by Cathleen Myers
Farinelli, the Franco-Italian costume film about the amazing career of the great castrato soprano, is the Barry Lyndon of the 1990’s: beautiful to watch and to listen to but insubstantial in plot and lightweight as historical fiction. Costumes, sets, and music, particularly in the Baroque operatic sequences, are exquisite, but very little of this glossy 18th century soap opera bears any resemblance to historical fact. Buy the CD of the lovely soundtrack and rent the video but don’t take the plot too seriously.
Carlo Broschi ( better known by his family cognomen "Farinelli") was the first superstar in music history. We know he had a phenomenal voice, a dazzling vocal technique and a charismatic stage presence that appealed to both men and women. Unfortunately, we have no idea what a castrato actually sounded like We know that the castrati had wide-ranging soprano, mezzo-soprano and contralto voices but that because of their male lung power, they sounded neither "feminine" nor "boyish." That lung power, together with superior bel canto training techniques lost to us today, enabled them to sing long, complicated coloratura passages in a single breath. Anyone who has tried to sing this music knows how difficult it is. (Try singing "Bramo di trionfar" from Handel’s opera Alcina some time!).
The film attempts to reproduce the effect of Farinelli’s voice by computer "morphing" a female lyric-coloratura soprano voice with a male countertenor ( a high tenor skilled in falsetto). The results have created some controversy among listeners (I would have "morphed" the soprano with a lyric tenor like Jose Carreras) but the resulting voice is lovely and arresting. The lower notes sound "masculine," the upper register androgynous. And the film’s most interesting achievement is the way the audience - after the initial shock of hearing a soprano voice emerge from a man’s body - accepts and enjoys "Farinelli" as a performer. But no where in the film does the English lady cry "One God! One Farinelli!" and no one dares make the crude traditional cheer, "Evivva Il Coltello!" ("Long Live The Knife!"). And, while the film does convey the level of insult in the word "castrato," it never uses the politer form of address "musico" ("musician"). Ah well, it’s easier to invent than to research.
The film’s Baroque opera scenes, mostly by such pleasant "minor" composers as Salieri, Hasse, and Riccardo Broschi (Farinelli’s elder brother) are gloriously silly. These scenes are, indeed, the most accurate part of the film: The 18th century attempts at "historical" Greek, Roman and Egyptian costuming and the extravagant sets and special effects in the opera scenes are simply hilarious - and right on target. And when Farinelli finally gets to sing a Handel aria, the results are moving. Handel, witty, bullying, and wistful, is also nicely characterized.
But, as history, the film is preposterous. Handel did hear Farinelli sing in Dresden but did not offer him a contract with his London opera company, "The Academy of Music" (Handel engaged the contralto castrati Senesino and Carestini instead, perhaps preferring their less brilliant but more moving style of singing). The reason Handel’s opera company failed was not merely because he lost Farinelli to Porpora’s rival opera company, "The Opera of the Nobility," but because London simply could not sustain two expensive opera companies and because the political rivalry between the two companies was becoming increasingly violent - and expensive. Porpora’s company was founded with seed money from the Prince of Wales and his Whig set in defiance of King George I’s patronage of Handel’s Tory-oriented company. This political rivalry is hinted at in the film but not clarified. The most killing blow to the two opera companies, incidentally, was an overnight smash hit - John Gay’s wonderful musical The Beggar’s Opera, which made English ballad opera more popular than Italian imports.
In any event, the real reason Handel stopped writing opera was not because he couldn’t have Farinelli but because his opera company went bankrupt. Eventually, Handel made a tidy fortune writing low-budget Biblical oratorios in English, pleasing both his English Protestant audience and the wealthy London Jewish community.
Farinelli did leave England to become principal musician to the melancholy King of Spain, rising to become the country’s virtual Prime Minister and eventually retiring, rich and respected, to his own estate in Bologna. But the film’s romantic finale about the Broschi brothers’ final collaboration (which it would be churlish to reveal to the reader in advance) is pure soap opera.
And the film never adequately explains the strangest mystery of Farinelli’s mysterious career: Why should Farinelli - the son of a nobleman who was Royal Governor of the towns of Maratea and Cisternino - have been castrated in the first place? The film’s explanation is not at all satisfactory nor does it clarify the family’s social position. "Farinelli," by the way, was not a stage name (as the film implies) but a family sobriquet, also used by his brother. Carlo’s stage name was, initially, "Il Ragazzo" (the Kid).
The film accurately portrays the sexual passion that Farinelli inspired in his fans. Women apparently pursued the castrati the way groupies pursue rock stars today - but with the added advantage of complete security from pregnancy. There is certainly some documentation for the romantic appeal of the castrati: Maria Cosway, the miniaturist’s wife (c.f. Jefferson in Paris), had a long affair with the castrato soprano Luigi Marchese, who bore a strange resemblance to a young Paul Newman; and Farinelli’s rival Caffariello made a second career of climbing in and out of the bedrooms of other men’s wives. Farinelli, asked in the film if he has the "means" to satisfy a woman, replies that he can satisfy all the women in the world - in every way but one (and that’s where his brother Riccardo comes in, but why spoil the movie for you?). But the historical Farinelli was much more discreet about his affairs than he is in the film because we don’t have a single anecdote about his love life.
If you want to know more about the castrati, their sexuality and their role in 18th century European society, read The Castrati in Opera, which your local university library may have.
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