In 1979, at the legendary Aix-en-Provence Festival, Porporino was revived, a musical based on the eponymous novel by Dominique Fernandez, which recounts the fate of a Neapolitan castrato. There, James Bowman and Paul Eswood sang with soprano voices. In addition to the emotional impact of the use of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, which was used in the show, I discovered a vocal creature quite new to me and little heard at the time: the countertenor.
This type of singer, through singing in a high register, can breathe life into the idea of the mythical castrati. In recent years their ranks have swelled. After the first generation in the 1960s, notable for Alfred Deller and Russell Oberlin, their spiritual sons Henri Ledroit, René Jacobs, James Bowman and Paul Eswood, brought to the singularity of the tone the seriousness of musicology. Then came Andreas Scholl, Jochen Kowalski, Vince Yi, and Bejun Metha. Today, while Filippo Mineccia, Carlo Vistoli, and Valer Sabadus triumph, a fifth generation of countertenors is emerging. These demonic/angelic voices continue to conquer a very large audience, thanks in particular to Philippe Jaroussky. Like the poet Orpheus sung by Monteverdi, they have brought back from the realm of shadows the exceptional emotional palette of the Baroque repertoire.
This voice has had its hits, such as the buoyant Pallido il sole, composed for the athleticism and breath-holding qualities of the Farinelli and the Caffarelli of this world. Today an extraordinary countertenor, Franco Fagioli, seems to be their reincarnation. If I have chosen to give him a prominent place within this playlist, it is to give voice to the power, the projection and the phenomenal virtuosity of this Argentinian singer. Fagioli is a bit like the Yma Sumac of Baroque – that famous Peruvian singer with an amazing vocal range from baritone to coloratura. Fagioli recreates what the voices of eighteenth century rock stars might have sounded like.
The castrati were very present in Mozart’s operas, but died out at the beginning of the nineteenth century, though they were courted by Rossini and Meyerbeer for gender-bending roles. Even Wagner dreamt of them, but was never able to hire Domenico Mustafà, one of the last castrati in the Sistine Chapel. The twentieth century, in its search for an impossible past, gave birth to the countertenor, this fifth lyrical voice after sopranos, tenors, baritones, and basses. Today, this male/child voice is all the rage in conservatories and on stages. Festivals have been set up for them and tailor-made works have been written for them, yesterday by Benjamin Britten, today by George Benjamin and Kaija Saariaho. Who knows what tomorrow’s star countertenor will look like? Perhaps someone who breaks down gender and identity barriers on every level, thus paying homage to a past where thousands of children were maimed in order to keep their angelic children’s voices forever caged in an adult body.