There is a separate item on "Castrati" in
these pages that you may read here.
What follows, below, has to do with one particular
castrato singer, Carlo Broschi, known as "Farinelli" and
widely regarded during his lifetime as the greatest
exponent of the bizarre (from our modern point of view)
style of singing produced by the eunuch soprano.
years after his death, one of the greatest singers of any
age, Farinelli, returned to the spotlight (played by
Italian actor Stefano Dionisi) in Gerard Corbiau's 1994
film, Farinelli voce Regina.
(The title seems to be a deliberate, bizarre pun on the
real Farinelli's nickname "Singer to the Kings". Voce
regina does mean "regal voice", yes, but in Italian
and the original French the title may also be read as
"Queen of Singers". Since Farinelli was a eunuch soprano,
and since we all know what a "queen" is— well...ha-ha...
(See the linked item, above, for a mention of modern male
sopranos, termed "sopranists.")
centers on the singer's rivalry with and antipathy towards
the German composer Haendel when both were in London in
the mid 1730s trying to organize competing opera
companies. The interesting thing about the film is the
soundtrack. Since they don't make castrati
anymore, the filmmaker had to rely on the audio wizardry
of the French IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et
Coordination Acoustique/Musique) to splice
together and otherwise unify the voices of male
counter-tenor Derek Lee Ragin and female
coloratura Ewa Mallas Godlewska such that the finished
product sounded as if it came from a single voice of
incredible power and range. It works, although the
lip-synching could be better. The film also perpetuates
the claim that young Broschi couldn't remember having been
castrated because he had been too young at the time and,
thus, believed his brother that the operation had been
done to treat a horse-riding accident at a very young age.
(Children meant to become castrati were generally
castrated at the age of 8 to 10.)
a few books about Farinelli. One is Farinelli the
Castrato, by Andrée Corbiau
(presumably related to the director of the film) from
1994.There is, also from 1994, Farinelli,
mémoires d'un castrat by Marc David, and
from 1943 Farinelli,
le chanteur des Rois. There
is, from 1960, a private printing of Farinelli in Spain by Anthony Richards that looks particularly
interesting (though I have not read it) since it covers
the most fascinating period in Farinelli's life, the
time he spent in Spain, the years when he sang the
depressed king of Spain to sleep every night. There are
a few others, as well.
Unlike many male children with good voices,
whose parents chose to have them castrated as a way out
of poverty, Carlo Boschi was from a well-off family. He
was born in 1705 in Andrea, a small town in Puglia in
what was then the Kingdom of Naples. He was castrated
and sent to Naples to study music. (Alternately,
sent to Naples to be castrated and study music. I don't
know.) He studied with Porpora, one of the most
important members of the so-called "Neapolitan School,"
which has given us A. Scarlatti,
Pergolesi, Piccinni, Cimarosa, etc.
He first performed at the age of 15 in a work
composed by Porpora called Angelica e Medoro. There was nothing
noteworthy about the event (or the opera) except that
Farinelli met another former child-prodigy who was
living and working in Naples and who was destined to
revitalize text in Italian opera and eventually be
regarded as the one of the greatest names in Italian
literature of the 1700s, Metastasio.
The singer and the librettist/poet became such fast and
lifelong friends that they commonly referred to the
other as "brother".
Farinelli sang in Venice in 1728 and his career
took off. He toured Europe and became known as "Singer
to the Kings". In his History of
Music, Charles Burney (1726-1814) recounts an episode
during a rehearsal in London when the musicians in the
orchestra could barely concentrate on their parts,
amazed, as they were, to distraction by the power and
brilliance of Farinelli's voice. In 1737 he accepted an
offer to go to Spain and be the private singer for that
particular king, Phillip V, an
individual beset by severe bouts of depression and who
was apparently greatly helped by the sound of
Farinelli's voice. They say that Farinelli sang the same
six songs at bedtime to Phillip,
night after night, for ten years. Thus, Farinelli gave
up the public life of an acclaimed singer and devoted
himself for the next 25 years to service to the Spanish
throne, first Philip and then Ferdinand IV. Farinelli
was the Private Counsellor to Phillip, and in such good
grace with the monarch that his influence was believed
to extend beyond the musical and general cultural life
of Spain into diplomacy and affairs of state.
Eventually, Farinelli was knighted.
When Charles III, first Bourbon King of Naples abdicated to return to Spain in 1759, Farinelli left and returned to Italy to live in Bologne. His generosity was proverbial; he left his estate to servants and those relatives who had helped take care of him towards the end of his life.
but scientific—I guess—update, July
Farinelli was exhumed in 2006 so that
his skeleton could be studied. Investigators at the
University of Bologna identified two unusual features.
Like those of other castrati,
Farinelli's limb bones were unusually long. And the
front of his skull had grown inwards in a lumpy mass, in
places twice as thick as unaffected bone. This is called
hyperostosis frontalis interna (HFI). It is
thought to be caused by hormonal disorders, particularly
too much estrogen, which explains why it is normally
found in post-menopausal women and is rare in men. HFI
was thought to be harmless but is now linked to
behavioral disorders, headaches and neurological
diseases such as Alzheimer's. Such symptoms probably
would not have affected Farinelli until late in life.
[For a related item, see the entry "Caffarelli" and on the Castrati.]