July 09, 2004

Alessandro Moreschi: The Last Castrato

Back in the 17th century, when women were barred from appearing on stage or singing in churchs, the roles of sopranos in operas and choirs were routinely filled by castrati; men who had been castrated during childhood so the pure high tones of their unbroken boyhood voices could be maintained indefinitely. This barbaric practice began to decline in the early 19th century and was eventually banned altogether in 1870... Too late, however, for Alessandro Moreschi who was born twelve years before it was outlawed (castration generally happened at the age of 10), and was the last castrato still performing at the turn of the 20th century.

At that time, he was singing in the Vatican and was chanced upon by a pair of field recorders who had come to cut a gramophone cylinder of the Pope's voice. The recordings they made - the only ones of a castrato singing - were released on CD back in the early 1990's. The liner notes of that release speak glowingly about the "power and brilliance" of Moreschi's voice, but the fact that this prepubescent voice came from the throat of a corpulent middle aged man, makes the whole experience fundamentally disturbing... I only hope it remains in print for long time. Just to remind people that the the search for "purity" and "beauty" in art is not immune from the sort of anti-human perversions that pervade the sordid "real" world...

The CD of Moreschi's recordings can be purchased through Amazon, which also hosts real audio samples of a number of tracks.

Posted by Warren at July 9, 2004 01:07 AM | Classical