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Hopefully it doesn’t need to be justified that these are haunting recordings, in spite of their brutal context. I’m not some sort of opera purist, which is probably why these recordings don’t seem as boring to me as a masterfully executed performance by Pavarotti. -Ian!

Alessandro Moreschi was born into a large Roman Catholic family in the town of Monte Compatri, near Frascati. He had been castrated in 1865, in line with the centuries-old practice of castrating vocally talented boys well before puberty.

It seems likely that Moreschi’s singing abilities came to the notice of Nazareno Rosati, formerly a member of the Sistine Chapel choir, who was acting as a scout for new talent, and took him to Rome in about 1870. Moreschi became a pupil at the Scuola di San Salvatore in Lauro, where he was taught by Gaetano Capocci, maestro di cappella of the Papal basilica of San Giovanni Laterano. In 1873, aged only fifteen, he was appointed First Soprano in the choir of that basilica, and also became a regular member of the groups of soloists hired by Capocci to sing in the salons of Roman high society. His singing at such soirées was vividly described by Anna Lillie de Hegermann-Lindencrone, the American wife of the Danish Ambassador to the Holy See: “Mrs Charles Bristed of New York, a recent convert to the Church of Rome, receives on Saturday evening . . . The Pope’s singers are the great attraction . . . for her salon is the only place outside of the churches where one can hear them. The famous Moresca [sic], who sings at the Laterano, is a full-faced soprano of some forty winters. He has a tear in each note and a sigh in each breath. He sang the jewel song [sic] in [Gounod’s] Faust, which seemed horribly out of place. Especially when he asks (in the hand-glass) if he is really Marguerita, one feels tempted to answer ‘Macchè’ [not in the least] for him.”

In 1883 Capocci presented a special showcase for his protégé: the first performance in Italy of the oratorio Christus am Ölberge by Beethoven, in which Moreschi sang the demanding coloratura role of the Seraph. On the strength of this performance, he became known as l’Angelo di Roma, and shortly after, having been auditioned by all the members of the Sistine Chapel choir, he was appointed First Soprano there, a post he held for the next thirty years.

The Sistine Chapel Choir was run on traditional lines centuries old, and had a strict system of hierarchies. In 1886, the senior castrato, Giovanni Cesari, retired, and it was probably then that Moreschi took over as Direttore dei concertisti (Director of soloists). Moreschi was very much a silent witness to the struggles between the forces of tradition and reform, but was also caught up in secular matters: on 9 August 1900, at the express request of the Italian royal family, he sang at the funeral of the recently assassinated king, Umberto I. This was all the more extraordinary because the Papacy still had no formal contact with the Italian secular state, which it regarded as a mere usurper.

In the spring of 1902, in the Vatican, Moreschi made the first of his phonograph recordings for the Gramophone & Typewriter Company of London. He made additional recordings in 1904: there are seventeen tracks in all. Between these two sessions, several most fateful events occurred: in 1903 the aged Mustafà finally retired, and a few months later Pope Leo XIII, a strong supporter of Sistine tradition, died. His successor was Pope Pius X, an equally powerful advocate of Cecilianism. One of the new pontiff’s first official acts was the promulgation of the motu proprio, Tra le sollecitudini (“Amongst the Cares”), which appeared, appropriately enough, on St Cecilia’s Day, 22 November, 1903. This was the final nail in the coffin of all that Mustafà, Moreschi and their colleagues stood for, since one of its decrees stated: “Whenever . . . it is desirable to employ the high voices of sopranos and contraltos, these parts must be taken by boys, according to the most ancient usage of the Church.” Perosi, a fanatical opponent of the castrati, had triumphed and Moreschi and his few remaining colleagues were to be pensioned off and replaced by boys. A singing pupil of Moreschi’s, Domenico Mancini, was such a good imitator of his master’s voice that Perosi took him for a castrato (for all that castration had been banned in Italy in 1870), and would have nothing to do with him. Ironically, Mancini became a professional double-bass player.

Officially, Alessandro was a member of the Sistine choir until Easter 1913, and remained in the choir of the Cappella Giulia of St Peter’s, Rome until a year after that. Around Easter 1914 he met the Viennese musicologist Franz Haböck, author of the extremely important book Die Kastraten und ihre Gesangskunst, who had plans to cast Moreschi in concerts reviving the repertoire of the great eighteenth-century castrato Farinelli. These never came to fruition: by this date Moreschi (now fifty-five years old) no longer had the required high soprano range, and in any case he had never had the necessary virtuoso operatic training.

Critical opinion is divided about Moreschi’s recordings: some say they are of little interest other than the novelty of preserving the voice of a castrato, and that Moreschi was a mediocre singer, while others detect the remains of a talented singer unfortunately past his prime by the time he recorded. (Moreschi was in his mid-forties when he made his recordings.) Still others feel that he was a very fine singer indeed, and that much of the “difficulty” in listening to Moreschi’s recordings stems from changes in taste and singing style between his time and ours. His vocal technique can certainly seem to grate upon modern ears, but many of the seemingly imperfect vocal attacks, for example, are in fact grace notes, launched from as much as a tenth below the note – in Moreschi’s case, this seems to have been a long-standing means of drawing on the particular acoustics of the Sistine Chapel itself. The dated aesthetic of Moreschi’s singing, involving extreme passion and a perpetual type of sob, often sounds bizarre to the modern listener, and can be misinterpreted as technical weakness or symptomatic of an aging voice.

Alessandro Moreschi-THE LAST CASTRATO (1902/1904/1993)


One Comment

  1. Holy fuck. I've been on a C93 kick these past few months, well it cycles, eh — but I searched 'beethoven' to grab some posts I'd been waiting on and found this!! Wow, can't wait to weird/bliss out.

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