so his recordings sound a little strange to us. One point they did not raise, which came up once in a BBC Radio 3 programme was that he could actually have been a falsettist, specialising in singing high; masquerading as a castrato as at the time of his youth this had more kudos in the Sistine Chapel Choir. I've no idea whether this theory is valid or not.

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