Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Baroque sex crime


Cecilia Bartoli goes castrati in 'Sacrificium'

Cecilia Bartoli. Photo: Decca
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On the cover of her new album Sacrificium , Cecilia Bartoli's head has been Photoshopped onto an antique marble torso complete with fissures but lacking tits, whose stone genitals have been knocked off. Hmmm. Cecilia, what are you trying to tell us?

The diva-cum-avid musical archeologist is projecting herself into the body of a castrato, the male instrument produced in Enlightenment Europe to replace the women's voices banned by papal edict in 1668. "On pain of severe punishment," decreed Pope Clement IX, "no female person shall deliberately learn music in order to be employed as a singer." God, the church has a lot to answer for.

The price paid by boys hoping for a career singing women's roles was castration while their voice was still high and before they knew what had hit them. Hence the sacrifice of the title. Bartoli takes seriously the physical, social, and emotional mutilations suffered, even as she wallows in them. She or her designer is obsessed with the instruments of gelding. In the richly illustrated, pint-sized, 150-page glossy book serving as album jacket, pictures of the relevant surgical instruments are interspersed with bewigged composers and anatomical diagrams of the larynx. How very transsexual.

In the entry "X-rated" we learn, "Castratos are considered desirable lovers by both women (because the possibility of pregnancy is ruled out) and men (because of their boyish or androgynous appeal). Less often spoken about is the issue of castratos and prostitution: over the frequency of its occurrence, especially among the many boys who do not become successful musicians, there can unfortunately be no dispute." Hmmm again. Is this the real reason castration, legally punishable by death, was allowed to flourish even in Rome, even in the Holy City, where church bigwigs thronged the theaters?

If biology is destiny, opera is genderfuck, and Bartoli relishes her self-determined opportunity to showcase a vocal whipsaw technique in the only repertoire ever designed to give it free range. This is singing as extreme sport, coloratura trills pushed to the max and beyond, to rapid-fire melismas straddling fourths, fifths, or octaves, scales running from rich chest up through piercing head with a devil-take-the-hindmost abandon to make Marilyn Horne wince, all of it riding on Olympic-style lung power and technique.

Although impressive, the vocal acrobatics initially seem too outlandish to communicate something a 21st-century American would recognize as an emotion. The sheer exuberance of the music, however, inspires ears accustomed to heteronormative 19th-century idiom to accommodate an older set of conventions, inducing a radical rethink of the human heart, larynx, and loins.

"Like a butt

Cecilia Bartoli as castrata. Photo: Decca/Uli Weber
erfly crazed with love," runs a lyric from Zenobia in Palmira (1789), "the hope I harbour within my heart flutters forever around the flame. And scorching its wings, is buried where it dies in its ill-fated birthplace." All the selections concern love, death, honor, and trembling. They alternate between manic and depressive, expressing extremes of frenzy and melancholy, allowing la Bartoli to run the gamut from slow, sustained phrases to speedy pyrotechnics, second only to Nina Hagen for you-ain't-heard-nothin'-yet vocals.

The Italian pseudo-eunuch is superbly supported by Il Giardino Armonico, conducted by Giovanni Antonini, who collaborated on her Vivaldi album 10 years ago. The instrumental passages are some of my favorites, not just as a breather between bouts of Bartoli, but gorgeous on their own harmonic and textural terms. There's a drive to this music, even at its most legato, that makes it the perfect accompaniment to the rain-drenched streets of San Francisco or the sunny sand dunes of the Great Highway. I've done all my listening via the luxurious wraparound stereo in my brother's old Dodge Grand Caravan. Make sure your system can deliver dynamics ranging from a gasp to a blood-curdling yodel. This music is less about melody than bipolar shifts, swings, and excesses. Sacrificium is the anti-Prozac.

Bartoli's rolled r's are a revelation. Her consonants give me goosebumps. Language in her mouth is a percussion instrument. Who cares what the words say? Her voice is thunder and lightning, which is a sound effect written into the 1724 Farnace by Leonard Vinci, on track 11, the album's bombastic climax. She might be describing the impact of her own vocal prowess when she asks the musical question, "Who feared Jove the ruler before Jove the thunderer began to fire his lightning bolts? The roar of his strikes made timid mortals imagine a whole host of gods."

"Brava" seems an inadequate response to such virtuoso historicity and histrionics, but is nonetheless Sacrificum 's operative quality. Bartoli braves the centuries, the church, and the norms of gender presentation to carve thrilling sonic shapes from an anatomically transgressive tradition that remains freakishly far-out. Rad.

Sacrificium, La Scuola dei Castrati (Decca 2-CD set, deluxe limited edition, $24.95)

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