1As has often been underlined, it is not the least of paradoxes that the castrati that performed in Italian opera both in Italy in the 17th century and on the London stage after the Restoration should have acted the parts of manly seducers, mighty kings or warriors in spite of their high-pitched voices that were not unlike those of female sopranos. Several interpretations have been given: contemporary audiences may simply have been indifferent to such a lack of realism; one only cared for the beauty of the voice; the castrati’s virtuosity made up for the ‘effeminate’ nature of their voice-colour and constituted a kind of superiority that was compatible with, and analogical to, the superiority of the characters they impersonated; the fact that that voice was able to reach very high notes could suggest that the character endowed with such a gift was symbolically in a position of hierarchal dominance. In a stimulating article, Roger Freitas rejects these interpretations and argues that the predilection for castrato voices can only be explained if one takes into account the erotic bodily dimension of the singers (Freitas, passim). The fascination exerted by this type of voice was closely linked to a contemporary conception of sexuality which Freitas explains convincingly.
2Taking into account the various (sexual and aesthetic) conventions that governed the predominance of castrati on the London lyrical stage at the beginning of the 18th century, we shall attempt to analyse the meaning and impact of the emergence of the oratorio genre in this perspective. Many practical, economic, linguistic and ideological reasons can be given. In any case, the progressive relinquishment of castrato voices cannot but have been meaningful. The reordering of voices and role-casting in relation to gender, the growing interest, towards the end of the eighteenth century, for tenors, and the influence of these changes on the symbolic perception of female soprano and alto voices will be investigated. We shall argue that the rise of oratorio was accompanied by a re-composition and re-definition of the respective masculine and feminine territories and that the metamorphosis of the heroic voice on the English lyrical stage in the collective imagination may be interpreted as the allegorical index of a shift towards a “modern,” “Enlightened” conception of sexuality.
3The very first objection to Italian opera in England was a linguistic one. Sung as it was in a foreign language, it could consequently not be grasped by most of its listeners and it stood therefore as opposed to the rationality of the national drama. In its Essay on the Operas after the Italian Manner of 1706, John Dennis denounced the Italian opera by calling it monstrous and absurd:
But yet this must be allow’d, that tho the Opera in Italy is a Monster, ‘tis a beautiful harmonious Monster, but here in England ‘tis an ugly howling one. What then must not only Strangers, but we our selves say, with all our Partiality to our selves, when we consider that we not only leave a reasonable Entertainment for a ridiculous one, an artful one for an absurd one, a beneficial one for a destructive one, and a very natural one for one that is very monstrous; but that we forsake a most noble Art, for succeeding in which we are perhaps the best qualify’d of any People in Europe, for a very vile one for which Heaven and Nature have not at all design’d us, as having given us neither Ears, nor Voices, nor Languages, nor Climate proper to it? (Dennis, Essay on the Operas,I, 468-69).
Immediately after the performance of the first opera entirely sung in Italian in London in 1710 – Almahide by Bononcini – one started denouncing a genre in which reigned “sound without sense.” As Robert Ness remarks, the fact that one did not grasp the meaning of the words soon made it possible to do get rid of the recitatives which no one understood (Ness, 178), and then to mix Italian and English in absurd dialogues, which James Ralph made fun of:
These [Italian Operas translated into English] succeeded tolerably well, till grown too familiar, and that we began to understand them; then an Italian Singer or two crept in by degrees, to charm us with something new and unintelligible; and this pretty motly Performance pleased for some Time; but some good Sense still remaining amongst us, the Absurdity of that Conversation a la Babel was so notorious, that it was look’d upon as more inexcusable, than having the whole Performance in one proper, though foreign, Language: This of Consequence threw us into entire Italian OPERAS, both as to Language, Musick and Performers, which gradually has work’d them up to that high Pitch they now shine triumphant in; and, we may boldly say, we excel any thing Italy ever knew, (as to one particular Stage) both in Composition and Performance. For several Years they have kept their Ground, against all vain Attempts to dislodge them; only allowing for some small Recesses for breathing Time: And as an Italian Opera can never touch the Comprehension of above one Part in four of a British Audience, it is very probable their Theatre will be crowded as long as we are a Nation. (Ralph 12).
