Saturday, 8 March 2014

The castrati...

I attended a concert at St James' church Spanish Place a fortnight ago. It was my first publick appearance since I joined the Royal Stewart Society at Westminster Abbey on 8th February and met Lord Aylmer. I wore tweed for the occasion. All the while I was sitting in St James', as mine ears were assailed by the choir, I felt worried that God might thrust his arm through the roof of the church and ask what I was doing there. What would I say? In any case, after the performance a few people embarrassingly approached me about Liturgiae Causa (this awful place doesn't encapsulate me, you know!), but I was invited to a gala reception in Marylebone at which happily nothing of the sort was mentioned. An Anglo-Irish professor at the University of London and I were discussing Handel and Handel's castrati. We agreed that operatic taste in the 18th century was markedly superior to to-day, before operetta (a guilty pleasure, actually) and Puccini. The castrati ruled the world! We also agreed that we should like to see the castrati take their place on the 21st century operatic stage and to assume the parts that were written for them. Most castratri were pretty mediocre and ended up singing in the choirs of provincial cathedrals but the superstars, Farinelli, Senesino, Carestini, etc...I'd pay handsomely for a time machine because I believe the castrato voice, now lost forever, to have been the most beautful, haunting and poignant voice ever heard under the sun of this world.

What are questions of morality compared with aesthetic pleasures?

The video is of the French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky singing Handel's aria Lascia ch'io pianga which, I believe, was composed for the castrato Senesino. Not that a castrato would sound much like a countertenor but I guess they are the closest equivalent in these allegedly more humane times; singing, perforce, from the head rather than from the chest.


  1. Jaroussky has an incredible voice. Both my wife and I love his singing. Singing, real singing, is really hard work and that is how we expand our range. I sing tenor myself, and I can hit the really high (tenor) notes on a good day. Everything depends on the diaphragm as my teacher insists and the support it gives the voice. Head voice singing is very tiring, and you need to get the technique right.

    1. I can sing in falsetto (usually in the bath and mere trifles like bits of Gilbert & Sullivan). Someone described my voice as contralto once. It isn't trained, of course.

    2. I think we all can, but a little training does a lot of good. The basic thing is to use your abdominal muscles to push on the diaphragm. The air has to come from down there, and you use the sinuses for resonance by the shape of your mouth and head. It's not easy, but you can get lessons if you're interested. I haven't heard your voice, but I can only imagine you being a tenor or counter-tenor. A contralto is a woman who sings alto and is the lowest women's voice (under mezzo-soprano and soprano).