The whole of Europe was infatuated with castrati. Elevated to the position of stars throughout the 18th century, they raised the art of singing beyond human limits....They were idolized as much as today's androgynous rock stars such as David Bowie, Prince or Mick Jagger. In fact, 18th-century 'groupies' went so far as to wear medallions bearing the portraits of their favorite castrato, a fashion not dissimilar to the pins and T-shirts fans of rock stars wear today.
These words appear on the back of one of those Farinelli publicity posters that currently adorn the walls of the classical music sections in Tower and Rose. It's amazing that publicists are able to merchandise so alien and bizarre a custom as the gelding of preadolescent boys to create adult male sopranos. As I hang my Farinelli poster on my bedroom wall the vast gulf that separates me from the people of the ancien regime shrinks to nothing--I become an 18th-century groupie.
The film Farinelli picks up on this theme of 18th-century castrato-as-rock-star and continues the translation of the past into easily recognizable patterns. It does so in part by adhering to a popular cinematic practice for 18th-century period pieces--that of putting only the unsympathetic male characters in powdered wigs and letting our heroes trounce around in flowing, masculine manes. In this case there is the added irony that a character who's supposed to be a eunuch is decked out in his macho freak flag and set against uncastrated men in effeminate powdered wigs. Two phobias are at work in Farinelli: a fear of having the hero seem too effeminate and a fear of having him seem too unfamiliar. The film spoon-feeds us an image of a castrato we can all easily recognize: that of a misunderstood, narcissistic rock star.
The film has a lot of problems that needn't concern listeners of its sound track. Under the direction of Christophe Rousset, a respected interpreter of baroque music, the CD makes for pleasant listening and contains in its entirety the digitally simulated voice of the castrato, created by blending those of a male countertenor and a female soprano--a seemingly novel solution to the problem of how to reproduce 18th-century works containing male soprano parts. The standard solution in the modern presentation of such works has been to have either male countertenors (with a voice higher than tenor) or female contraltos (with a voice lower than soprano) sing castrati parts. Deeper-voiced female contraltos are chosen to sing male soprano parts over the more commonly available female sopranos. When a woman is chosen to sing a castrato part (often opposite a female soprano lead) the difference in vocal range is used to compensate for the lack of difference in gender. The current use of technology to more precisely simulate a castrato voice is still an attempt to preserve gender difference. In the liner notes for the CD Travelling-Auvidis frames the castrati problem purely in terms of vocal range: "As no one alive today possesses the vocal range of castrati--as much as three and a half octaves--it was decided to call upon two singers, one a countertenor (Derek Lee Ragin), the other a soprano (Ewa Mallas Godlewska), working from the assumption that the former would sing the lower passages, the latter the highest."
Considering that there are arguably singers with up to a four-octave range alive today, it's obvious that the producers' problem was not to find a singer capable of such a wide vocal range but to find a soprano who was male. If a real castrato with only a three-octave range had walked in and applied for the part they wouldn't have turned him down. The countertenor was needed, not for his lower passages as they claim, but for his masculinity. It is no surprise that since the producers incorrectly framed the problem the resulting simulation seems unsatisfactory when compared to the 1902 recordings of Alessandro Moreschi, the last known castrato and the only one ever to record.
The voice on the Farinelli CD has the three-and-a-half octave range the producers were after. However, a soprano voice is not just a matter of range. A soprano retains the characteristic timbre of a soprano no matter what notes are sung. The timbre of Moreschi's voice is a strange, almost genderless soprano; the fused timbre of the Farinelli voice is more countertenor than soprano--there are times it sounds female, but it usually sounds male.
When it comes to men singing soprano, there is no such thing as being a little bit castrated. Moreschi is totally castrated. He is a gelding, a being as different from the average man on the street as a steer is from a bull. His voice is not countertenor/soprano, it is pure soprano. The Moreschi recordings confront us with something alien to our experience, something the Farinelli film and CD promise but don't deliver. The Moreschi recordings are like the series of photos of a Chinese public execution owned and published by Georges Bataille: it seems anachronistic that such brutal and archaic phenomena ever found their way to becoming modern documents.
The Moreschi recordings have been widely available for years, and the producers of the Farinelli voice must have been aware of their existence. Since modern digital sound engineering makes possible the synthesis of almost any sound imaginable it seems clear that if they had wanted to synthesize a male soprano voice like Moreschi's they could have. We could be generous and accept that Travelling-Auvidis wishes, as stated in the liner notes, to avoid "the trap of the synthesized voice," or we may assume that the more masculine voice was created for the same reason that Farinelli never wears a wig in the film: we would rather view a past that reflects the world we know than be confronted with the reality of the truly alien world from which we are descended.