The dramatic construction and verisimilitude of opera was thus more or less denied to the benefit of a succession of arias the only function of which was to ravish the ear. Upon the occasion of the staging of Handel’s first Italian opera, Rinaldo, in 1711, Joseph Addison was to satirize repeatedly this new, meaningless operatic genre in the columns of TheSpectator. (Addison, No. 5, No. 18, No. 29). However, beyond that question of language, the presence of castrati on the stage does not seem to have been perceived as offensive at the beginning of the 18th century. Like Addison in The Spectator, Colley Cibber was more indignant about the linguistic absurdity resulting from a dialogue in different languages between various characters than he was about the apt correspondence between the pitch of the voice and the sex or gender of the character impersonated, and he praised the acting of the castrato Valentini:
By what we can now gather concerning the abilities of Signor Valentini from those who frequented operas at this time, his voice was feeble, and his execution moderate; but “he supplied these defects so well by his action,” says Cibber, an excellent, and not partial judge of that part of his performance, “that his hearers bore with the absurdity of his singing he part of Turnus in Camilla, all in Italian, while every other character was sung and recited in English.” (Cibber, in Burney, History, II, 661-2).
4In The Tatler, Richard Steele too insisted primarily upon the visual and dramatic aspect of the great Niccolini. What he admired was the singer’s ability well to represent the character he embodied, through his gestures and actions on the stage:
Sheer Lane, January 2.
I went on Friday last to the opera, and was surprised to find a thin house at so noble an entertainment, till I heard that the tumbler was not to make his appearance that night. For my own part, I was fully satisfied with the sight of an actor, who, by the grace and propriety of his action and gesture, does honour to a human figure, as much as the other vilifies and degrades it. Every one will easily imagine I mean Signor Nicolini, who sets off the character he bears in an opera by his action, as much as he does the words of it by his voice. Every limb, and every finger, contributes to the part he acts, insomuch that a deaf man might go along with him in the sense of it. There is scarce a beautiful posture in an old statue which he does not plant himself in, as the different circumstances of the story give occasion for it. He performs the most ordinary action in a manner suitable to the greatness of his character, and shows the prince even in the giving of a letter, or the despatching of a message. Our best actors are somewhat at a loss to support themselves with proper gesture, as they move from any considerable distance to the front of the stage; but I have seen the person of whom I am now speaking, enter alone at the remotest part of it, and advance from it with such greatness of air and mien, as seemed to fill the stage, and at the same time commanding the attention of the audience with the majesty of his appearance (Steele).
5Similarly, in Spectator No 13, it is the majesty of Niccolini’s acting which was praised, as well as the ‘excellence’ of his movements, gestures and expressions which perfectly translated the character’s passions:
On the contrary, it gives me a just Indignation, to see a Person whose Action gives new Majesty to Kings, Resolution to Heroes, and Softness to Lovers, thus sinking from the Greatness of his Behaviour, and degraded into the Character of the London Prentice. I have often wished that our Tragœdians would copy after this great Master in Action. Could they make the same use of their Arms and Legs, and inform their Faces with as significant Looks and Passions, how glorious would an English Tragedy appear with that Action which is capable of giving a Dignity to the forced Thoughts, cold Conceits, and unnatural Expressions of an Italian Opera. (Addison, No. 13; Burney, History, II, 665).
In the same way, here is what Burney wrote about the famous castrato Senisimo:
Senesimo had so noble a voice and manner of singing, was so admirable an actor, and in such high favour with the public, that besides the real force and energy of his performance, there was an additional weight and importance given to whatever he sung, by the elevated situation in which he stood with the audience. (Burney, Account, 23).
The celebrated flautist Johann Joachim Quantz stressed the same qualities in Senisimo:
His countenance was well adapted to the stage, and his action was natural and noble. To these qualities he joined a majestic figure; but his aspect and deportment were more suited to the part of a hero than a lover (Quantz, in Landgraf and Vickers 582).
6The castrati’s physical aspect, stage presence and aura thus seem to have been a crucial factor to ensure their being associated with the heroes they embodied. A hero is an outstanding, exceptional being whose sexuality itself is beyond norms, as was that of those emasculated singers who fascinated the female part of the audience and whose bodies, owing to the hormonal disturbance that resulted from their castration, presented peculiar characteristics (elongated arms and bust, corpulent chest, etc.). In these testimonies, the voice of the castrato itself does not seem to be an issue. The stage theatricality seems to have mattered more than the voice itself and in the name of the said theatricality and bodily presence of the actor-cum-singer upon the stage, the question of his vocal pitch does not seem to have been problematic. In a way, one could say that the visual dimension took precedence over what could be heard, as though the two functions had been dissociated. For Steele and Addison, theatre occupied a higher place than music in the hierarchy of the arts and the question of pitch was therefore of secondary importance, provided the gestures of the actor were convincing in the delivery of a dramatic message.
