Francisco Viñas: the golden era of castrati III

Third part of the description of 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” by Spanish tenor Francisco Viñas (1863 – 1933).

Other honorable singers – Anecdotes

Glorious records have reached us from another legion of famous sopranist singers of the last period (1725 to 1800). The name of Antonio Bernaschi of Bologna, disciple of the great Pistocchi of the same city, is often quoted. His voice was considered ungrateful and unpleasant at the beginning, but with his persistence and the teacher’s wisdom he reached such purity of sound that he is regarded as one of the most luminous stars that appeared in the immense firmament of the lyrical art of those times. He was later an outstanding teacher, and an infinite number of great singers came out of his school, notably Carlini, Tedeschi, Amadori, Guarducci, Raff and other superb sopranists like him. Bernaschi’s singing, according to the chronicles of the time, was masterful, of impeccable taste, since with the union of the two registers, that of the natural cords and that of the false cords, he composed a third one of mixed voice, which he used for his elegant “grupetti,” full of grace, with “volatine scelte,” trills, mordenti, “rubamenti di tempo,” that bound the spirit of the listener.

It has been said of Gianbattista Minelli that his art of singing was such that he was called “il Sapientissimo” and among the great ones we find the names of Majorani, from Bari; Scalzi, from Genoa; Gizziello; Mansulli, from Florence; Arvedo, from Verona; Guadagni Lodigiano, Aprile, Regginello and Conti, from Naples; Rubinello, from Brescia; David Giacomo and Vigoni, from Bergamo; Balini, from Bologna; Caffarelli, the proud; sweet Farinelli; Tosi, the erudite; Pacchierotti, the classical one, and Crescentini, of whom certain vocalizations attributed to him are still studied in some conservatories.

In the chronicles of the 18th century we also find an endless list of great female singers from those renowned academies. Such were Vittoria Tesi, Faustina Hasse, la Peruzzi, Caterina Visconti, Giannina Artrua, la Minghetti, Lucrezia Aguarzi, Ana de Amicis, Brígida Dante, Angélica Catalani, who carried along with infinite others the glorious scepter of an imperishable art on the greatest stages of Europe.

Of Caffarelli, whose real name was Cayetano Maiorana, certain chroniclers state that his great master, the eminent Nicola Porpora, in order to dominate the voice of the beloved disciple, subjected him for six years to continuous exercises, almost always the same; exercises that only filled a sheet of paper; at the end of this time, while Caffarelli believed he was still learning the basics, he was pleasantly surprised when the famous professor told him: “Go, my son, you are now the first singer of the Universe!” However, the artistic education of the singers of the time, and especially of Caffarelli, was so complete that we cannot believe this anecdote, since what that virtuoso showed to have learned does not fit on a small sheet of paper. Let us accept this legend as a recommendation to practice vocalized exercises for a long time.

The ladies’ enthusiasm for this sopranist was immense, and countless adventures are told about him; in one of them he nearly lost his life. He was surprised in intimate conversation in the reserved rooms of a certain duchess, and when he tried to flee, chased by the outraged consort, he was able to escape, thanks to a servant’s complicity, hiding in a well, where he had to stay twenty-four hours, at the cost of a serious illness that made him fear for his voice.

After recovering from his misadventure, he toured the main theatres of Europe; and he was invited by the Dauphine of France to go to Paris, where his singing produced universal delight. The King, to show his admiration, sent him though a gentleman a gold cigarette case decorated with diamonds. Caffarelli received it and said to the ambassador: “Is it the King of France himself who sent me this? Well, look,” and opening a box he showed him thirty or so most rich cases, of which the most modest was of a value far greater than that offered by the King. “At least,” he continued, “he could have had his portrait engraved!” “Sir!” the palace man replied angrily; “His Majesty gives his portrait only to the Ambassadors. “However,” replied the famous singer, “all the Ambassadors of the world are not capable of making a Caffarelli.” The next day he was called to the Palace. The great Dauphine gave him a magnificent brilliant and the passport at the same time, telling him ironically: “As you can see, it bears the signature of the King, and it is a great honour… but you have to hurry, because it is only good for ten days.” Caffarelli, defeated and humiliated, ran off to Italy.

“Proud and vane,” says Monaldi, whose anecdote we copy, “Caffarelli was the torment of businessmen, who had to adapt to his extravagant whims. He was hated by his colleagues because of the contempt he had for others, and in duos he tried to ridicule them. On a certain occasion the audience of the theatre of San Carlos, in Naples, noting the bad arts of Caffarelli, hissed him off noisily, even though he was their favourite singer; but in spite of such a well-deserved lesson, his continuous extravagances were so many that he was expelled from that stage by order of the authority in 1753”. He retired at the age of sixty, having amassed great wealth. He bought with them the Duchy of San Donati and ordered the construction of one of the most sumptuous palaces on the Toledo street in Naples, with the name “Palazzo Caffarelli,” which we can still admire today.

Crescentini, perhaps the last evirate singer to perform in the theatre, was protected by Napoleon I and, contradicting the claim attributed to the famous warrior that “music was an annoying rumour to him,” it is said that the singing of that virtuoso moved him so remarkably that his eyes were often bathed in tears when he heard him. From Vienna, Napoleon added him to his court to take him to Paris (1808), where he sang Zingarelli’s opera Romeo and Giulietta in the Tuileries Palace with such art and feeling that audience, deeply moved, showered him with indescribable admiration and enthusiasm. According to the chronicles, “never did the sublimity of singing, as well as the power of dramatic art, rise so high above the imaginable. Romeo’s entry in the third act, his prayer, the accent of despair and pain with which he nuanced the famous aria Ombra adorata, aspetta, made such a deep impression on the listeners as if they were witnessing something unexplainable and supernatural”.

In his last artistic stage he devoted himself to the teaching of singing at the Conservatory of Naples, which today is called San Pietro a Maiella. Napoleon honoured the famous artist with the Great Cross of the Iron Crown, the highest distinction that could be given at that time in France. We read in the book of Fétis: “with Crescenteni ended the glorious era of the great Italian singers; with him, the series of sublime virtuosos generated in that classic land of melody disappeared. There is nothing comparable to the softness of those accents, to the strength of the expression, to the perfect taste in the ornaments “fioriture,” to the amplitude of their phrasing; a sum of qualities taken by them to the maximum degree of perfection, of which a single one would suffice in the present time to assure to whoever possessed it the first place among the modern singers.”

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