Thursday 4 September 2008

Beyond Authenticity (3)

The final area of authenticity I'd like to consider is the issue of castrato voices. This is an area where we can never hope to recapture anything like the original aural experience. Castrati manage to combine the power of a male voice with the tessitura of a male one and perhaps elements of the purity of a boy's voice.

Though they were often great virtuosi, not all of them had huge ranges. Senesino was a relatively low contralto with a fairly narrow range. His technical forte was not fast passage work but vocal control (the messa di voce). Whereas the singer who created Ariodante specialised in fast, instrumental-like passage work, so Handel wrote this role rather differently than those written for Senesino.

Last year the BBC broadcast a programme about the castrato voice in which scientists attempted to create an electronically synthesized version of the voice. The result was fascinating and the more that we learn about castrato voices, the more we can educate both the public and operatic managements in the type of voices suitable for castrato parts.

Handel did not always have 2 castratos available to him so that one of his male roles would be sung be a female contralto who specialised in travesty roles. Unfortunately nowadays what can happen is that the castrato part is sung by a woman and the travesty part a counter tenor, owing to the differences in tessitura. But new generations of counter-tenors are proving that they are well able to cope with the higher castrato parts. For me, the variety of voice types in Handel is important, so that when casting we still need to provide a variety of different voices, male and female. If we can have the primo uomo sung by a counter-tenor then we should if possible preserve Handel's vocal dispositions and assign the second'uomo to a woman if that is what he desired (Of course, with Handel, he often broke his own rules when mounting later performances of the operas, but we must differentiate between Handel the composer and Handel the impresario).

We're never going to know what Senesino actually sounded like, but working towards a greater understanding of his vocal technique and sound is a great help towards greater authenticity in baroque opera

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