One of the strangest episodes in operatic history is the story of the castrati. In their heyday they were the toast of Europe: idolised, fêted, adored by men and women alike, patronised by royalty and the nobility. They were showered with gifts, lived in the height of luxury and, in some cases, behaved like the most petulant prima donnas of modern times. And they are reputed to have sung like angels.
Patrick Barbier’s entertaining and authoritative book is the first full study of the subject in the context of the baroque period. Covering the lives of more than sixty singers from the end of the sixteenth century to the nineteenth, he blends history and anecdote as he examines their social origins and backgrounds, their training and debuts, their brilliant careers their relationship with society and the Church, and their decline and death.
The castrati became a legend that still fascinates us today. Thousands flocked to hear and see these singing hybrids – part man, part woman, part child – who portrayed virile heroes on the operatic stage, their soprano or contralto voices weirdly at variance with their clothes and bearing. The sole surviving scratchy recording tells us little of the extraordinary effect of those voices on their audiences – thrilling, unlike any sound produced by the normal human voice.
Illustrated with photographs and engravings, the book ranges from the glories of patronage and adulation to the darker side of a fashion that exploited the sons of poor families, denied them their manhood and left them, when they were old, to decline into poverty and loneliness. It is a story that will intrigue opera-lovers and general readers alike, superbly told by a writer who has researched his subject with the thoroughness of a true enthusiast.
Patrick Barbier is a Professor of Music at the West Catholic University in Angers. He has also written the highly acclaimed Vivaldi’s Venice, published by Souvenir Press.
“It is hard to understand how 17th and 18th century Italy managed somehow to accept the idea of castration, even for musical reasons… Professor Barbier’s book explains it in a way that makes the operatic conventions sound almost reasonable, giving us a full picture of the training, techniques and personalities of the castrati themselves.”
“Authoritative and entertaining.”
“Patrick Barbier’s history of opera’s most bizarre subplot is both scholarly and fun.”
“A vibrant and engrossing study.”