Sunday 14 October 2012

Handel's Castratos - Senesino and Carestini

Castrato Senesino in 1735 by Van Haecken after Hudson
Senesino in 1735
The singers who were the great stars of Handel's day were not the sopranos or the tenors, but the castrati. There were only ever one or two at the prime position, and these men could command huge salaries and generate amazing public enthusiasm. Handel worked with a number, but he never managed to work with the best known castrati of the day  Farinelli. There just two who had a significant role in his operas, Senesino and Carestini. Senesino created the most remarkable number of roles for the composer.

Francesco Bernardi (1686 - 1758) was the son of a Siennese barber so, not unnaturally his stage name was Senesino. He started in the Sienna Cathedral choir, made his stage debut in Venice in 1707 and by 1717 was creating quite a stir whilst singing in Dresden. His salary in Dresden was huge and even included the use of a carriage. He objected to his part in the opera Flavio Criso by the Dresden court composer Heinichen in 1720; this meant that when Handel came by, looking for singers for the Royal Academy in London, Sensino agreed to join him. Handel had heard him singing in Dresden (in 1719 in Teofane) and had been instructed by the directors of the Royal Academy to try and engage him.

Senesino made his debut in London in Bononcini’s Astarto and his first role for Handel was a revival of Radamisto. He would go on to create 17 leading roles for Handel (plus roles in three revivals) and is the castrato most associated with Handel’s opera seria. The roles which Handel created for Senesino are all, frankly, amazing, including Giulio Cesare, Andronico in Tamerlano, Bertarido in Rodelinda, Floridante and Ottone. Handel was not the only composer used by the Royal Academy, so that Senesino sang in eight of Bononcini'a operas and seven by Ariosto. It was Senesino who was the hero during the era of ‘The Rival Queens’ when the Royal Academy employed Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni as its twin sopranos.

But he was an awkward character and his relations with Handel were not entirely even (in 1720 after one clash, Handel evidently called him ‘a damned fool’). Senesino was touchy, vain and insolent, and full of professional vanity. His fondness of intrigues would eventually come to the fore and sever his relations with Handel.

Senesino seems to have been based in London for the next 16 years. He moved in the circles of the Duke of Chandos, the Earl of Burlington and William Kent and developed a fine art collection. When the Royal Academy collapsed in 1728 Senesino left London and evidently invested his money in a house in Sienna. He sang in Paris and Italy and was, initially, cool towards Handel. But in 1730 he agreed to join the second Royal Academy. Senesino had an extremely high reputation in England and was lauded by the press, but evidently this did not transfer to the continent. When he came in 1730 he replaced the castrato Bernacchi, who in Europe was reckoned the finer singer.

On his return, he sang four operatic roles for Handel plus roles in Acis and Galatea, Esther and Deborah. His last role for Handel was Orlando (1733), with its mad scene and lack of heroics for the title role, a role which can hardly have seemed ideal to Senesino. When the Opera of the Nobility started in 1733 Senesino went to join them. It was whilst singing with the Opera of the Nobility that Senesino got the opportunity to sing with the other great castrato of the age, Farinelli.

Senesino left England three years later, singing in Florence and Naples before retiring to a fine house in Sienna.

Senesino’s voice during his English years seems to have had a relatively narrow compass, going from the g below middle c to the e at the top of the treble stave, a compass of an octave and a sixth, though his very upper and lower notes appeared rarely. Contemporaries valued very highly his abilities in recitative and he seems to have had both the ability to project vigorous coloratura and to sing pathetically. He was famous for his messa di voce and Handel’s parts for him could be expected to include a fine bravura aria and delicately pathetic. His rather porcine features, however, were often caricatured and  Horace Walpole describes meeting him in 1740, and thinking at first that he was a fat old woman.

Giovanni Carestini (1704 - 1760) was the castrato who replaced Senesino when he left Handel’s company in 1733. He was also Italian (born near Ancona) and made his debut in Milan. He was in fact taught by Bernacchi and when he made his debut in Rome in 1721 he performed alongside Bernacchi in Scarlatti’s La Griselda.

He only sang with Handel for a couple of seasons, but the roles written for him include Ruggiero in Alcina and the title role in Ariodante. He was a soprano castrato, rather than an alto, and had a very wide compass with Handel writing role requiring a full two octave compass for him. Burney commented on his acting and his majestic profile.

His technique was more inclined to the continental style of rather instrumental writing for the voice (think Vivaldi’s operas) and this seems to have inclined Handel two write roles for him which were rather different to those for Senesino. Though of course the great composer would only go so far and Carestini originally objected to singing Verdi prati in Alcina, finding the aria too simple (it is like the pathetic arias that Handel wrote for Senesino). In fact, the singer had a great success with it. Charles Burney records the incident thus:

'Verdi prati, which was constantly encored during the whole run of Alcina, was, at first, sent back to HANDEL by Carestini, as unfit for him to sing; upon which he went, in a great rage, to his house, and in a way which few composers, except HANDEL, ever ventured to accost a first-singer, cries out: "You toc! don't I know better as your seluf, vaat is pest for you to sing? If you vill not sing all de song vaat I give you, I will not pay you ein stiver.'

After these appearances his career went into something of a decline. A return to London in 1740 wasn't a great success, but he remained in employment in the major centres until 1758.

There remains a further name, Guadagni. He was a castrato much associated with Handel's later, oratorio years; a singer who would go on to make his name in a very different type of opera, Gluck's Orfeo. I will be treating Handel's relations with Guadagni in a subsequent article.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating stuff on a long ago superstar! Much enjoyed.


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