At this time of year, it’s natural for one’s thoughts to turn to…castrati. (Isn’t it?)
The castrati craze peaked in Italy in the eighteenth century, when a distressingly large number of musical lads from ambitious families had unfortunate encounters with pigs. (Castration, even of your nearest and dearest, was illegal.) Castrati were never very popular in England, where their existence was naturally equated with foreign, Papist nastiness. Only the superstar of the castrati, Farinelli (real name Carol Broschi), was wholeheartedly accepted and applauded.

So what did a castrato sound like? We don’t really know. There’s a recording of Alessandro Moreschi, The Last Castrato, made very early in the twentieth century when he was old and past his (debatable) prime. What we do know is that the singers were tall, with huge lung capacity and physical stamina, and with a vocal range of three and a half octaves and superb technique

Check out this excerpt from the movie Farinelli (and isn’t he a handsome young…thing). He’s singing a Handel aria. Is it a real voice? Yes and no. The voices of countertenor Derek Lee Ragin and coloratura Ewa Godlewska were digitally blended to create this astonishing sound. More info here for you techies here. Great movie, by the way, even if it tinkers massively with the truth–sex, drugs and arias. More about it here.

Consequently, very few singers today can handle the castrato repertoire, with one notable exception–mezzo-sopranoVivica Genaux. Here she is performing an aria by Farinelli’s brother, Qual guerriero in campo armato.
(Isn’t youtube great!)

So, in response, tell me if you’ve seen Farinelli, or about your other favorite musical movie, or what sort of Christmas cookies you’re making.