- 1 “More than for its power and brilliance, more than for its range and pitch, the castrato voice was (...)
7Baroque Italian opera relied on a set of conventions and stylistic devices that were still fully accepted by contemporary audiences. The singers’ voices did not express any pointedly gendered meaning but it was simply a musical tool at the service of a particular aestheticization of the lyrical stage. According to Margaret Reynolds, it was the strange character of the castrato voice that constituted its main interest, to the point that the listeners would forget the message itself to concentrate on the voice itself, which was almost “impersonal” (Reynolds 137, in Freitas 201).1 Katherine Bergeron and Suzanne Aspen consider for their part that the vocal casting was based upon a deliberate kind of ambiguity, so that the listener-cum-spectator was led to wonder whether he or she was listening to a male or female voice, whether or not the gender of the character represented corresponded to the voice itself (Bergeron 175; Aspen 1). The voice did not match the body it came from.
8The Italian opera tradition required that the first male role (primo uomo) be given to a castrato and the second male role (secondo uomo) also to a castrato, either a soprano or a contralto (as Burney remarked, some castrati – such as Niccolini, for instance – started their career as soprano before becoming mezzo-soprani or alti as they grew older – Burney, History, II, 661). Only the secondary roles were given to tenors or basses. Castrato voice and female soprano were interchangeable. Against all pretence to “realism,” the castrati’s soprano voices were thus used to represent male characters, and so could be female soprani. However, the voice of a castrato was not a “feminine” voice but rather – to use Thomas Alan King’s phrasing (T.A. King, passim) – a kind of “hyperbolic” boy’s voice the training of which could be carried on beyond puberty. Stronger than female voices, it was brilliant and covered a very wide range. It enabled vocal prowess that was far above what a normal voice could achieve (Ness 185), in particular because of greater lung capacity (Hussey 889) thanks to which the castrato singer was able to keep up and swell a sound far beyond what a boy’s or woman’s voice was able to do, which did not fail to fascinate contemporary audiences. The castrato was therefore noticeable for his ability to be particularly brilliant, which triggered an implicit identification with the exceptional status of a legendary hero in spite of the fact that its pitch was the same as that of a female soprano.
9The character of Alexander is a good case in point. As Richard G. King remarks (R.G. King 39), Alexander was the most famous figure in the eighteenth century. He fascinated people because he combined multiple attributes or qualities, even contradictory ones: courage, ambition, magnanimity, but also cruelty, anger and arrogance (e.g. his conviction that he was Jupiter’s son). Thus this character was the object of representations that were all the more varied as he himself was seen to be full of contradictions (ibid). The cause of the fascination he exerted sprang from the very impossibility of reducing him to a single, univocal image. Significantly, then, Handel entrusted the role of Alexander to a castrato in his eponymous opera of 1726, thus suggesting some kind of link between the “abnormality” of the character of Alexander and that of his performer, both being so different from ordinary mortals that it proves impossible for one to identify with him. If, as Richard G. King suggests, the emperor’s claim that he was Jupiter’s son was the evidence of his corruption (R.G. King 42), his lyrical representation by a castrato could only support such an impression at some implicit level, since castrati themselves were perceived as both beyond norm and unnatural. Besides, as Chloe Chard has shown about the perception of antique classical statuary in the eighteenth century, one frequently made a distinction between the sublime linked to the divine and that associated with virility, the former – of a superior nature – being more easily reconciled with an image of grace and fineness (Chard 150). Transposed in the domain of voices, this would correspond well to the pitch and peculiar color of castrati, who were perfectly suited to represent the divine or more-than-human heroism.
