strange_complex: (Alessandro tear)
And so begins another year of book-blogging. With, as it happens, a monster! :-)

I'm not normally in the habit of sitting around reading other people's PhD theses even in my own subject, let alone outside it. But regular readers of this journal will understand why this particular one demanded my attention so insistently. I've known about it since I read Nicholas Clapton's biography of Moreschi, The Last Castrato, back in about December 2005 (alas, before I started book-blogging), and have always wanted to follow up what was obviously such a rich and interesting reference. So in November I finally gave in to the temptation to have the thing sent over to me from Boston (where it was originally submitted) on inter-library loan.

Big green book )

And now that I've been able to read it? Well - wow! I have a couple of gripes, but on the whole this is a thorough, lucid, scholarly and fascinating exploration of my favourite singer and his voice. I count myself fantastically lucky that it was written, and that I've had the chance to read it. The aim of the thesis is to set Alessandro Moreschi's surviving recordings in the context of our wider knowledge of historical castrati and of the medical effects of pre-pubertal castration, in order to arrive at as rigorous an understanding as possible of the mechanics of vocal production in a castrato singer, and thus of the capacities and limitations of this lost voice type which has left such a legacy in Western music. In other words, it's all about understanding Moreschi better as a musician, and about understanding the music written for his predecessors by composers such as Handel and his contemporaries better as a result. As far as I'm concerned - brilliant!

Gripes )

Biography )

More important, though, were the musicological insights I gained into Moreschi's singing. Buning examines the contemporary written evidence for his professional career, and of course also his surviving recordings, incredibly thoroughly and competently - including presenting things like spectral analyses of his voice as preserved on the recordings, and detailed examples of places on them where particular aspects of his technique and capabilities can be clearly heard. I've listened to those recordings more than any other music I have over the last two-and-a-bit years (since I first got hold of them in November '05). So much, in fact, that I hardly even need to listen to them directly any more, because every note, every swell, every ornament, every click and swish of the records themselves is hard-wired into my brain. But, thanks to Buning, I can hear new things in them again, and listen to them in a different way. Always good.

Pitch decline )

Register practice )

Michael Maniaci )

Moreschi's head voice and contemporary recording technique )

Finally, beyond the content in this thesis that was specific to Moreschi himself, it was just great to read someone really writing about the castrati rigorously and thoughtfully, and actively seeking to question some of the existing orthodoxies about them. As I've indicated before, most of the available books on the castrati are pretty second-rate, really, and it would be nice to see someone publishing a worthwhile, scholarly full-length study which didn't just peddle the same old over-romanticised lines. Ultimately, I didn't really agree with Buning's final conclusion regarding the relevance of his findings for performance practice, which was that since countertenors cannot possibly sound anything like castrati, we should be using women to sing the roles written for castrato singers on stage instead. As Buning showed, women don't sound anything like castrati either, and besides I happen to rather like the sound which countertenors produce in its own right. But I did very much agree with his reasoning about why the issue matters: Western music is full of pieces which were written specifically for castrato singers, taking special account of the unique qualities of their voices, and seeking to show it off to best effect. If we are to understand, and make best use of, that music, then we must understand properly how the original voice functioned. Alessandro Moreschi is the man who can show us.

strange_complex: (Apollo Belvedere)
I've just come back from hearing Michael Maniaci sing in Keiser's The Fortunes of King Croesus for a second time. And by the gods, am I glad I went.

I knew he was good last time, I did. But with the excitement of the weekend generally, the novelty of Keiser's music to my ears, and the fast-moving spectacle of the production, it was hard to concentrate on just one singer's voice. This time, I had the plot clear in my mind, didn't need to get confused about who was in love with whom, and knew when to expect Maniaci's big moments. It helped, too, that while last time we were in the Upper Circle (the middle of three balconies), this time I was in the second row of the stalls, slap bang in the middle and mere feet from the orchestra pit. The difference in position alone made the whole thing so much more intense - like seeing something in colour or hearing something in stereo for the first time, when you've only experienced it before in black and white or mono.

Maniaci's voice )

All night I was entranced - by Maniaci, but also by both Gillian Keith (Elmira) and Fflur Wyn (Clerida), who would both have been worth going back for even if it weren't for Maniaci. Gillian Keith especially flew and soared with searing agility through the part of Elmira, and rightly dominated the opera with an astonishing range of beautiful arias. But then there was the moment when Maniaci began to sing 'Elmira, where are you gone?' (Elmir! wo bleibest du?), and entrancement turned into complete absorption. His messa di voce on the long, plaintive 'Elmira!'s was devastating. My heart was in my mouth. I shut my eyes so that nothing could distract from the pure experience of the sound. I'd known the aria was good last time, but this time, pre-warned, I was overwhelmed. Could I really be hearing anything so powerful, and yet so human? The lingering grief, and yet the perfect control and rich shape which he gave to the sound. I was completely wrapped in the moment - nothing but a pair of ears sucking in the melody he was unveiling.

