Cecilia Bartoli - Sacrificium
Those who remembered hearing the last castrato, Moreschi, sing at the Vatican in the 1900s, said that his discs really give no idea of the “other-worldly” quality his voice evoked, surrounded by the echo in the Sistine Chapel. I thought immediately of this, listening to the second track on this new CD from Cecilia Bartoli and Il Giardino Armonico, dedicated to the art of the castrati. This is an aria from Caldara’s oratorio Sedacia, “Profezie, di me diceste”, in which the holy man anticipates death and everlasting peace.
Here Bartoli seems to capture some of the mystery which shall ever remain where thegreat castrato singers are concerned. Composed for Farinelli, as was Caldara’s La morte d’Abel,an aria from which concludes the recital, it makes one ask what can be deduced from a modern interpretation of what Farinelli’s admirers called “a marvel…so perfect, so powerful, so sonorous”. Whatever the castrati may or may not have sounded like, it is fairly certain that their voices did not resemble thatof a modern mezzo-soprano. Bartoli’s voice,even when descending into the contraltoregister, sounds essentially feminine. Hervirtuoso skills are given full rein in the displayarias here, especially those by Porpora such asthe one that opens the recital, “Come nave in mezzo all’onde” from Siface, and one byLeonardo Vinci in which the orchestra is augmented by thunderclaps, as the singer describes Jove’s anger.
It is more in the reflective, slow arias that Bartoli shows a greater sympathy with the sensual mannerisms of the age. Farinelli’s singing enchanted the King of Spain every evening for nearly 10 years. If he had sung the exquisitestring- and-harp-accompanied “Qual farfalla innamorata” from Leonardo Leo’s Zenobia in Palmira with Bartoli’s languid tone, it is easy to understand how the melancholy ruler might have been soothed.
Eleven of the arias here are claimed as world premiere recordings, and there is a bonus CD with some more familiar works, including Handel’s “Ombra mai fu”, composed for the castrato Caffarelli. Giovanni Antonini and his band provide the always effective accompaniments. There is such a huge quantity of music from the 18th-century operatic repertory still awaiting rediscovery that it is to the credit of all involved in this project that it opens a window on a too little-known world of performance. The accompanying booklet has a “Castrato Compendium” in three languages, and some startling illustrations. Patrick O’Connor