First, some memories for context:
I’m in Emmanuel Church on Newbury Street in Boston to attend a concert, and I’m looking for a toilet. For whatever psychological/theological/aesthetic reason, it’s often difficult to find a toilet inside churches, so I’m wandering around in the basement or off to the side or somewhere else dark and confusing. There’s a middle-aged woman down there looking for the same thing, only she asks one of the singers, a well-known countertenor. He gives her a somewhat brusque reply, not too surprising for a singer interrupted right before a concert by a stranger asking irrelevant questions. But his reaction seems to bother her since back in the pews I hear her telling her companion about the incident. Only in her telling the countertenor (who, for what it’s worth and if my memory serves me, and it may not, was married with children) gives a very snippy, fluttery answer in the high-gay mode. But he didn’t – I heard and saw him, and he sounded like a regular guy brushing off a stranger, not the queeny guy she made him. And this was from a woman musically sophisticated enough to go hear obscure Handel oratorios (that is, not Messiah) done by a small (that is, not prominent with society concert-goers) group. The incident stuck in my mind as a peculiar illustration of the disturbing power of a high but strong voice coming out of a male body.
A second one: I am in Boston Symphony Hall listening to a celebrity violinist also known for his good works (I should look it up, but I think it was Stern). Unfortunately his status meant that lots of people were there who had plenty of interest in either celebrity or good works, but not much in music. Clearly many there thought they were cultured because they were in a famous hall listening to a famous musician, but an actor observing the crowd could have gotten lots of tips on how to portray bored restless noisy indifference. The recital was sort of a disaster, until the encore. The violinist came out and announced in a booming voice that he was going to play a Haydn adagio. I don’t know quite what hit us. But he started playing his Adagio and every single person in that auditorium sat there in utter silence and stillness, transfixed and transported. It’s difficult to describe such beauty, much less how it came out of nowhere, but it reminds me of Larkin’s lines: “On me your voice falls as they say love should, / Like an enormous yes.” And everyone else in that auditorium felt something similar. It’s the only time in my life I’ve felt that kind of rapturous unity with an audience. Sometimes I think I keep going to concerts just in an attempt to regain that moment. It was my girl in the white dress on the New Jersey ferry. Because of that moment, I understand the legend of Orpheus.
One more: it’s late winter, again in Boston. I’ve gone home sick from work. The skies are overcast and wet. I decide to listen to one of the new CDs I’ve bought, the complete recordings of Alessandro Moreschi, the so-called "last castrato" and the only one ever recorded. The afternoon light is grey and cold, and I have a slight fever and a queasy stomach that are disassociating me slightly more than usual from the world around me. I’m listening to the sole survivor of another world, in the scratchy and imperfect sound that was possible during the recording in 1902. It’s like a visit from a ghost, and I ever so slightly freak out. It’s like looking at the stuffed body of the last passenger pigeon in the Smithsonian and trying to imagine crowds of those birds, darkening the sky. It’s like looking at a candle and trying to imagine the sun. It’s like glimpsing a foreign country from the window of a train, knowing that the sliver you see is all you will ever know of that strange land. It’s a vivid reminder of all the irretrievably lost efforts of art. Every time I listen to that recording I ever so slightly freak out in the same way.
So I made sure to get a ticket when Mexico City’s Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes visited the Yerba Buena Center with Monsters and Prodigies: A History of the Castrati. I was even inspired to read at long last a book I had bought years ago that had been waiting on my shelf ever since, Patrick Barbier’s The World of the Castrati, because it was credited as the inspiration for the play.
I can recommend the book highly: it’s informative, humorous but respectful, judicious, thorough, sensitive, dramatic, poignant, and absorbing. Somehow the Ciertos Habitantes managed to present a play largely consisting of chunks of Barbier’s text without capturing a single one of those qualities. It opens with some non-Barbier material: a centaur (so we are told; all we see is a flabby shirtless man with the horsy parts hidden behind a fence; the staging is fairly skimpy on spectacle, which is a problem when you're trying to present the spectacular) and conjoined twins recite some examples of the “monsters” (mostly malformed children) born in the Renaissance and the effect they had.
