Obsolescence Week: nothing's more obsolete than castrati | Bleader

Obsolescence Week: nothing's more obsolete than castrati

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Iestyn Davies, Sonia Prina
There was plenty of charming obsolescence on display at Lyric Opera’s performance of Handel’s Rinaldo last Sunday—and not just in the audience. Rinaldo features ancient instruments like harpsicord and theorbo, and lots of arias with embellished repetition (run time, nearly three and half hours). There’s also a politically incorrect First Crusade plot in which the Christians wallop the Saracens. It's all served up in a minimalist, Euro-plastic production inspired by Flash Gordon.

Performed in Italian but written for an English audience, Rinaldo premiered in London in 1711 as a lavish spectacle, in a theater equipped with the latest technical wizardry. In that production, a poignant moment was punctuated by a flock of birds that buzzed the audience, and the sorceress at the center of the story (sung here by terrific young soprano Elza van den Heever) entered in a flying chariot pulled by fire-breathing dragons. Lyric audience education manager Jesse Gram, who’s giving the preperformance lectures (free with ticket, an hour before curtain), says that attending that show 300 years ago was akin to seeing Avatar in 3-D at Imax today.

But the most exotic feature of the original Rinaldo was the result of a technology that’s really, truly, gone obsolete. The title character and several supporting roles were created for castrati.

In Lyric’s production, those parts are sung by countertenors, including reigning divo-hunk David Daniels as Rinaldo, and a silver-voiced newcomer to Lyric, Iestyn Davies, as his sidekick, Eustazio. They’re up there, trilling away nicely, but the sound they’re producing is not exactly what Handel had in mind.

In 18th-century Italy, parents might have been paid a little ransom for allowing the surgical adjustment that would permit a promising boy soprano to stay in that register. When testicles were removed before puberty, Gram says, growth was affected in some very specific ways: castrati tended to be unusually tall, with barrel chests and large lungs, while their vocal cords remained short as a child’s. As a result, their voices were very high and flexible, but also resonant and extremely powerful. Gram says it was a sound unlike anything man, woman, or boy can produce today.

Unfortunately, Baroque-era technology didn't allow for the recording of Handel's Rinaldo, superstar Neapolitan castrato Nicolini. But a century-old recording of the last Vatican castrato (not an operatically trained singer), Alessandro Moreschi, can be heard here. It doesn’t sound like he would have made it in opera.

Lyric's Rinaldo is conducted by Harry Bicket and directed by Francisco Negrin. Performances continue on March 12, 16, 20, and 24 at the Civic Opera House, Madison and Wacker. Information and tickets here, or call 312-332-2244.

More of Obsolescence Week on the Bleader.

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