10The castrato’s uncommon voice suggested the exceptional qualities of the character, according to a mechanism of transposition, analogy or equivalence. The voice operated like a mask – that used at the carnival in Venice or during masquerades – heralding a type or emblematizing some hierarchical or allegorical function. A distance was thus introduced between the character and the actor. One can see in this an essential characteristic of baroque art. For, as Judith Hook has shown, the baroque does not content itself with reflecting a conflicting and uncertain world but it systemizes disorder or contradictions until they constitute a new manner of order or structuring logic (Hook 11). The castrato embodied physically, and expressed vocally, the contradictions that are inherent in the ontological condition. He was the vehicle of some impossibility paradoxically realized. All question of realism – in particular that of the link between pitch and gender – then became secondary, for stylization mattered more than the said realism. One can turn in this respect to Catherine Kintzler’s remarkable explanation concerning Rameau’s “tragédie lyrique”: “Thus what we see on the classical stage, however fictitious and totally deprived of what we call ‘natural’ today, is far truer than reality, and closer to the nature of things taken in their essence and abstraction” (Kintzler 44, my translation) for “nature is never what is perceived, seen or heard – the nature of things is not in their appearance but in some truth that can only be attained though reasoning.” (ibid., 23).
- 2 In such an aesthetic, there is therefore a deliberate intention to refuse all sexed or gendered di (...)
11Thus, in Guilio Cesare by Handel, what matters primarily is not that Cesar should have a male voice but that his vocal virtuosity should testify to his being essentially superior to the generality of mankind and that the joining of the two high-pitched voices – his and Cleopatra’s – should unite them at the very top of vocal heights. Just as the fantastic Mount Parnassus scene during which Cleopatra reveals herself to Cesar to seduce him does not claim to be in the least realistic, so there is no question of making of Cesar an ordinary or plausible character: there is therefore a close link between the fantastic, mythological and magical aspect of Italian opera and the use of castrato voices in it. Both characteristics contribute in the same degree to the very nature of a genre the aim of which is to stage a marvelous world. The criterion of vocal realism could therefore not be raised in one sphere without being equally raised in the other. One could not envisage questioning the discrepancy between pitch and gender without concomitantly questioning the presence of dragons, furies, enchanted chariots, chasms and miracles of all kinds on the baroque stage.2
12It is interesting to observe that, whereas castrato voices were generally used for the first male roles, female voice were often reserved for parts of boys or young men (for instance Lotario in Giulio Cesare). This can be interpreted as a sense of hierarchy, which is at one with Thomas Laqueur’s statement according to which, at the beginning of the modern period, woman was regarded as “a lesser version of man along a vertical axis of infinite gradations.” (Laqueur, in Freitas 203). The question of vocal casting thus gradually appears to be a battlefield for complex rivalries between the roles attributed to the two sexes and body representations or projections. Roger Freitas argues that one should take into account the perception of the castrato’s body, along with his voice, in order to understand their impact on the contemporary audiences, and that “these perceptions in turn depended on an understanding of sexuality that differs radically from that of today” (Freitas 202). He underlines the importance of the physical embodiment of the castrato voice. According to him, the appeal of the castrato stemmed from the fact that “on the Italian baroque stage, the castrato represented a theatrical imitation of [the] erotically charged boy,” half-way between feminine and masculine qualities (Freitas 214). Physically, the castrato’s body grew disproportionately while his face remained beardless and childlike. Freitas argues therefore that “castrati thus played amorous leading roles not in spite of their physical distinctiveness, but because of it” (Freitas 202).
13Such an appealing interpretation only makes sense however if one considers that homo-erotic tendencies were dominant in society at the time. It does not really account for the fascination exerted on female audiences by the castrati who were thought to have exceptional sexual powers – with the added advantage that they did not make their partners run the slightest risk, as many pamphlets underlined. It is also mainly concerned with the Italian opera in Italy. However, Freitas’s reading has the merit of clearly raising the question of the link between the perception of castrati and the contemporaneous conception of sexuality. Heller, whom Freitas quotes, speaks of a “reconstruction of operatic masculinity that was a driving force in the reform of Italian opera in the early 18th century,” a “complete reworking of… gender representation” (Heller, in Freitas 240). Correlatively, we would like then to suggest that the critique and eventual rejection of castrati from the English stage, notably in relation with the rise of oratorio, testifies to a significant transformation of gender conceptions in English society in the course of the eighteenth century.
