Saturday 3 November 2012

Handel's last castrato

Gaetano Guadagni
Handel’s early oratorios were cast from the singers he had around which meant that he used Italian opera singers (and got some pretty strange English as far as we can gather). In revivals he wasn’t above including Italian arias in an oratorio if the available Italian could not sing in English. But as oratorio took over as his prime musical offering, so the star Italian singers by and large disappeared. Instead Handel relied on singers with whom he worked regularly. In a sense he seems to have like training and coaching singers himself, prizing expressivity over virtuosity and star voices. For Samson Handel used Kitty Clive, a singing actress (a musical comedy star) for the role of Dalila.

The star in this constellation was undoubtedly the tenor, John Beard, who had sung with Handel since he was young and for whom Handel created some of his greatest roles such as Samson and Jephtha, and who sang in the premieres of eight of Handel’s oratorios (Saul, L’Allegro, Samson, Semele, Joseph, Hercules, Belshazzar, Jephtha). But there were other singers with whom Handel worked on a regular basis. Henry Reinhold was his regular bass from 1739 to 1750. Elisabeth Duparc ‘La Francesina’, a French soprano who was based in England from 1736, created roles in seven oratorios (Saul, Israel in Egypt, L’Allegro, Semele, Joseph, Belshazzar, Hercules), Giulia Frasi, an Italian trained soprano who came to England the 1740’s, created five roles (Judas, Susanna, Solomon, Theodora, Jephtha), Caterina Galli, another Italian trained singer and a friend of Frasi’s who imigrated with her, created  five roles (Solomon, Judas, Susanna, Theodora, Jeptha), the English singer and actress Mrs Cibber (Susanna Maria Arne) created four roles (Saul, Messiah, Samson, Hercules), and she was prevented by illness from appearing in the premiere of Belshazzar. These lists are only a selection but they give an idea of how Handel worked with a group of singers.

No castratos of course. After Imeneo and Deidamia, (sung by Andreoni in 1741), Handel never again imported castratos specially from Italy; given his rather lively relations with them, he must have been relieved in a way.

But in 1750 one washed up on his shores. Cosimo Gaetano Guadagni (1728 -1792) wasn’t a star, he came to London in 1748 with a two-bit comic opera troupe. A colleague even reported that the singer had two left feet; but he came from a musical family, which was unusual in a castrato. But somehow he got to know Charles Burney, who helped him with his English pronunciation  Burney described him at this point as 'a wild and careless singer'. And there is a remarkably scurrilous anecdote about him in Horace Walpole's correspondence which shows that he was popular for his non-musical activities. Burney brought him to Handel’s attention.

Guadagni spent seven years in England, and worked with Handel from 1750 to 1755, longer than he worked with any other composer. Guadagni obviously had something about him, because he even had coaching from Garrick.

Like other singers in his constellation, Handel coached and trained Guadagni and we must assume that, like the others, Handel emphasised expressivity over virtuosity. There are virtuoso arias in the piece that Handel wrote for Guadagni (The raptur’d soul from Theodora, Destructive war from Belshazzar and the arias in Messiah that Handel arranged for him), but Handel very much emphasized Guadagni’s legato singing.

Guadagni sang 11 roles for Handel; he created Didymus in Theodora and sang in Saul, Samson, Judas Macabaeus, Belshazzar, Alexanders Feast, Esther, L’Allegro, Joshua, Joseph and his Brethren and Jephtha. In Messiah Handel created an extra alto castrato part in addition to the female contralto part; Handel never allocated He was despised to a man.

Guadagni is, of course, most famous nowadays for his creation of the role of Orfeo in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, a role with which he was associated for the rest of his life. A role which too prizes expressivity over bravura virtuosity.

Further feature articles on Handel

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