Naples' Baroque glory

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Naples, Italy — The ticket taker on the train from Rome had to shout to get my attention. I was staring out the window, iPod cranked up high, the divine voice of Cecilia Bartoli pouring Baroque soap bubbles into my ears.

"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:

"Come to Naples."

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.

Regal legacies

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.

The theater, where a two-year renovation has been completed, was the wonder of Europe when it opened about four decades before Milan's La Scala. The 2,500-seat, horseshoe-shaped auditorium rises in six tiers of boxes to a ceiling fresco where gods and poets occupy stalls on banks of pink-tinged clouds. At the height of the Baroque period, the 75-foot-deep stage accommodated 300 to 400 extras and the occasional horse, on which castrati stars liked to make their entrances.

On my first visit to Naples 10 years ago, I arrived 30 minutes late for a dance concert at the San Carlo, thinking I'd be turned away in the lobby. Instead, an usher dressed in drum majorette garb led me by the arm to the royal box, draped in red velvet and surmounted by a golden crown, where I sat in solitary splendor like the pop-up ballerina in a music box.

This time I heard music from the Romantic era, though I'd have preferred an opera by Rossini or Donizetti, both of whom served as artistic directors at the San Carlo. And I sat in a cheap box near the top of the auditorium, where I had a good view of the part in the oboe soloist's hair.

City by the bay

When the next day dawned sparkling and clear, I remembered that there aren't many sights I'd rather wake up to than the Bay of Naples.

Leaving the Galleria, I passed between the hulking Castel Nuovo and cantaloupe-colored Palazzo Reale to the waterfront. Cruise ships that had docked here were emitting shore excursionists who doubtless had been warned to watch their pockets and purses.

At the port I could see the whole glorious crescent of bay from the Amalfi Coast to Mt. Vesuvius. Brooding quietly now, the volcano, perhaps best known for its eruption in 79 A.D., erupted eight times in the 1770s when a teenaged Mozart gave a concert in Naples. By that time, the same King Carlos who built the San Carlo had authorized excavation at Pompeii, helping to make Naples a required stop for Grand Tour travelers from Northern Europe. Perhaps they cast their eyes upon and were shocked by signs on back streets that said, "Boys fixed here."

On one of those back streets, Via di San Bartolomeo, I found the small Church of Santa Maria della Graziella, now shuttered and forlorn. It marks the site of the San Bartolomeo theater, which predated the San Carlo and staged some of the first operas to reach the city in the early 1600s.

Around the corner on Via Medina, I stopped at a doorway big enough to admit the Trojan horse. Together with the elaborate, braided staircases of Sanfelice, massive portals are a signature of Neapolitan Baroque architecture. These mark the entrance to the Pietà dei Turchini, connected to a neighboring church where a striking painting depicts a guardian angel saving a boy from a demon.

The image sets the tone for the complex, which was first an orphanage for indigent boys, then home to the Royal Conservatory of the Pietà dei Turchini, one of four music schools in Naples that graduated thousands of castrati in the heyday of the Baroque.

The boys' paths generally led from desperately poor villages in southern Italy, where their musical ability was identified early. Castrated — often by barbers, without anesthetics — between the ages of 7 and 12, the children then applied for admission to a conservatory. Under the tutelage of such singing masters as Nicola Porpora and Domenico Gizzi, some of them became human nightingales, but many more failed to develop, so many lived as itinerant musicians or priests.

Parts of the castrato repertoire are still performed by the Pietà dei Turchini Center for Ancient Music. One stormy night several months before my most recent visit, I attended one of the group's concerts at the Church of Santa Caterina da Siena, tucked along a hilly street in the Spanish Quarter. It featured Cuban soprano Yetzabel Arias Fernandez, accompanied by harpsichord, lute and viola, set against the polished marble and gold-gilded panoply of a Baroque apse.

Jewel-box churches like Santa Caterina built in the 17th and 18th centuries are so abundant in Naples that most don't even rate mention in guidebooks. But one that is seldom overlooked is the chapel of St. Gennaro in the Duomo, which I reached by bus. It treasures a vial of the saint's blood that is said to often re-liquefy, a mystical manifestation of God's love for the city enshrined in a suitably miraculous Neapolitan Baroque showcase.

Starting around 1620, no expense was spared to decorate the chapel, coating its altars, fonts, balustrades and niches in precious stones and metals. Art stars from Rome — Domenichino and Guido Reni — were commissioned to fresco its ceilings and walls, which local talent resented. Neapolitan painter Ribera is said to have made Reni an offer he couldn't refuse to get him to go home, leaving space above the right transept altar free for Ribera's showstopping oil painting of St. Gennaro escaping from a fiery furnace.

On the town

Then it was on to the Naples Conservatory of Music, heir of Baroque period academies such as the Pietà dei Turchini. To get here from the Duomo, I plunged into Spaccanapoli, a historic district almost as dense and teeming now as it must have been in the 1700s, when Naples, with a population of about 400,000, was the biggest city in Italy.

Rabbit carcasses drip blood in butcher shops.

Baby artichokes and zucchini flowers wait in crates along the pavement for Neapolitan mamas to put them in pasta.

Waiters take espresso on trays to people who don't need to make their own morning coffee because they live above ground-floor cafes.

A sanitation worker leans on a broom, contemplating the futility of street sweeping in Naples.

The conservatory on Via San Sebastiano in Spaccanapoli occupies the former monastery of San Pietro a Majella. Visitors aren't permitted inside, but I could hear someone practicing the organ when I peeked into the courtyard. In the church next door — a Gothic structure with Baroque decorations — I saw a 1645 altarpiece made of multicolored stone, fronted by a balustrade supporting polished marble globes that could double as bowling balls.

I had a couple of slices of pizza for lunch and then dessert at the nearby Caffé Scaturchio, where baba au rhum is the house specialty. A 17th century Polish king is thought to have invented the wicked confection, but bakers here discovered how to keep it light and airy while drenching it in enough rum to make you tipsy, another wonder of the Neapolitan Baroque.

I saved the best for last: a ride up the hill on a funicular, leaving me an easy walk from the Charterhouse of San Martino, which overlooks the orchestra pit of downtown Naples.

The complex, dating from around 1325, is now occupied by one of the best city museums in Europe, with galleries dedicated to the great plague of 1656, the peasant revolt of 1647 and works by cityscape, or veduta, artists who rendered Naples from nearly every angle in the 18th century. I found two gorgeous Baroque sedan chairs, suitable for carrying Farinelli to the San Carlo, in a passageway leading to the terrace where the sun was setting over the beautiful Bay of Naples.

My eyes had to adjust when I went back inside to see the church, which is to the Neapolitan Baroque what the Sistine Chapel in Rome is to the Renaissance. Every side chapel frames a soulful masterpiece, and polychrome marble pavements compete with ceiling frescoes. I had to sit down to absorb it in silence.

But a bird started singing in the courtyard, making me think again of the castrati, whose voices I will never hear, and some lines from "Ode on a Grecian Urn," by Romantic poet John Keats: "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter."

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