Sunday, 25 August 2013

Balls to success

"The first note he sang was taken with such delicacy, swelled by minute degrees to such an amazing volume, and afterwards diminished in the same manner to a mere point, that it was applauded for full five minutes. After this he set off with such brilliancy and rapidity of execution, that it was difficult for the violins of those days to keep pace with him."

Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi, known as Farinelli, was famous in the 18th century as the world's greatest castrato. A strikingly gifted singer with a range of more than three octaves, Farinelli was given little choice but to sacrifice his manhood in exchange for his art.

He became famous across Italy for the purity of his soprano vocal skills, often performing en travesti (in women's clothing), and was acclaimed by audiences in Rome, Venice and eventually Vienna. It was from here that he received his most famous call - from none other than George Frederic Handel - to join the great composer's Academy in London. He was so adored by theatre audiences, noble patrons and critics alike that at one stage in the 1730s his earnings reached £5000 in a season, and cultural references were made to him by Hogarth and Voltaire.

From such fame, he received the most lucrative offer of his career - and left London to become personal chamber musician to the Spanish King Philip V and Queen Elisabetta. Farinelli gave nightly private concerts to the royal couple and organised performances by professional musicians in the royal palaces. In 1738 he arranged for an entire Italian opera company to visit Madrid, a spectacle so popular that the Coliseo of the royal palace of Buen Retiro was remodelled, and became Madrid's only opera house.

After the deaths of Philip and his successor King Ferdinand, Farinelli relocated to Bologna, where he lived in retirement from 1761 until his death. His estate included gifts from royalty (including the French King Louis XV, who gave him his portrait set in diamonds) and numerous paintings including works by Velázquez, Murillo and Jusepe de Ribera.

One can only imagine what a Farinelli performance must have been like, but here, from the 1994 film about his life, is what I would guess to be a fair approximation:

Farinelli (24th January 1705 – 16th September 1782)


  1. One of the best movies I ever saw. I just watched it again a month ago for the first time in almost 2 decades. Wow.

    1. I only recently stumbled across this marvellous slice of campness - I have put it on my list to find and watch... Jx


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