"Sacrificium," the Italian mezzo-soprano's most recent CD, is a collection of arias written for the castrati singers of 17th and 18th century Europe. I had been listening to it for weeks and had finally decoded its message:
Here the Italian Baroque came to a stupendous crescendo with the art of painters Luca Giordano and Jusepe de Ribera (a Spaniard who lived most of his life in Italy), the marquetry of Cosimo Fanzago, the architecture of Ferdinando Sanfelice. And then there is, most especially, the music of the castrati.
Brutally gelded in childhood to keep their voices from changing, the castrati nevertheless developed powerful lungs and extraordinary technique through rigid training in four famous Neapolitan conservatories, melding the best features of boy choristers, fully grown male singers and female sopranos whose soaring high notes they could often eclipse.
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The great Farinelli, who made his debut in 1720 and was retained to sing away the severe depressions of King Philip V of Spain, is said to have had a seamless range of three octaves and to have been able to perform chains of trills for a full minute without taking a breath.
For almost 200 years, the castrati were the musical superstars of Europe. Royal courts from London to Vienna had one. They made men weep and women swoon, brought princes to their knees and were the angels in the Sistine Chapel choir, where "castration for the glory of God" was authorized by Pope Clement VIII.
But tastes change, as do consciences.
By the 19th century, Romanticism had replaced the Baroque, and castration was abhorred. The last known castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, retired from the papal choir in 1913, leaving behind several scratchy old recordings too technically primitive to convey the sound of his voice. (Listen to Moreschi perform 'Ave verum,' 'Hostias et preces' and 'Preghiera.') Neither can Bartoli's magnificent singing in "Sacrificium" duplicate the lost music of the castrati.
But maybe I could imagine it in Naples underneath the frescoed ceiling of the San Carlo, Italy's oldest functioning opera house; at the Charterhouse of San Martino, decorated by the most illustrious Neapolitan Baroque artists; and in the manic, noisy, voluptuous streets of a city that never does anything by half measure. If it's true that certain places have a genius loci — a presiding spirit — then that of Naples is the Baroque.
I got here with spring in early April. When I told a taxi driver I was going to the San Carlo, he assumed I was a singer. I crooned a few bars of "O Sole Mio," and we had a good laugh. Naples is like that. If its bad reputation doesn't scare you to death, it makes you thrilled to be alive.
I checked into the Art Resort, a small hotel under the eaves at the towering Galleria Umberto I, reached by a coin-operated elevator. The resort's shopping gallery is late 19th century, not Baroque, but never mind. It is in the very heart of Naples, near the Piazza del Plebiscito, Palazzo Reale, Castel Nuovo and San Carlo.
Everything in this part of town seems to speak of Neapolitan kings. Most of them were foreigners who gained the throne of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (encompassing southern Italy and the island of Sicily) by conquest, treaty or war and then had to face the even greater challenge of ruling rambunctious Naples. Nevertheless, the city developed a fondness for its kings, voting 10 to 1 in favor of retaining the monarchy during the popular referendum of 1946 when the rest of Italy chose to become a republic.
The wide, sloping Piazza del Plebiscito is decorated with equestrian statues of two great 18th century kings descended from a tangled web of Spanish, French and Italian royal families: Carlo di Borbone (Charles III of Spain), who built the San Carlo in 1737 with a secret passageway linking the royal box to his apartments in the adjacent palazzo; and his son Ferdinando, who went a little native in the city by the bay, playing fishmonger on the waterfront and throwing hot pasta on the heads of people in the pit beneath his box at the San Carlo.