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The sacrifice of the castrati

Posted by Christopher Shea  November 4, 2009 12:27 PM

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The opera singer Cecilia Bartoli (sort of)

On her new album, "Sacrificium," the opera star Cecilia Bartoli sings music originally written for castrati, men who (to put the point gently) had been surgically altered as boys, so that their voices would never break. They sang in high registers associated today with women but had the powerful bodies and lung capacities of male singers, enabling distinct, and apparently sublime, artistic effects. For a century after 1680, they dominated opera throughout much of Europe, and such performers as Ferri, Farinelli, and Caffarelli became some of the first opera superstars.

In interviews and on her web site, Bartoli has stressed the grim and tragic aspects of the castrati phenomenon. Some classical critics have challenged her claim that, during the Baroque period, Italy alone was castrating 3,000 to 4,000 boys a year for artistic purposes, but, regardless of the figure, many were mutilated and only a few became elite performers. And being a castrated star was surely not a psychologically unfraught experience, either.

The photographs of Bartoli commissioned to accompany "Sacrificium" are as striking as the music on the CD. Playing with the theme of gender confusion inherent in the topic, the photographer Uli Weber placed Bartoli's head, her face whitened with makeup, atop various marble statues of men.

(The NPR web site features two interviews with Bartoli, conducted by Scott Simon and Tom Huizenga. The latter is a web-only chat in which Bartoli fields questions from listeners.)

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