14Soon after the introduction of Italian opera in England, voices could be heard denouncing its lack of realism and the threat that the presence of castrati on the stage represented for national manliness. Samuel Johnson clearly made a link between the “warbling” of Eunuchs, the frivolity of the age and the threat of seeing the nation “enslaved” by foreign art and artists:
Let such raise palaces, and manors buy,
Collect a tax, or farm a lottery,
With warbling eunuchs fill a licens’d stage,
And lull to servitude a thoughtless age. (Johnson, v. 57-60)
One dreaded the effeminization of the lyrical stage that would have been perceived as the symptom of the decline of the British nation, as John Dennis explained:
Musick… that is most subservient to Reason, especially if it be soft and effeminate, is a mere Delight of Sense… since ’tis natural to bring a Man home to himself , and confine him there, as ’tis natural to Reason to expand the Soul… and throw it out upon the Publick. And as soft and delicious Musick, by soothing the Senses, and making a Man too much in love with himself, makes him too little fond of of the Publick; and so by emasculating and so dissolving the Mind, it shakes the very Foundation of Fortitude, and so is destructive of both Branches of the publick spirit. (Dennis, I, 457-62).
Dennis’s objection was not that the voice of castrati did not correspond to the characters represented but that they were not real men since they had been emasculated, which threatened the nation’s manliness. Italian effeminacy was combined with Italian Nonsense in a comprehensive critique of a foreign form of art that was the vehicle for unacceptable values (Ness, 186). Robert Ness remarks that one of the major objections was that the dividing line between genders was as it were erased or blurred in those “amphibious” creatures (ibid.). In his Epistle to Arbuthnot (1735), Alexander Pope satirized Lord Hervey as Sporus, the young slave castrated by Nero who had fallen in love with him. Pope denounced in this manner the ambiguous double nature of homosexuality which one also accused castrati of:
Amphibious thing! That acting either Part,
The Trifling Head, or the corrupted Heart!
Fop at the Toilet, Flatt’rer at the Board,
Now trips a Lady, and now struts a Lord. (Pope, v. 326-9).
15John Dennis also made an allusion to Sporus in his denunciation of Italian opera in which he suggested that the female sex was running a risk if opera still encouraged their attraction for homosexuality:
The Ladies, with humblest Submission, seem to mistake their Interest a little in encouraging Opera’s; for the more the Men are enervated and emasculated by the Softness of the Italian Musick, the less will they care for them, and the more for one another. There are some certain Pleasures which are mortal Enemies to their Pleasures, that [passed] the Alps about the same time with the Opera; and if our Subscriptions go on, at the frantick rate that they have done, I make no doubt but we shall come to see one Beau take another for Better for Worse, as once an imperial harmonious Blockhead did Sporus. (Dennis, Publick Spirit, II, 396).
- 3 “Italian opera’s very lack of gender distinction signals not the ‘enlightenment’ of equality, but (...)
- 4 “The significance of the singer’s sexuality for this [broader social] malaise is understandable on (...)
16Similarly, in the 4th book of his Dunciad (1742), Alexander Pope condemned Italian opera for the moral and sexual deviancy that it represented. Robert Ness rightly underlines that, paradoxically, “Pope was attacking in The Dunciad a form that was virtually extinct,” which shows how crucial the question was still thought to be (Ness 176). The absence of sexual distinction in the casting was therefore the sign of a problem in contemporary British society. Suzanne Aspen argues that “the British fixation with the gender of opera singers comes into focus if we look on gender not simply as a reflection of socio-sexual boundaries, but rather as a quite literal human grammar, a system for ordering that places people in functioning interrelatedness” (Aspen 2).3 In this perspective, one may suggest that the confusion between pitches and casting represented a threat to the dominant patriarchal order of British society since male domination was contested on the stage by the presence of the castrati’s voices and bodies that, symbolically, belonged to no definite, natural sex. What was at stake therefore was the question of male power and socio-cultural hierarchies. Through his ambiguous physical presence and high-pitched, pseudo-feminine voice, the castrato questioned what Jill Campbell calls the “government” of society (Campbell, in Aspen 7).4 The castrato’s physical ugliness – due to his arms that were too long, his swollen chest and his tendency to obesity – thus became the visible index of a degeneracy that was not only individual, but collective – that of the whole social body, as it were, in which natural regulations did not operate any longer. The disorder induced by the representation attached to the castrato on the lyrical stage – disorder, that is, at the different levels of gender, conceptual categories and the imagination – was not compatible with the period’s aspiration to leave behind, or detach itself from the epistemological presuppositions of baroque art.
