Reclaim the high notes
By Christopher Silvester
FINANCIAL TIMES, March 29, 2013
The male soprano Calvin Wells is doing his bit to revive 18th-century operatic castrati roles
To many modern listeners, the idea of castrated male singers singing soprano roles in 17th- and 18th-century operas, generally as male characters, seems perplexing. As a result, today’s male sopranos – a voice that is very rare but does occur naturally – are seldom used in English opera. Whereas directors will happily cast counter tenors, or male altos, to sing roles that were originally created for alto castrati, their default choice when casting a soprano castrato role is a female soprano or a mezzo. Yet numerous roles were created by baroque composers for soprano castrati – there were around 4,000 castrati created each year in 18th-century Italy. Male lungs were better able to perform some of the virtuosic ornaments and flourishes in the soprano register; what’s more, female singers were not allowed in churches. Some operatic castrati, such as Farinelli and Caffarelli, became superstars in 18th-century Italy.
“We have to remember that when those operas were composed, male sopranos were not a rarity, but really the focal point of those operas, and had a huge following,” says Lada Valesová, a professor of vocal studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
Next weekend, there will be a rare opportunity for a London audience to appreciate the unique vocal qualities of a male soprano when the South African Calvin Wells and the opera company he founded, Ensemble Serse, perform Johann Adolph Hasse’s Lucio Papirio Dittatore for the first time since 1742, the year of its premiere.
Hasse, who in his day was more famous than Handel as a composer of operas, wrote roles for four castrati in Lucio Papirio, and Wells will be singing the soprano castrato role of Quinto Fabio, composed for Ventura Rocchetti, while the other castrati parts will be sung by counter tenors (altos) and a female soprano.
Profile: Ensemble Serse
In 2006 a unique ensemble was founded by male soprano Calvin Wells with the aim of bringing neglected baroque works to the public, complete with the inventive and often florid ornamentation invariably utilized by the great singers of the 17th and 18th centuries. Ensemble Serse provides a startling contrast to the numerous Handel inspired foundations, bands and competitions which have become synonymous with the baroque revival. The reality is that Handel was but one of many composers who excelled during this extraordinarily creative period, often sharing the limelight with composers whom today are considered to be anything but his equal. However, contemporary criticism has conclusively shown that many of these other composers were at least as popular as Handel, and in some cases, decidedly more so. So why did Handel’s music emerge first within the baroque revival, whilst others languished in obscurity? Well, Handel’s extraordinary gift for melody is one reason, but perhaps the primary reason is that Handel never really disappeared from the UK music scene, his oratorios, engorged and swelled by Victorian tastes for sombre, biblically inspired music, were often performed on a vast scale, and were incredibly popular. His music was, despite his roots, quintessentially English; he was our Orpheus Britannicus. Read more..