|The Teatro San Giovanni Grisotomo was the site of a great ball in honour of Edward Augustus, Duke of York in June 1767. The Venetians merchants were recognizing the new importance of England as a trading partner and displayed its finest for the Royal visitor. Sadly the Duke was unable to report to his brother on the glorious occasion: he died later that summer as he returned from his Italian sojourn.|
The most famous of their theatres was the Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo, known today as the Teatro Malibran. Opened during carnival in1678 it was the first of the Grimani chain and the most opulent theatre in the city. The greatest singers of the time appeared there in works written by many of the great composers of the period. Of course the likes of Scarlatti and Handel played second fiddle to the renowned singers they wrote for; and in the ranks of singers almost everyone played continuo to the (in)famous prime donne and castrati of the time. Zanetti was to capture these brilliant stars in their various personages as goddesses, gods, tragic queens and great heros but little, or no time, was spent immortalizing the mere composers of the music given these deities to sing.
Antonio Maria Bernacchi (23 June 1685 – 1 March 1756)
I am giving Bernacchi pride of place because it was the caricature below that first caught my attention at the recent exhibition. Zanetti's wittily catches the beauty and power of the voice as well as the slightly ludicrous appearance of the highly regarded contralto from Bologna. Of course it is well known that, given the nature of the operation that gave them their voice, castrati developed differently physically. Being robbed of the hormones need for normal growth their limbs were frequently disproportionate to the rest of their bodies, they were often overweight or freakishly tall for the period. As formal portraits would often gloss over these physical difference we are left with Zanetti's impression - which being caricatures may unfairly exaggerate many of those deformities. I searched for a portrait of Bernacchi but was unable to find anything other than the rather generic engraving at the right. Most descriptions of him suggest that, though perhaps not quite as large as Zanetti suggests, he was large man and more than one writer of the time commented on it. When he appeared in London Mary Delany, a close friend of Handel, in one of her many correspondence wrote that: Bernacchi has a vast compass, his voice mellow and clear, but not so sweet as Senesino, his manner better; his person not so good, for he is as big as a Spanish friar.
|Bernacchi as Mitradate, Re di Ponte at Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo in 1723 shows what stuff |
he's made of - his trill could scale up one side and down the other of the Campanella.
Enough people were enamoured of his abilities that he became known as Il Re dei cantatori (the King of Singers) throughout Europe. As well as being a popular favourite in Venice - 20 operas in the seasons between 1712 and 1724 alone - he appeared in all of the major opera houses of Italy and became Handel's primo uomo in 1729-30 replacing Senesino, a singer much beloved by the English public. Though he created major roles in Lotario (1729) and Partenope (1730) and sang in revivals of Giulio Cesare and Tolomeo, Bernacchi was not as highly regarded as the Sienese alto. His voice was judged to be weak and in many ways defective however he covered these shortcomings with great skill and his singing was more admired by other musicians than by the public.
|Bernacchi in Gaetano Maria Schiassi's Demofonte at |
Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo during Carnivale 1735.
It was this episode that made him available to Handel and he, and Merighi, set sail for England. Merighi was much admired by the British and Handel wrote several roles for her. Her teacher, and protector, was to return to Europe after that one season whereas she continued to be a great favourite in London in subsequent seasons.
|Larger than life and twice as beplummed Antonio Bernacchi.|
Bernacchi died in 1756 at the age of 71 - many of the castrati lived to a ripe old age - and was buried in his hometown. His funeral was arranged by and paid for by Farinelli. His former pupil and rival made sure that all the pomp appropriate to the burial of the "King of Singers" was observed.
February 15 - 1954: Canada and the United States agree to construct the Distant Early Warning Line, a system of radar stations in the Arctic.