Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Of Castratos and Countertenors

 


“Not often they give us Handel!”  I spoke with enthusiasm to the older gentleman seated nearby as we waited for Met @ the Movies to start. I was excited about hearing this nearly 300 year old piece, but as all he said was “Thank God - no!” I understood he wasn’t as jacked as I was about this afternoon's broadcast.

Giulio Cesare was first performed in 1724. It was a hit in its day and has again acquired traction among fans of Baroque opera.  I was familiar with the music because during the 80’s, when I’d been researching Mozart, I’d acquired a Handel CD called “Arias for Senesimo,” featuring Drew Minter, a countertenor. I knew that in the 1770’s, the young Mozart had written for castratos, who were still a feature of the operatic world. (In case you're wondering: the Italians castrated young male singers in order to preserve their soprano/mezzo range.)   These days, we make do with women dressed as men for such roles, or, more recently, with countertenors, men who are able to sing into a higher range, by using “head voice,” a.k.a.,  falsetto.

 As was usual at the Met @ The Movies, I was the youngest person present, a phenomenon which saddens me.  I sincerely hope that opera, this glorious, arcane slice of Western Civ. is not on its way to the cultural junkyard.  I have to admit that Giulio Cesare is definitely not the kind of opera you’d take a neophyte to hear/see. Not everyone can handle a middle aged man with a beard singing in a beautiful soprano voice. Dramatically, too, this kind of Opera Seria was already considered “old-fashioned” in Mozart’s time, fifty years later. There isn’t a lot of character development or action. The structure of the arias is not complex, either—a statement and a restatement, varied only by the addition of increasingly florid vocal embellishments. (An “Aria of Love,” an “Aria of Rage,” an “Aria of Sorrow.”)  
 
I admit I spent the next 4 ½ hours watching two fabulous male leads who acrobatically sang, soprano and mezzo, and a marvelous female soprano playing the part of a boy in what is called a “trouser role.” (As I’ve said before, this is not everyone’s scene. ) The multi-talented Natalie Dessay, who sang Cleopatra, performed some astonishing “song and dance” numbers which showed that not only could she sing Handel, but she could dance to him, too, deft as any Broadway hoofer.   


~~
Juliet Waldron