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Farinelli

portrait of Farinelli by
Corrado Gianquinto

portrait
                    by GianquintoThere is a separate item on "Castrati" in these pages that you may read by clicking here. What follows, below, has to do with one particular castrato singer, Carlo Broschi—known as "Farinelli"—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.

Some 200 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.")

The film 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.)

There are 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.


Bizarre but scientific—I guessupdate, July 2011: 

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.]


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