This may sound unduly callous, but these days there’s a certain academic conventionality to discussions of Renaissance “prodigies” and their cultural meaning. On the other hand, it’s certainly true the Ciertos Habitantes don’t seem unduly sensitive: one fairly extraneous character is a “slave” (he seems to be a South American Indian dressed in a fringed loincloth, I guess as a representative of Natural Man) who gets slapped around a lot – there’s a lot of slapping around on stage – and in one scene they turn the lights out and claim they can’t find him because of his black skin; actually, he’s more of a café-au-lait, but that’s the type of sub-minstrel show material we get when the boys wander from Barbier. I assume all this is meant to put the castrati in the categories of the “monstrous”; they are indeed outside the normal, but there’s a difference between a deliberately man-made and rigorously trained phenomenon like the castrati and an aberration of Nature.
Then we go to Barbier: conjoined twins (not from Barbier, but undoubtedly meant to represent duality or the monstrous or some damn thing) talk at us about how castration is performed. This led to lots of chuckling in the audience, particularly among two youngish women in the row behind me. I have no doubt that these sensitive and intelligent viewers would react in absolutely the same way to a description of female genital mutilation.
There seems to be some sort of thesis here that the castrati represent “Beauty” or “the Prodigious,” which is eventually to be destroyed by Science, an argument made by poets in the past and fundamentalists today. Perhaps I'm reading too much into the play; the various theses don’t make any sense, really, since castration is, after all, a medical and therefore scientific procedure, and the castrati received years of rigorous training, which hardly makes them natural prodigies or freaks. But I’m not going to spend much time teasing out and examining the implications; why should I put more work into the ideas behind this play than the writer, director, and actors all combined? There’s a lot of grandly theoretical conceptual-art-type language in the playbill. What you see on stage is mostly lots of prancing, giggling, and slapping, and lots of talking at the audience. One mentions themes only to counter the argument that one didn't "get" the subtleties of the material. If there’s a puerile and uncomprehending way of presenting something, this group will find it.
One actor – I’m not going to trouble myself or embarrass him by looking up his name – seems to be the chief representative of the castrati. He is short and fat, prissy and pouty, greasy with excess make-up, and he simpers around the stage in increasingly elaborate and intentionally absurd costumes, rendering ridiculous the whole baroque aesthetic of spectacle and disguise. It’s like watching a giant donut hole. A giant effeminate donut hole. A giant effeminate donut hole that can’t sing. Though Barbier makes the point that there is no reason to assume the castrati were all or even mostly – to use an anachronistic term – homosexual, here they are consistently represented as cartoons of flouncy, petulant effeminacy. Sometimes this actor is meant to sing poorly (you can tell by the grimaces of the other actors on stage, which are so much of the “mamma-mia-those-crazy-emotional-Italians” sort that I needn’t describe them), and sometimes he’s meant to sing superbly (ditto), but both sound pretty much the same and both range from the inadequate to the painful. I was reminded several times of American Idol auditions, when you can tell why the singer thinks he or she is good, but you can also tell why he or she is not.
Though the castrati were the great singing artists of their day and the delight of vocal connoisseurs, what you see on stage here are foolish preening caricatures either singing or listening to ridiculous music. We get glimpses of cardinals, always snoozing, and aristocrats, always simpering. We get a poor performance of “Lascia ch’io pianga” (from Handel’s Rinaldo, and two minutes on the Internet, if you’re not already familiar with the opera, will tell you that that particular aria is sung by Almirena, a role created by Isabella Girardeau: in other words, it wasn't written as a castrati aria at all). We get a musicological description of Gluck’s Che faro senza Euridice, which I guess is better than hearing this group try to sing it but doesn't quite capture the aria's grandeur. One of my mother’s college professors had been a Rhodes Scholar, and at every lecture his students would comically and cruelly count the number of times he slipped that fact in, so I hate to be like this, but I need to mention it again: I heard Lorraine Hunt Lieberson perform this repertory live. Don’t try to tell me that baroque or classical art is dated, irrelevant, ridiculous, or incapable of touching the soul in the deepest possible way. This is the first time in my life I’ve sat in a theater thinking, They really should have used pre-recorded music here instead of live.
