It's not the pyrotechnic pieces that are the most difficult, Cecilia Bartoli says. "The beautiful sad arias are the hardest to sing, because I am moved almost to tears. I know they were singing those arias out of their own sorrow." Bartoli is talking about her new recording, Sacrificium, which concerns the most exquisitely unsettling episode in the history of music: the castrati and the music written for them.
From the 16th to the 19th centuries, tens of thousands of male children were castrated before puberty to preserve their high voices, then subjected to a brutal and relentless program of vocal training. The first instruction, wrote an observer, "was inseparable from the whip." As in all eras of musical education, the result was a few idolized stars like the celebrated Farinelli; a steady supply of well-trained singers for church, court, and opera; and myriad also-rans and nobodies. In this case, particularly tragic nobodies.
These nobodies sang for pennies in the streets, turned to prostitution for male customers, and sooner or later disappeared into the oblivion of the outcast. A great many ended up suicides. As for the public, mingled with their admiration for the famous castrati was disgust and scorn. Names for them included "geldings, eunuchs, capons … nature's rejects, nullities of known creation." To have gone under the knife, never by your own choice, meant only one career path. By law and by custom you were forbidden to take Church orders or serve in government or military. Needless to say, you never had a family. As a castrato you were a singer, or you were nothing.
That's why the sad songs are so hard for Bartoli. It's a sorrow she can't fully feel, but she senses it in the plangent melodies, the singular and inextricable mingling, she says, "of beauty and cruelty." Here's one of those mournful arias:
The tradition rose from an unholy trinity of religion, money, and art. The church forbade women to sing in services. There was a standing ban, enforced primarily in the Papal States, on teaching women to sing professionally at all. Church choirs were staffed by boys, castrati, and adult tenors and basses. Meanwhile, in secular life, the greatest castrati, their virtuosity almost superhuman and their voices uniquely beautiful, were superstars of the opera stage and concert hall. As both singers and sexual toys, they were favorites of royalty and clergy, enjoying oceans of applause and cries of "Evviva il coltellino!" ("Long live the little knife!"). The presence of castrati in church music helped attract fans to services. On the opera stage, they played virile heroes and fiery heroines, competing for fame with the female divas of the day. Here's Bartoli in the pyrotechnic mode.
If you're into decadence, transgression, "the other"—all those postmodern shibboleths—this is your kind of music history. A fan wrote, after watching a beautiful teenage castrato gotten up in a female role: "He was enclosed in a carefully-made corset and looked like a nymph … his breast was as beautiful as any woman's … one felt quite madly amorous of him." In his Mémoires, Casanova reported an intricate orgy that could have come from Sade: "There were seven or eight girls, all of them pretty, three or four castratos … and five or six abbés. … A castrato and a girl … proposed to strip … lie on their backs … with their faces covered. They challenged us all to guess which was which."