Heavenly Voices: The Legacy of Farinelli
A film by Gino Pennacchi and Alessandro Scillitani, narrated by Max Emanuel Cencic, Philippe Jaroussky, Ernesto Tomasini, and others. ArtHaus Musik 101689, 75 mins., subtitled
This poorly organized and feebly documented fan film is unlikely to shine new light on what viewers already know about the legendary castratos. Talking heads, singing heads, performance clips, recording footage, drag shows, pop videos and harpsichord music are jumbled together, and performers or speakers are not always identified. Many performance excerpts, including James Bowman's costumed "L'empio, sleale," from Handel's Giulio Cesare, are not credited anywhere on screen or in the booklet. Bowman, by the way, one of the pioneers of the solo countertenor voice, is not discussed in the film, nor are any other British artists, although the names of Alfred Deller and Michael Chance are dropped in passing.
There's plenty of information about castratos, including the gruesome revelation that someone from the Fondazione Farinelli analyzed the bones of the great singer and ascertained that he was still growing at the time of his death, at the age of seventy-seven. Medical personnel, opera buffs and performers tell the usual anecdotes about castratos, blaming the practice on St. Paul and Pope Sixtus V, and hauling out the pitiful "Ave Maria" recording by poor old Alessandro Moreschi, the last castrato and probably not very accomplished to begin with.
Modern-day countertenors speak intelligently about issues of historical performance as well as stereotypes of gender and vocal quality, both now and in the past. We hear from Philippe Jaroussky, Max Emanuel Cencic, Franco Fagioli, Andreas Scholl and David Daniels, as well as some less celebrated countertenors, about what led them to baroque opera. (Julie Andrews, Maria Callas and Cecilia Bartoli are all invoked.) One present-day performer, Ernesto Tomasini, an actor/cabaret singer and self-described castrato, muses about the mystique of the high male voice.
In spite of all this talk, no one addresses past or present vocal training or technique, except in the most superficial way. Loud, fast, high passages predominate in the many clips, and dramatic mezzo-soprano Luciana d'Intino, who had earlier commented on vocal ambiguity, sings the final pages (unattributed) of "Se Romeo t'uccise un figlio," from Bellini's Capuleti e i Montecchi.
Such random editing and poor structure mar the entire film. Narration about illegal castration accompanies eighteenth-century artwork featuring women playing musical instruments. Andreas Scholl refers to a female role he sings, but it's not clear what he's talking about: is it "Dido's Lament," which he occasionally includes in recital, or an actual staged role?
Midway through, it becomes clear that this documentary may be a promo for the gimmicky recording of Vinci's Artaserse that featured five countertenors. Interviews and recording footage, revealing competitive coloratura as well as the most outrageous facial distortions, showcase the singers, as well as the conductor, of that project.
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