Bird Droppings from Estonia: Farinelli hääl at the Vanemuine
Archived Articles 01 Feb 2008 Hilary BirdEWR
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A recent Vanemuine highlight was the performance of Farinelli hääl, The Voice of Farinelli. Farinelli was Carlo Maria Broschi, (1705-82), known in Italy as il ragazzo - the boy - who was a castrato. Castrato singers were popular in Europe from the 16c until 1870 when the operation was banned. The voice was prized for its combination of pitch and power - an unbroken male voice ably sung by the lungs of a grown man.

In 17th and 18c Italy, up to 4,000 boys a year, often from poor families, were castrated from the age of eight. Farinelli was a superstar. He appeared in London in the 1730s in Handel's ‘Second Academy’ that performed at the King's Theatre, Haymarket. Some fans went overboard. One titled lady famously exclaimed: ‘One God, one Farinelli!’ from her theatre box and was immortalised in William Hogarth’s ‘Rake's Progress’. Notoriously temperamental, Farinelli was buried in Bologna dressed as a knight from the days of chivalry. In 2006 his remains were disinterred (such is the dubious price of fame) by scholars of Bologna University to find out more about his vocal mechanism and the effects of intensive musical training on the shape of his body.

These days the castrato repertoire is sung by countertenors with their tackle intact. In Tartu, the marvellous Derek Lee Ragin from the USA was accompanied by the equally marvellous UK early music group, Florilegium. Ragin was half of the singing voice in the film Farinelli. The other half was provided by the Polish soprano Eva Malas-Godlewska; the two singers recorded separately and their songs were digitally merged to recreate a castrato voice. In Tartu Ragin sang songs by Händel and two composers I have never heard before, Nicola Popora and Riccardo Broschi (Farinelli’s manager and older brother). I particularly liked Dario’s aria Ombra Fidele Anch’io from Idaspe (Broschi). I love a countertenor not least because the voice upsets conventional views of what men and women should sound like.

Many of our perceptions of what is ‘traditional’ change. The popular Lascia Ch’io Pianga (from Rinaldo by Händel) was first performed at the Haymarket in 1711 when the eponymous hero was sung by the castrato Nicolo Grimaldi. Nowadays it’s a baroque staple for sopranos, including Babs (whose version is delicious but ‘classical’ music it ain’t!). And if you think all those gilded baroque laddies were all sissy boys, think again.

Prince François-Eugène, Prince of Savoy-Carignan (1663–1736), was slightly built, a cross dresser and a member of the circle of the gossipy François Timoléon, abbé de Choisy. Choisy’s whimsical mother dressed him as a girl until he was eighteen. He resumed woman's dress as an adult on the advice - doubtless s**t stirring - of Madam de La Fayette, wit, writer and hostess of a very successful Paris salon. Choisy delighted in sporting extravagant toilettes until he was publicly rebuked by the puritanical Huguenot soldier Duc de Montausier, after which he retreated for a time to the provinces, using his disguise in numerous intrigues. He’s remembered mostly for his Mémoires (1737), which contain striking and accurate pictures of his time and contemporaries. Weedy little François-Eugène, despite appearances, was a brilliant general and was admired (like our tubby but butch Gustav Adolf II) by Napoleon. Eugène disliked Louis XIV, left France and went to work for the Hapsburgs in Austria. He fought the Ottoman Turks during the relief of Vienna in 1683 and later, in 1699, at the head of the Hungarian army, surprised them at Zenta, Serbia. The battle was an amazing victory; 30,000 Turkish troops were killed at a cost of only 500 Austrian lives, the sultan's harem was captured, as were 87 cannon. Austria gained control of Bosnia, where Sarajevo, a strategically important location in the theatre of war, was burnt down. Tartu folk will sympathise as our little town shared the same fate for the same reason from different protagonists nine years later.

The victory at Zenta was one of the most complete and important ever won by Austria-Hungary and indeed, Christendom. Eugène was principal commander during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714), another important war and one that, this time, curbed French ambitions to dominate Europe. Ironically, it was while western Europe was looking to an Italian theatre of war that Peter the Great successfully made his bid to launch Russia as a Great Power by invading what is now the Baltic States, then provinces of a waning imperial Sweden.

This War of the Spanish Succession is known in the UK for the 1704 (the same year that Peter was busy capturing Tartu) victory at Blenheim, Bavaria (now Germany), where Eugène teamed up with the Duke of Marlborough. Marlborough later named his magnificent stately home (near Oxford) after the battle. It was not Marlborough, however, but Eugène of Savoy who finally defeated the French in the decisive battle of Turin (1706) after which Louis XIV had to withdraw all his forces from Italy. I became interested in Eugène in Brussels where I saw his statue. It’s there because he was governor of the conquered Spanish Netherlands when it became the Austrian Netherlands. Another scenario familiar to Estonians…
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