The picture on the front of my new album, Farinelli, features me in a beard. Perhaps some people will be surprised to see my cascading curls and kohl-rimmed eyes combined with neatly trimmed facial hair. But not me. Changing my appearance is simply a part of my profession. Like all performers, I take on a different guise every time I step out on to the stage.
Farinelli is one of the most famous castratos of all time. His powerful and beautiful singing thrilled 18th-century Europe and soothed the depression of a Spanish king. He was by all accounts an exceptional human being: highly intelligent, kind, cultured, wise and politically astute. But did he have a beard? Certainly not. The impact of having been castrated as a boy on his physical development would have prevented him growing one.
But when getting ready to go out on stage as a hero warrior, a general or a king, he might well have had to attach a beard to his chin. Just as every night, he put a shepherd’s staff or a sword in his hand, a crown or a feathered helmet on his head, or changed into a suit of armour, or a lavish gown.
My new album is dedicated to – and named after – the celebrated singer. But I am not speaking about the man, born Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi in Andria, Italy, in January 1705. Nor is the album about current sociopolitical topics, such as issues of gender identity, or about anatomy. It is about art and music. More precisely, Farinelli is about the transformation artists undergo on stage. Through music written for – and performed by – Farinelli, I am trying to show how the astounding qualities of his voice and his profound musicianship allowed him to transmit the Egyptian queen Cleopatra’s sensuality as convincingly as the virility of heroic warriors from mythical times.
We will, unfortunately, never be able to know the actual sound of Farinelli’s voice, the wonderful impact of which was testified to by many contemporaries. The songs on my album were all written for him and consequently intended to bring out the most striking features of his musicianship. Therefore, they tell us quite precisely about Farinelli’s unusual vocal range (around three octaves), his masterful singing technique (virtuosic passages and extended slow phrases which competitors could not keep up with), his exceptional breath control (some phrases ranging between 40 seconds and a minute) and his powers as an interpreter (the depth of emotion expressed in these arias).
Singing these arias today is a challenge for any singer. The breath issue also puts women at a disadvantage: our lungs are generally smaller than those of men and we really have to learn how to be thrifty with the stream of air we emit. However, the real difficulties are the long arching vocal lines and the intensity of feeling within the music. It is possible to trace a change in Farinelli’s arias over the 17 years of his public stage career: they moved from being demonstratively acrobatic to more elaborate in form, slower and far more profound. I am glad that I waited so long into my own career before I tackled this repertoire because today, I have not only the technical means but also the musical and emotional maturity required to bring these pieces back to life.
In 1722, Johann Adolf Hasse’s first major stage work, the serenade Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra, received its world premiere in a stately home near Naples. The male hero Mark Antony was sung by Vittoria Tesi, an internationally known contralto, but it was Farinelli – then barely 19 – who took on Cleopatra’s part.
It was common in those days that female contralti appeared on stage as male characters, and likewise that castrati played female parts. This could also easily be reversed – according to availabilities, commercial potential or the vocal and acting skills of a cast. Roles were generally allocated according to the sound quality of a singer’s voice, or his or her temperament and performing style. The sex of the character on stage did not necessarily have to match that of the interpreter.
Even as the castrato voice – and the castration of boys – came to be regarded as unnatural and cruel, this practice did not change substantially. Well-known examples such the page Cherubino in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro or the Scottish rebel Malcolm in Rossini’s La donna del Lago show how roles previously associated with castrati were later assigned to women. This continued into the 20th century – not least in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos. More recently, female parts have once more been entrusted to men: in Peter Eötvös’s Three Sisters from 1998, for example, the composer gives the roles of the Chekhovian girls and their sister-in-law Natasha to countertenors – and servant Anfisa is sung by a bass. The Snake Princess in Harrison Birtwistle’s The Minotaur, first performed at the Royal Opera House in London in 2008, is sung by a countertenor.
Every stage performer undergoes a transformation when they take on a role. By putting on your costume, wig and makeup you transform yourself. It happens to me when I stick on a beard to sing Handel’s valiant prince Ariodante or when I put on my headscarf and rubber gloves, and pick up brush and bucket to become Rossini’s Cinderella.
Sometimes I undergo a total transformation from one character to another even while I am on stage: as Handel’s Alcina, for instance, I take off my beautiful dress and wig, and change from a queen to a shrivelled old witch.
As a performing artist it is my job to act as a catalyst between the author and the audience, often bridging several centuries. I communicate to my audience what I think the composer and librettist has put into a particular piece of music. Often I wonder how this works. How can I make listeners experience emotions that to me seem so evidently inscribed in a score, how can I make them feel them as strongly – break out into laughter or tears, feel overwhelmed, excited, light-headed, grieving, raging, totally mad or deeply in love?
I think the key is simple – total sincerity, and a complete emotional abandonment of one’s self. On stage, for instance, we do not simply climb into someone else’s clothes but we must live our character, regardless of whom we play, whether a prince or a pauper, a man or a woman.
For Farinelli, it must have been the same as it is for me today. This idea of being a vessel through which a work or a character is convincingly transmitted has always made our profession attractive. A performance is successful when the audience forgets about the interpreter and believes the actual character stands before them. For performers, on the other hand, we get the chance to become someone we are not, and experience the entire panorama of humanity night after night – in this respect, the 18th century was no different from the 21st.
• Cecilia Bartoli’s Farinelli is out now on Decca Classics. Farinelli and His Time tours mainland Europe in April and May. Details ceciliabartoli.com