Saturday, February 15, 2014

Cantrice, Castrati e otre Bestie - Part II

During the years Anton Maria Zanetti welded his pen to capture the entertainment scene in Venice it was one of the great centres of opera in the world.  Unlike Napoli, Milano and other city-states on the Italian peninsula the theatres in La Serinissima had no royal patrons.  Theatres in the Republic were just like any other business - privately owned and run for a profit.  Teatro San Cassiano,  the first commercial theatre built exclusively for opera, had opened during Carnevale season in 1637.  In those days the celebrations went on for a longer period than today beginning just after Christmas and continuing until the first day of Lent.  It was still in operation during Zanetti's lifetime but had been joined by seven or eight major houses mainly those built by the Grimani family who included opera houses amongst their many other business investments.

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.
Bernacchi was born, trained and died in Bologna but his incredible technique took him well beyond the confines of Emilia-Romangna.  He was a student of the great Francesco Pistocchi who later was to despair of the style of singing that his pupil was to espouse.  On hearing the "new style" that Bernacchi had introduced into the opera house - an attempt to emulate the sound of an instrument with trills and roulades - his former master shook his head and cried:  Sadly for me, I taught you to sing, and you want to play (an instrument)!

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.
He returned to Europe in 1730 and continued to appear on the stages of Italy and was a particular favourite of the Elector of Bavaria.  The one city missing from his later appearances was Napoli.  In the 1728 season he had appeared there along with his younger rival Giovanni Carestini and, as so often happened opinions and loyalties were divided along political as well as musical lines.  When contracts were being signed for the 1729 season Bernacchi demanded that Antonia Margarita Merighi, one of his pupils and possibly his "mistress" have her contract extended also.  And more to the point he would sign provided Carestini was not to be reengaged.  At first the Viceroy agreed but then a pro-Carestini party began to make noise; the Viceroy became weary of the controversy and turned the matter over to the impresario who dithered about it.  The older singer tore up his contract and grandly announce that he was a man sought after not seeking and would not stay in a country where he was not welcome.

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.
If London had been less than a success Bernacchi was still highly regarded in Europe and continued to perform in Venice, Milan and on the major stages of Europe.  He retired from the stage in 1738 and returned to his native city a wealthy and respected citizen.  He gave the odd concert and composed a few duets and  churches pieces; but his remaining years were devoted to teaching.  He established a school to impart his techniques to a new generation of singers.  His students included Amadori, Mancini, Guarducci and amongst the last of his pupils was the great tenor Anton Raaf.  Many years later the elderly Raaf would create the title role in Mozart's Idomeno.  Though the tenor had arranged for the commission the young composer was not fond of his "antique" style of singing.  In one of his many letters written in Munich while preparing for the premiere he wrote that "his (Raaf's) style itself, the Bernacchi school, is not to my taste." 

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.

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