Francisco Viñas: the golden era of castrati I

Spanish tenor Francisco Viñas (1863 – 1933), who was recognized as his heir by the legendary Julián Gayarre, published in 1932 his book The art of singing: historical facts, advice and precepts for educating the voice. In the second chapter, he describes the golden era of castrati singers, through “the fascination of the great singing celebrities, the idolatry of the singing musicians and the tragic end of some of them,” including anecdotes about Queen Christina of Sweden, Farinelli in the court of Spain and other eminent singers.

The fascination of the great singing celebrities.

In the middle of the 16th century the art of singing rose to glory by virtue of the extraordinary number of distinguished singers who, no longer fitting in Italy, invaded the theatres and royal courts of Europe. Some chronicler assumes that seventy-five percent of the singers of the time were castrated. In the first youth of these evirates, while the monstrous fatness from which few got rid was still far off, it was not rare for them to be on stage clad in feminine clothes, taking on the studied aspect of great beauties and provoking volcanic passions. Thus, women were excluded form many theaters. Indeed,

Montesquieu tells of his stay in Rome (1725) the immense enthusiasm aroused in the Capranic Theater of the Eternal City by two young evirates, called Mariotti and Chiestra: “Dressed as women,” he says, “they were the most beautiful creatures on stage that imagination could dream of. They often provoked scandals, feeding mundane chronicles, with the infatuations they inspired in foreign people, who were led by their deceptive illusions to confuse their sex.”

However, the origin of that fascination that subjugated the crowds could not be more than the divine charm of their gentle and purest voice, masterly educated in all the secrets of art, as trebles or contraltos, according to the strength or range of their vocal cords. On the other hand, given the mania that these human nightingales awakened, the masters devoted to the composition of operas or cantatas made an effort to conquer their sympathy by writing only for them, so that the faculties of these virtuous singers would have a wide field to develop the vocal acrobatics they offered to the goddess of Whim, though an art that already bordered on something portentous and inexplicable. Hence there came a time when the laws of logic were chained to the will of the singers; and the melodrama was transformed into a conventional string of romanzas, arias, melodies, etc., as imposed by the fancy of the “musician-singers,” elevated by popular enthusiasm to the rank of demigods. They alone embodied, in their own way, the spirit of the musical work; while the poor master composer was postponed, reduced to the condition of “umile servitor di loro.”

If in the art of singing these virtuosos were perfection itself, though many of them practised the art abusively, they showed such an unlikely ignorance in terms of stage representation, both in terms of clothing and plastic arts, that even the performance of the most illustrious of them carried the stigma of glorified ridicule… But popularity gave them such a lordship, that they were allowed all extravagances. César Cantú, the great historian, says of them: «while on stage, they sometimes kept the beat with the sceptre or the fan, disregarding the maestro; they laughed with those sitting in the nearest boxes when they had to keep quiet; they cursed the prompter, took tobacco and unbuttoned themselves to have more room to sing, to the point that at times they returned backstage half naked.» We must recognize that to endure such irreverence the audience had to find in the singing of those beings something supernatural, fascinating, that we cannot even remotely imagine.

We read in the book of the remarkable theatrical chronicler Monaldi “Cantanti evirati celebri” that the freedoms taken by those artists were so great that the poet G. Servío, manager of the theaters of the court of Naples, having already lost his patience, requested the king’s help to put a little order because “singers want at all costs,” he said, “that their strangest whims are obeyed, and they seek things impossible to perform because they are repugnant to reason.” Elsewhere in the same book, we find that the most celebrated evirate Marchesi, one of the best singers to have performed in the world, had the quirky habit of wanting to make his “debut” or presentation to every audience singing with a huge multicoloured helmet with big feathers. Then, wielding a spear with his right hand, he descended from the back of the stage, which was turned into a hill, a trumpet announcing his entrance. He reached the limelights to sing his favorite arias, which had nothing to do with the melodrama at play; and he always began with the one he liked the most, written, and dedicated to him, by maestro Sarti: Mia speranza, io pur vorrei, which the illustrious singer embellished with astonishing difficulties of execution, leaving the listeners amazed by the ease and good taste with which the mastery of his art easily cleared and solved every obstacle.

The idolatry of the singing musicians and the tragic end of some of them.

Discussing the incredible admiration that these neutral sex artists aroused, Celani says: “The famous castrato is the idol, the desired and favorite of everyone. In the loftiest society, noble ladies fall into convulsive delirium for them; they offer them laurel wreaths, and carry their miniatures in their breast; sonnets and dithyrambs are written for them, and neither serious people nor satirical writers, who would gladly put them in ridicule, dare to oppose popular enthusiasm. The aristocracy, or the rich, are infatuated by these singers and even the cardinals themselves,” whom Celani calls the great braggarts of the time, “gather and keep the castrate musicians in their palaces as rare, collectible objects.”

