Saturday, 6 September 2008

Farinelli and Friends

The Singer Farinelli and Friends by Jacopo Amigoni
Oil on Canvas; painted between 1750 and 1752
National Gallery of Victoria

This is one of my favourite portraits at the NGV and well worth a visit. The delicate colors and curving forms of Amigoni's rococo style seems very suited to the slightly melancholy subject of a little group of intimate friends about to part.

The friends are in Madrid: Farinelli sits in the centre, his pageboy and pet dog off to the right. Beside him is his close friend and pupil, Teresa Castellini, the prima donna of the Madrid Opera. She and Farinelli had a very close relationship and she was popularly believed to be the love of his life, an impossible love in the light of his physical circumstances: he was the most renowned of the castratos.

Behind Farinelli is the artist himself, who met the singer in Paris in 1736 and became a good friend. He is dressed in his painterly smock and turban, and holds a handful of brushes. His dress is remiscent of that of Joseph Highmore, a painter of the same era, whose selfportrait in the NGV we looked at in a previous WASP.

I always find it interesting when an artist includes a self-portrait in a group painting - two others spring to mind: Tiepolo in one of his versions of "Cleopatra's Banquet" (see the article on "Cleopatra's Banquet" in a previous WASP), and Frans Hals, who placed himself among the "Officers and Sergeants of the St George Civic Guard Company".

But back to Farinelli and friends: On the far left is Pietro Metastasio, the famous "opera serie" librettist and Farinelli's lifelong friend. The paper that Farinelli is handing to Teresa is a poem by Metastasio, describing the sadness of a lover's departure.

Teresa was about to leave Madrid, but the symbolism of the poem has a wider meaning: the artist is referring to the inevitable separation of four friends who are in essence itinerant professionals. In this painting he immortalises their companionship and the capacity of true friendship to rise above physical absence.

Carlo Broschi Farinelli (1705-1782) was the most famous singer of his century : he had an exceptional voice, although his androgynous beauty clearly contributed to his success. He enjoyed a quasi-mythical status, even in his own life-time, perhaps because, (like Shane Warne!) he retired at the height of his fame and powers.

Contemporary accounts are full of praise for the beauty of his sound, the breadth of his range and the purity of his intonation. It has been recorded that the range of his voice covered more than three and a half octaves, that he could produce 250 notes in a single breath and sustain a note for more than a minute.

Farinelli was born Carlo Broschi, to a minor noble family in Naples in 1705. He had one brother, Riccardo, eight years his senior, who composed several operas for him. Riccardo was very ambitious for his talented brother and may have pushed for him to be castrated at the age of seven: the prevailing method was to drug the boy with opium and immerse him in a bath of warm water before severing the ducts to the testes.

Carlo studied under Porpora, the famous teacher of castrati. During his musical studies in Naples, he became the protégé of the Farina brothers and adopted, according to the custom of the time, the name of 'Farinelli'.

He met the poet Metastase when he was fifteen years old, at the Palace of the Prince of Torella, when he had a role in "Angelika and Medoro," an opera whose libretto was written by Metastase. They became close friends, corresponding until Farinelli's death in 1782.

Farinelli performed at all the main courts of Europe and even sang privately for King Louis XV of France at the Queen's apartments, for which he received a portrait of the King embossed with diamonds, and a fee of 500 livres.
He was 32 years old when he gave his last public performance, retiring from the limelight so he could sing exclusively for King Philip V of Spain who was known to have suffered severe depression. The singer's remarkable Spanish career spanned more than two decades in the service of Philip V (1700-46) and Ferdinand VI (1746-59). He became a prominent and influential courtier: Private Counsellor to the King, receiving foreign guests, reorganizing the Madrid Opera, and directing music at the royal chapel. In 1750, he was knighted in the order of Calatrava.

He remained a legendary success in the public imagination, since his fans had to rely on their memory of his prowess unless they were on the Royal guest list. Today we have to turn to the music critics of his time, since he was born 200 years too early for a CD of his greatest hits to be easily obtainable from your friendly local ABC Shop.

With the death of Ferdinand VI, he returned to Italy and settled in Bologna where died in 1782 and was buried at his request on a hillside in Bologna. His original tomb no longer exists today: it was destroyed by Napoleon's army, but his remains were reburied on the family estate.

Castration was banned in the 19th century, and the last castrato in the Western World died in 1922. Castrati were virtuoso musicians, exceptionally talented and trained. Due to their unique physical attributes, almost nothing in their repertoire can be performed nowadays.

They were particularly known for their unique timbre: their voice did not change with puberty. Upon adulthood, they combined the lung capacity and physical stamina of a grown man with the sweet high voice of a boy soprano. They had, as a consequence, great vocal power, and some were able to sing notes for a minute or more. A small, flexible larynx, and relatively short vocal chords allowed them to vocalize over 3 and a half octaves.

They received decades of rigorous musical training and were cast in heroic male roles, alongside another new breed of operatic creature, the female prima donna. The rise of these star singers with formidable technical skills spurred composers to write increasingly complex vocal music, and many operas of the time were written as vehicles for specific singers, of whom Farinelli is perhaps the most famous.

The castratos were the superstars of their day: as theatrical celebrities, they reigned supreme and commanded large salaries. On the stage, they were the undisputed stars. A composer was merely hired help who labored at the castrato’s pleasure. If the arias written for a castrato did not please the singer, he could demand -- and receive -- a complete rewrite.

Their popularity began to wane by 1760, when new composers like Gluck and Mozart used tenors to play the hero instead. Rossini and Weber insisted that their arias be sung as written and there was no more room in opera for star tantrums. Now instead of the singer being the king of the stage, it was the composer who ruled the kingdom. Farinelli was the last of the great operatic castrati and I do wish I could have heard him sing!

An interesting footnote to the Farinelli story is that his remains were exhumed with the permission of his great-niece, so that scientists at the University could study the effects of castration on the human frame. (Why do they need to know this? Is there a sinister conspiracy among opera directors to resurrect the famous performances? Choirboys around the world, don't accept opium from strangers!)

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