To make an obvious point, if you don’t respect this music – if you don’t respect the power of art, and of the artists, however strange or unfortunate, who made it, and if you think the people who listen to it are affected poseurs – the whole phenomenon of the castrati is just going to be a silly freak-show spectacle for you. There’s no insight or pleasure to be gained there.
So why, when I have so many better past performances patiently waiting for me to describe them, am I jumping the queue for this tedious debacle? Because of what happened next:
We’re about 90 minutes into the performance, and I’m desperately trying to remember how long this intermissionless show lasts. A couple of people have already snuck out. The entire performance is in Spanish and Italian, and the poorly translated surtitles (which never included the lyrics to the arias, which seems a peculiar choice in a show about musicians) are getting increasingly erratic – zipping by too quickly, or disappearing for long stretches. The “slave” appears again, this time apparently as a French revolutionary. (As I know from Barbier, the French public never really warmed to the castrati, partly because of political and cultural rivalries with Italy, and during the Revolutionary period the feeling was especially intense.) I say he was “apparently” a revolutionary, because the surtitles have disappeared again, and I can catch Liberte, Egalite, and Fraternite, but little else, though frankly I’m not trying too hard. I’m listlessly checking my watch yet again, having given up hope that this anticipated evening would be anything but long and wasted.
And then the woman to my left, who had been sitting there quietly except for the occasional chuckle and a moment when she was rustling in her purse for a butterscotch lifesaver (we were crammed in pretty tightly there) suddenly jumped to her feet! Her voice rang out like a trumpet: “What is this performance? What is going on? Do you know what he’s saying? He’s insulting us! This whole show is an insult! Can’t anyone else speak French? Do you know what they’re saying?”
For a giddy moment I wonder if this is part of the performance. Then I realize it couldn’t be – it’s so much more dramatic and interesting than anything we’ve seen so far. Someone shouts, “Why don’t you leave then?” Her companion looks panicked and starts murmuring, “I’m sorry.” The actors are stunned for a moment and break character. They start shouting at her, I can’t tell what, and she says, “Oh yeah? Come say that to my face, big man! Why don’t you go back to Mexico City! Come here and say that!” She’s not a large or fierce-looking woman, but frankly I wouldn’t have messed with her just then either. The actors soon return to the spirit of the play by reacting in the most juvenile possible manner: they grab the plate of dinner roles that the fat castrato has been gorging on (a fat guy eating – hilarious!) and start throwing them at her. Since I am right next to her, one of them hits my left arm and bounces off. I am collateral baked goods damage! Fortunately they were Parker House rolls – a Dutch Crunch roll could have done some serious damage.
By this time the other woman has managed to take her friend’s arm and persuade her to leave. My ennui has dissipated – I am electrified! For the first time, I really understand how the Italian audiences of the baroque could laugh and chat and flirt during a performance and suddenly be galvanized by a great moment of dramatic truth. At last the evening has given me some insight into the theater of the castrati! I am a strict believer in not imposing your reactions in a way that would disrupt other viewers, but this is a world turned upside down: I’ve just seen the greatest performance of the evening, and heard easily the best voice.
And so, angry blonde stranger on my left, bravissima, bravissima, arcibravissima! Trembling with adoration, I crown you with immortal laurel, and weeping with ecstatic pleasure, I toss roses at your furious feet!
The play resumes; someone dressed as Napoleon is prancing around on stage, and someone is saying repeatedly, “No, Napoleon was a midget!” I gaze wistfully at the roll lodged in the now-upright empty seat beside me. I, who hate food fights, briefly consider tossing it at the youngish women behind me, who are talking again. Their eyeglasses really bug me. You can tell they were carefully chosen to say “We’re stylish and sexy – but intellectual!” I realize I’m just trying to extend a moment that has come to its natural end. I also realize that expecting this mess to become worthwhile and interesting in its last – is it still half an hour? O dear God – is expecting a miracle beyond the capacity even of Lourdes. I normally stick to performances to the bitter end, but I’m realizing that I now have a clear path to the aisle, and so . . .
The Beethoven Project
3 weeks ago