I had occasion the other day to see a film about one of the greatest singers of any epoch--Carlo
Broschi, known as "Farinelli." He was widely regarded during his lifetime as the greatest exponent
of the bizarre (from our modern point of view) style of singing produced by the eunuch soprano. So,
some 200 years after his death, he returned to the spotlight (played by Italian actor Stefano Dionisi)
in Gerard Corbiau's 1994 film, "Farinelli voce Regina." (The title seems to be a deliberate, bizarre
pun on the real Farinelli's nickname "Singer to the Kings". "Voce regina" does mean "regal voice",
yes, but in Italian and the original French the title may also be read as "Queen of Singers". Since
Farinelli was a eunuch soprano, and since we all know what a "queen" is--well...ha-ha...
The film centers on the singer's rivalry with and antipathy towards the German composer Haendel
when both were in London in the mid 1730s trying to organize competing opera companies. The
interesting thing about the film is the soundtrack. Since they don't make eunuch singers anymore,
the filmmaker had to rely on the audio wizardry of the French IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et
Coordination Acoustique/Musique) to splice together and otherwise unify the voices of male
counter-tenor Derek Lee Ragin and female coloratura Ewa Mallas Godlewska such that the finished
product sounded as if it came from a single voice of incredible power and range. It works, although
the lip-synching could be better. The film also perpetuates the dubious claim that young Broschi
couldn't remember having been castrated because he had been too young at the time and, thus,
believed his brother that the operation had been done to treat a horse-riding accident. (Children
meant to become eunuch singers were generally castrated at the age of 8 to 10.)
There are a few books about Farinelli. One is "Farinell the Castrato," by Andrée Corbiau
(presumably related to the director of the film) from 1994. There is, also from 1994, "Farinelli,
mémoires d'un castrat," by Marc David, and from 1943 "Farinelli, le chanteur des Rois". There is,
from 1960, a private printing of "Farinelli in Spain" by Anthony Richards that looks particularly
interesting (though I have not read it) since it covers the most fascinating period in Farinelli's life,
the time he spent in Spain, the years when he sang the depressed king of Spain to sleep every night.
There are a few others, as well.
Unlike many male children with good voices--whose parents chose to have them castrated as a way
out of poverty--Carlo Boschi was from a well-off family. He was born in 1705 in Andrea, a small
town in Puglia in what was then the Kingdom of Naples. He was castrated and sent to Naples to
study music. (Alternately, sent to Naples to be castrated and study music. I don't know.) He studied
with Porpora, one of the most important members of the so-called "Neapolitan School," which has
given us A. Scarlatti, Pergolesi, Piccinni, Cimarosa, etc.
He first performed at the age of 15 in a work composed by Porpora called "Angelica e Medoro."
There was nothing noteworthy about the event (or the opera) except that Farinelli met another
former child-prodigy who was living and working in Naples and who was destined to revitalize text
in Italian opera and eventually be regarded as the one of the greatest names in Italian literature of
the 1700s, Metastasio. The singer and the librettist/poet became such fast and lifelong friends that
they commonly referred to the other as "brother".
Farinelli sang in Venice in 1728 and his career took off. He toured Europe and became known as
"Singer to the Kings". In his "History of Music," Charles Burney (1726-1814) recounts an episode
during a rehearsal in London when the musicians in the orchestra could barely concentrate on their
parts, amazed, as they were, to distraction by the power and brilliance of Farinelli's voice. In 1737
he accepted an offer to go to Spain and be the private singer for that particular king, Phillip V, an
individual beset by severe bouts of depression and who was apparently greatly helped by the sound
of Farinelli's voice. They say that Farinelli sang the same six songs at bedtime to Phillip, night after
night, for ten years. Thus, Farinelli gave up the public life of an acclaimed singer and devoted
himself for the next 25 years to service to the Spanish throne, first Philip and then Ferdinand IV.
Farinelli was the Private Counsellor to Phillip, and in such good grace with the monarch that his
influence was believed to extend beyond the musical and general cultural life of Spain into
diplomacy and affairs of state. Eventually, Farinelli was knighted.
When Charles III, first Bourbon King of Naples abdicated to return to Spain in 1759, Farinelli left
and returned to Italy to live in Bologne. His generosity was proverbial; he left his estate to servants
and those relatives that had helped take care of him towards the end of his life.
(The portrait on the initial page is by Corrado Giaquinto. There is a separate, general item in the
Encyclopedia on the "Castrati". Click on "Encyclopedia" and then the letter "C".)