17Beyond the patriotic question initially raised by the critics of Italian opera, there lurked a much more essential ideological issue. It was not simply that Britain deserved a better form of lyrical entertainment than that imported from Italy at a high cost, nor even that sense had to come first, before the pure pleasure of sound, but that it mattered to assert, through a regulated kind of representation on the stage, that British society remained under the control of a stable order that depended on the immutable places ascribed respectively to the sexes in society. The reordering of vocal casting corresponded implicitly, I would like to suggest, to an imperative of political and ideological assertiveness of so-called British values against the threats of moral, religious and sexual confusion that were thought to have come form abroad.
18The two rival companies – Handel’s at Covent Garden, and Bononcini’s, the “Opera of the Nobility,” at the Haymarket – went bankrupt in 1736. Senisimo and Farinelli left Britain in 1737 and Handel gave up opera altogether in 1741. This decision can be accounted for on purely contingent and commercial grounds. There is no doubt however that there were deeper reasons to recompose the lyrical stage and that the expectations of the public had ideological causes, among which the question of castrati no doubt played a significant part. It would however be erroneous to claim that with the rise of Handelian oratorio castrati disappeared completely. As is shown in Appendix 2, a number of oratorios composed and staged by Handel still had roles initially performed and sung by castrati, even if their number can be seen to dwindle significantly (compare with Appendix 1). When Messiah was performed again at Covent Garden in 1750, Handel even rewrote three arias for castrato Gaetano Guadini, and in particular“But who may abide the day of his coming,” originally composed for a bass voice, thus deeply modifying the effect produced (Bergeron 176-77). If Handel had enough political and commercial flair to realize that the time had come for him to offer a new kind of lyrical entertainment to London audiences, more adapted to the patriotic and moral expectations of a society that was fast evolving, it would be absurd to imagine that his own conception of the link between pitch and casting, or his musical sensibility, had suddenly changed.
19At the same time, the fact that castrati were required less frequently reflects a phenomenon that cannot be explained in purely financial terms. The salaries of the castrati were, it is true, very high, but had their presence been deemed crucial, as had been the case in the first half of the century, one would no doubt have found the ways and means of affording their service. The fact that their presence was no longer thought so necessary reveals an alteration in the way they were perceived and as to what they represented symbolically. We would like therefore to formulate the hypothesis that the oratorio reflects a significant evolution in the way people conceived the issue of the representation of gender on the stage. The fact of gradually relinquishing castrato voices expressed the rise of new sexual norms, characteristic of the British Enlightenment, as opposed to the “baroque sexuality” projected by Italian opera.
20Writing in 1776, the Scottish philosopher James Beattie summed up very clearly the opinion generally shared in Britain concerning castrati:
But of all sounds, that which makes its way most directly to the human heart, is the human voice: and those instruments that approach nearest to it are in expression the most pathetic, and in tone the most perfect. The notes of a man's voice, well tuned and well managed, have a mellowness, variety, and energy, beyond those of any instrument; and a fine female voice, modulated by sensibility, is beyond comparison the sweetest, and most melting sound, in art or nature. Is it not strange, that the most musical people upon earth [the Italians], dissatisfied, as it would seem, with both these, should have incurred a third species of vocal sound, that has not the perfection of either? For may it not be affirmed with truth, that no person of uncorrupted taste ever heard for the first time the music I allude to, without some degree of horror; proceeding not only from the disagreeable ideas suggested by what was before his eyes, but also from the thrilling sharpness of tone that startled his ear? Let it not be said, that by this abominable expedient, choruses are rendered more complete, and melodies executed, which before were impracticable. Nothing that shocks humanity ought to have a place in human art; nor can a good ear be gratified with unnatural sound, or a good taste with too intricate composition. Surely, every lover of music, and of mankind, would wish to see a practice abolished which is in itself a disgrace to both; and, in its consequences, so far from being desirable, that it cannot truly be said to do any thing more than to debase a noble art into trick and grimace, and make the human breath a vehicle, not to human sentiments, but to mere empty screaming and squalling. (Beattie, 143-4)
Beattie’s critique here is global and coherent: if the voice is considered as the best vehicle for musical expression, the natural qualities of male and female voices – the former thanks to their mellowness and energy, and the latter through their softness and sensibility – constitute the natural ideal to which it is meet one should conform oneself. The castrato voice, which has the qualities neither of a man’s voice, nor of a woman’s, is thus rejected as unnatural, as a baroque monstrosity that reveals the depraved character of the Italian nation. For Beattie, the castrato voice cannot but summon up what has caused it physically – the bodily mutilation – and it triggers therefore a feeling of horror. Beyond this, the extreme virtuosity of the airs sung by the castrati is yet another reason to reject them, since anything that is extreme or excessive shocks humanity and is contrary to the rules of good taste. James Beattie thus elaborates what might be called a new “ethic” of the voice. The singing voice must be re-defined in terms of its reference to sexual reality and normality. A high-pitched voice can in no way be that of a male hero. The natural casting of voices in relation to the gender of the characters is considered a must in the process of a quest for normality and natural order.
