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Alessandro Moreschi, the Last Castrato

July 12, 2018

Alessandro_Moreschi

This month’s mix features one of the only recordings in existence by a ‘castrato’ – a man who was castrated as a youth in order to maintain his choirboy-like vocal range. Most recordings featured in my mixes have little, if any, information available about them, and few of the artists even have a biography online, but Alessandro Moreschi has multiple books and documentaries dedicated to him. Naturally, this is less to do with his qualities as a performer than the sheer alienness of his existence to a 21st century audience. The music industry has done some terrible things recently, but the idea of permanently mutilating children in order to dedicate them to a life as an artist has such a bizarre combination of brutality and aestheticism to it that it’s simply incomprehensible that people could let such things happen. But with the horrors of the 20th century in mind, we should know that humans are capable of this and worse.

And of course there’s the curiosity. The sound of an extinct (human) creature lost to time until these recordings emerged, and then, well… Most listeners – that is, people interested in the history of opera, so not exactly representative of the public at large – find Moreschi’s voice not only strange, but actually not very nice to listen to. It isn’t just in a higher octave, the manner of singing is distinctly different, highly mannered, with a deliberately emotional style which sounds like the cheesiest of melodrama. Judging Moreschi on these lines betrays an understandable lack of experience of listening to opera recordings from the first years of the 20th Century.

Recording into a brass horn always changed a performance. Most singers would naturally attempt to do what they always did, perform as if they were on a grand stage in a theatre to a packed crowd, with all the theatricality that would entail. A few – notably Enrico Caruso – realised that an entirely different approach was needed, directing their voice carefully into the horn, exploiting the particular dynamics of the medium, and working with engineers to ensure that the instrumentation was matched to their voice. Most important, perhaps, was the move from ‘chest voice’ to ‘head voice’ – which made most of this possible. This different style fueled the boom in home listening, and formed not just the expectations of audiences, but the earliest training of the next generation of singers. Within a couple of decades the chesty emoting style of the Victorian stage would be forgotten, save for a few forgotten cylinders and discs. And maybe that’s a shame.

Here is Moreschi’s recording of ‘Ave Maria’. I’ve decided that I quite like it.

 

Here is very good article by Samantha Ellis about castrati, and here is a really quite excellent episode of an actually-always-excellent podcast called ‘Between The Liner Notes’ on Moreschi and castrati in general.

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