And then, once again, it was all over - too quickly - and it was out into the confused strangeness of the street. How could ordinary life be going on after that music had finished? How could buses run and drunks shout? How could people not know? The journey home sped by in shell-shocked bewilderment. Betrayal - that what had been so beautiful could be so definitively over. Already, the memory of the sound is slipping away, and there's nothing I can do to refresh it. I feel as though I don't want to hear anything ever again, if it can't be Michael Maniaci singing 'Elmira, where are you gone?'.

All is not lost, though. Radio 3 were there, recording the evening for broadcast later in the month. Believe me when I say that I shall be there, hovering by my set with a supply of fresh tapes in hand.

strange_complex: (Nennig musicians)
Crumbs, but today was busy. Two lectures, two seminars, barely time to sit down and remind myself what I was actually supposed to be teaching in the next session before it hit me, and I spent the last seminar being systematically and relentlessly coughed all over by a student no more than a metre away from me. After the fun and games last week, I do not want another cold, thank you!

Anyway, thankfully now it is all over, and I only have a Latin class to teach tomorrow. So I can get on with blogging my extremely exciting and splendiferous weekend...

The pivotal hinge of the whole 48-hour period was Opera North's production of Reinhard Keiser's The Fortunes of Kings Croesus, which I'd been busy organising an outing to since May. It was lucky I'd successfully bought a three-bedroomed house in the intervening period, as I had four house-guests for the weekend (a fifth, [livejournal.com profile] redkitty23, sadly couldn't make it in the end due to illness) - my Mum, [livejournal.com profile] rosamicula, the artist formerly known as [livejournal.com profile] kharin and [livejournal.com profile] megamole. And it was just so fabulous to see everyone anyway! To think that the added bonus was not only baroque opera, but a composer I'd never heard performed before and a chance to hear Michael Maniaci sing live at last was more than enough to have me in a state of fizzing excitement by early Saturday evening.

You can see as much from the grin on my face )

And so off we set in our finery through a crisp, autumnal-smelling evening, to rendezvous with [livejournal.com profile] big_daz and take our seats in the auditorium. I have a recording of the opera directed by RenĂ© Jacobs in 2000, but had only listened to it in a fairly haphazard and perfunctory manner, so I knew some of the tunes beforehand, but had absolutely no clue as to the plot )

Keiser )

The production )

Maniaci )

And friends )

Fangirling )

We did do the Wrens, too, and then home again under a bloated half-moon. And the next day was all communal breakfasts, and chatting, and guests slipping away one by one, until I was left alone once again. Except that I didn't have time to get sad or mopey about it, because it was off for my own humble brand of singing at choir practice, followed by chat and dinner with [livejournal.com profile] glitzfrau to round off the weekend.

There are two more performances of Croesus in Leeds, on the 7th and 10th of November, and you know what? I think I might go again. Because I can, and because I still bitterly regret not going to see David Cordier sing Bertarido in Rodelinda for a second time in Oxford when I felt much the same about his performance and I could have done. It doesn't even have to be that expensive, either - judging from the Grand Opera House website, there are some quite cheap last-minute tickets available, and neither performance is likely to sell out completely. June, after all, is an awfully long time to wait for that CD...

Two TV PSAs

Wednesday, 20 June 2007 10:10
strange_complex: (C J Cregg)
1. Rome - new series starts tonight at 9pm on BBC2. DigiGuide sez, "With Caesar lying dead on the Senate floor, the deadly battle for control of Rome is set to begin. Brutus and his accomplices come up against the might of a vindictive Mark Antony. But with Octavian declared Caesar's rightful heir, alliances will have to be made in order to prevent all-out war." I got pretty disillusioned with it by the end of the last series, but I'll still watch all the same.

2. Browsing the schedules, I also noticed that that the documentary, Castrato, which was first broadcast a year ago on BBC4 is now being repeated on BBC2, next Tuesday (26th June) from 23:20 to 00:20. Presented by Nicholas Clapton, and featuring recordings of Alessandro Moreschi as well as a beautiful performance by Michael Maniaci and a (less-than-successful, in my opinion) attempt to recreate the sound of a castrato voice by blending a boy treble and an adult tenor, it is actually really worth watching - especially if you're coming to the opera with me in October!

In other news, Boots today sent me some 'exclusive vouchers just for me' through the post, including one worth 500 Advantage points if I buy a hair straightening kit. Well, thanks for that, Boots. I'm sure it will come in really handy.

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