21If one looks at the list of the high-voice male characters in Handel’s oratorios, one notices that apart from the role of Hercules in The Choice of Hercules (1751), created by castrato Gaetano Guadagni – which, incidentally, is not an oratorio proper but rather a musical interlude that is more moralizing than religious – no first role is cast for a castrato. Key roles are sometimes given to counter-tenors – as for instance the Great Priest Joad in Athalia or David in Saul, which is all the more natural because of the character’s youth. Solomon was initially given to a female alto, Caterina Galli, which may correspond to the king’s benevolence and sweet wisdom.
22It may thus be argued that the Handelian oratorio consists in an effort of gender re-categorization according to natural laws within a framework of moderation and realism. Even though Handel’s compositional manner in his oratorios was not radically different from his operatic style (apart from the large polyphonic or homophonic choruses and organ concertos, both of which were absent from his operas), the new oratorio project – that aesthetic and ideological construct in which religion blended with national fervor – implied a kind of distancing from elements of the baroque universe of Italian opera such as excess, eccentricity, deformity and the incredible. It can be read as an attempt at asserting a firm, rational ideological grip – so to say – on the stage, by opposition to the dissolute, fantastic representation of an extreme world offered by baroque Italian opera. Abandoning castrato voices on the British lyrical stage might be interpreted as the deliberate rejection of a symptom of confusion and ambiguity. As Beattie’s remarks show, the aesthetic expectation had changed along with the construction of a moral and patriotic discourse.
23It is interesting to see how Dr. Burney, writing between 1776 and 1789, considered that Richard Leveridge’s bass voice was perfectly suited to the character of Pluto, Neptune or sundry divinities from Antiquity:
Richard Leveridge had a deep and powerful base voice… I remember his singing “Ghoss of every occupation” and several of Purcell’s base songs, occasionally, in a style which forty years ago seemed antediluvian; but as he generally was the representative of Pluto, Neptune, or some ancient divinity, it corresponded perfectly with his figure and character. (Burney, History, II, 667).
- 5 “In this essay, I have tried to offer a new ac-count of why that might have been. In my view, the (...)
24Burney’s comment reveals a modern conception in which the correspondence between pitch and the type and gender of the singer’s voice are supposed to match the nature, psychology or character of the role performed. Roger Freitas underlines that “the Metastasian reforms achieved just one step in the movement toward modern ‘masculinity’ on the lyrical stage, a movement whose next obvious step (in serious opera) came only with the elimination of the treble hero in the early I9th century” (Freitas 242). We would like to suggest that, in Britain, as a kind of formal laboratory, the oratorio was instrumental in that transformation of the lyrical stage which, according to Freitas, found its fulfillment in the 19th century. At the beginning of the 18th century, Italian opera still presented a configuration of sexuality that was radically different from that of today, in which there was a kind of equivalence between an effeminate character and a propensity for amorous feelings, that is to say, a correspondence between psychological and morphological characteristics, which enabled the castrato to be seen as a likely medium for the representation of a daring lover and hero (Freitas 247).5 Later, conversely, the redefinition of the natural and credible, the priority given to the moderation of affects as well as of the passions, and the fact of putting the onus on manliness as indexes of the values upon which the British nation could be grounded, enabled the rejection of the castrato voice and the rise of tenor and bass voices in the leading roles. The voice on the lyrical stage thus followed an evolution and metamorphosis that accompanied the generic transformation that led from opera to oratorio – from a genre imported from Italy to a properly national one – even if, paradoxically, this change was due to the German-born Handel who had borrowed the concept of the oratorio from – Italy.