Handel’s opera stars

20th May 2009 | Concerts, Travel | 0 comments

picnic in the evening light

picnic in the evening light

Last night we attended the dress rehearsal of Handel’s opera ‘Giulio Cesare’ at Glyndebourne, thanks to a friend in the orchestra who kindly gave us tickets. Dress rehearsals at Glyndebourne, which are free but reserved for friends, family and supporters’ groups of the cast and crew, are possibly more fun than attending a ‘real’ performance because the atmosphere is more relaxed. Glyndebourne is famous for its beautiful gardens and for the length of its intervals, designed so that people can enjoy a picnic on the lawns. Dressing up for the ‘proper’ performances, and picnicking in one’s finery, are a cherished feature of the English summer and people go to enormous lengths to bring tables and tablecloths, ice boxes, picnic hampers and devices from which to suspend a bottle of champagne in the cool lake while they enjoy Act One. It all looks fabulous, but there can be an element of one-upmanship which makes one feel self-conscious.

I had never seen a Handel opera performed live. It was especially fascinating because I knew that three of the main roles were sung in Handel’s time by ‘castrati’, male singers who had been castrated as children so that their voices never broke. In adulthood, these men tended to be very large and their voices were magnificent and extremely loud, backed by a man’s full muscular power. The conductor Toscanini heard one of the last famous castrati, Moreschi, and was asked what he sounded like. Toscanini replied, ‘It is quite simple. He sounded like Ethel Merman.’

Castrating talented young boy singers has been illegal for a long time (I think it was even illegal in Handel’s time), and their roles today are taken either by women or by male countertenors. However excellent their voices – and last night they were superb – they must sound very different from the sheer vocal power and timbre of the castrati for whom Handel wrote. No matter how ‘authentic’ we try to be, that’s one thing that can’t be reproduced today – thank goodness!

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