While it may seem unlikely, the amorous adventures of these beings were sometimes of such nature that, according to the chronicles, they ended tragically. With an equally sensitive heart, accustomed to courtly flattery in stately palaces, in perennial contact with ladies eager for pleasures, they yielded easily to their charms or to their morbid concupiscence. The story goes that for romantic reasons the great Stradella, a distinguished singer and composer, was murdered wickedly in the city of Genoa. It is said that years before his tragic death there had already been a criminal attempt, plotted by a courtier, to murder him, for which purpose four assassins, a kind of sparafucili in vogue in those days at the service of the powerful, were sent from Milan to Rome, where the eminent singer temporarily resided, to finish him off. Arriving in the Eternal City, the criminals gathered information to meet him. They knew that on a particular day he would sing in the Basilica of St. John Lateran a new oratorio of his composition, the famous Aria di Chiesa: Pieta, Signore. They went to the Lateran to carry out the monstrous crime. But those heartless men, those villains, on hearing the softness of that masterful singing, with such a portentous expression and feeling that it drew tears, felt disarmed by an intense and inexplicable emotion, to the point that they decided to abandon the infamous project, begging the illustrious singer to forgive them, uncovering the plot of the conspiracy to kill him and also revealing the name of the mind and leader behind them.

We also know that the famous evirate singer Corrado Ricci, nicknamed “Siface,” was for the same reason shot with an arquebus by the family of a great lady related to the Duke of Modena and died on the way to Bologna. Of other famous singers, such as Landini, Alessandro, Montalvini and Mirelli, it is said that they were also victims of dagger or poison, due to conflicts caused by the jealousy of the proud rulers, despots and lords of other people’s lives, who didn’t like the ladies of their dreams to feel fascinated by the singing of those virtuosi and to have with them sinful adventures. Of Lorenzo Vettori, also murdered by a rival when he left the palace of a noble Neapolitan lady late at night, a sixteenth-century chronicler tells that he was considered “a prodigy of nature and art. The harmony and perfection of his singing, its profound feeling, enthralled the listener. The treasure of his voice took the tone of every passion with such an imperious flexibility and such a truth of expression, that it was reflected in the faces of the audience.” An eminent poet and composer at the same time, he wrote for himself most of the cantatas he performed.

Guinguenée refers in his “Encyclopedia” that another sublime singer, called Baldassare Ferri di Perugia, aroused universal enthusiasm, giving rise to extraordinary manifestations. People often waited for him to leave the theatre, and the carriage that took him to his home marched under a rain of flowers, accompanied by the cheers of a crowd that seemed to be in a state of delirium. On his way to Florence to sing the opera Ariana by Monteverdi, he was greeted two miles from the city by numerous deputies from all sorts of citizens who made up the great Florentine family; and in an imposing procession, presided by the gonfalons of the “Signoria,” he was accompanied to his residence.

Buontempi, a compatriot and contemporary of Ferri, sums up the prodigious art of this great artist of bel canto in the following terms: “It is not possible to give an idea of the purity and intonation of his beautiful voice, with its wide range, its flexibility, as sweet as it is harmonious. His singing is now joyful, now fierce, grave or tender at his pleasure; and especially in pathetic wanderings it takes control of every heart. He amazes with the vivacity of his trill; he climbs and descends with a single, inexhaustible breath two whole scales; and when it seems to the listener that he must be already exhausted, he begins again with new trills marking all the degrees of the chromatic scale with astonishing accuracy. He is sometimes heard attacking fast passages, ruffled with difficulties, linking bright and dark tones with imponderable mechanical precision. All this is for him like a funny game, and the muscles in his face don’t show the slightest contraction of fatigue.” This singer is supposed to have been perhaps the most sublime of all who ever existed; and Buontempi recounts that the marvelous effects of this virtuoso were based on the thoroughness of the technical details, which, on hearing them, seemed truly superhuman. Because of these wonders, Ferri was pampered by fortune. The courts of Europe regarded him as an idol; they disputed the honor of hosting him in their palaces; and at times he was the cause of conflicts due to the envy aroused by the possession of such a supreme singer. He served three kings and two emperors. When he left the court of Poland, Leopold I became ill with nostalgia and ordered to place the portrait of the eminent evirate in his home with this legend: “Baldassare Ferri, angelic and unforgettable singer.” He was made knight of Saint Marcus by the Venetians. Queen Christine of Sweden sent him her imperial ship to take him to the court of Stockholm, where she showered him with gifts and honors. In commemoration of his arrival, the queen had a medal minted with the effigy of the sublime artist; and on the back, as a refined allegory, there was a dying swan on the banks of the Meander River, with a lyre descending from the sky.

Many other strange stories are told of other evirate singers; but as we only intend to show the fascination exerted on the multitudes by the divine art of singing as it was cultivated in the glorious era, in contrast to the decadence of today, we limit ourselves to transcribing just the most interesting parts of the chronicles and notes of scholars who catalogued events worthy of remembrance.

Part II

Text excerpted and translated from El arte del canto, Francisco Viñas, Barcelona, 1932.