Echo: Castrato Virtuosity Recaptured

Echo: Castrato Virtuosity Recaptured
Silviu Purcarete’s 2012 Production of Leonardo Vinci’s Artaserse

            Every opera performance occurs in a unique historical and cultural context. Despite this, it is possible for a performance to honor the spirit of the work’s era while effectively imparting that spirit to an audience of a different time.[1] Leonardo Vinci’s Artaserse, a setting of Pietro Metastasio’s popular libretto, however, offers particular challenges for modern audiences. A dramma per musica, its musical conventions and betrayal plot were designed to highlight the effusive virtuosity of the five castrati (and one tenor), playing both male and female characters, in the cast of the 1730 premiere.[2] Despite their high vocal range and emasculate characteristics, castrati were perceived more as otherworldly or inhuman than effeminate due to their enormous proportions and mastery of singing that went beyond singers of “normal” fächer.[3] Without access to castrati, modern reproductions risk losing the opera’s existential core, the music’s inhuman castrato virtuosity. Silviu Purcarete’s 2012 production at Opéra National de Lorraine, boasting a cast of five countertenors and one tenor, parries this hazard. Clever casting ties characterization to vocal timbre rather than vocal range, presenting gender trait stereotypes in both male and female characters to create the perception of a genderless, virtuosic voice capable of almost inhuman versatility. Supporting this, exaggerated costuming technically assigns character gender, nevertheless accentuates blurred gender characterization, and is itself virtuosic. Finally, Verfremdungseffekt forces these countertenors-as-castrati into the showcase of the theatre through revealed performativity.[4] The Purcarete production captures the soul of Vinci’s Artaserse, offering audiences an echo of the otherworldly castrati virtuosity that in 1730 evoked such awe, while questioning the hunger, then and now, for that virtuosity.
            While in mounting Artaserse several accepted methods of handling castrati roles are available, the selection not only of countertenors but of the particular countertenors in the Purcarete production undermines reactive gender biases, emphasizing the virtuosic experience of the castrato performance. Standard practices reviving castrati roles utilize either women, tenors, or countertenors.[5] Purcarete’s decision to use countertenors automatically reflects the castrato experience of the premiere, with five men singing in female range regardless of their character gender. To obviate modern perceptions of countertenor effeminacy due to range or timbre, casting emphasizes the dichotomy of a robust, ringing voice and a sweeter, softer voice. This spreads stereotypical gender traits of aggressive masculinity or weak femininity across both male and female characters, leaving costuming to definitively determine their character gender and emphasizing instead countertenors performing virtuosically across a huge dramatic palette, just as the castrati did.
            Both the eponymous Artaserse and his best friend Arbace are male characters, played by men, with vocal lines in the typically female range. Comparing just their first arias, however, reveals starkly different countertenor voices that augment dramatic context, tempo, and aria flavor to support characterization. Franco Fagioli’s rich, woody voice is immediately thrown into rapid-fire coloratura in the renowned bravura aria “Fra cento affani,” staged with him holding a sword (13:40-17:12).[6] Fagioli even dips into the chest-voice portion of his range in order to demonstrate Arbace’s exasperated conviction against his father’s cruel act of murder. The slower B section of the aria emphasizes this throatiness further, allowing the tone to expand before throwing Fagioli back to the presto da capo. Fagioli’s dark timbre thus amplifies the aria’s heroic, stereotypically masculine tone, honorably raging through highly ornamented coloratura against a family member. Artaserse’s first aria, by contrast, is a stereotypically feminine declaration of love for Semira. Philippe Jaroussky’s silvery voice lacks the thrust and apparent size of Fagioli’s but virtually floats through the andante “Per pietà, bell'idol mio,” ornamented by sweet trills and pianissimi instead of rending sixteenth note runs (25:42-30:57). Jaroussky’s voice, light and angelic, characterizes Artaserse as a naïve new king who would prefer to pursue his love of Semira but must (at first incompetently, resulting in the death of an innocent) cope with the burden of a kingship surrounded by disloyal enemies.

A survey of the leads’ remaining arias reveals the development of this vocal characterization throughout the opera. Arbace’s “Vo solcando un mar crudele” (1:09:20-1:16:32), also presto and invested by Fagioli with the greatest coloratura virtuosity in the opera, represents a peak of his heroic strength. His later arias, “Mi scacci sdegnato!” (1:23:30-1:30:30), “Per quel paterno amplesso” (2:04:29-2:10:28), and “Perché tarda è mai la morte” (2:29:35-2:32:36) slow from andante to tempo giusto to grave e staccato as he clings to his honor but becomes increasingly helpless. Conversely, Artaserse’s “Deh respirar lasciatemi" (49:00-53:25), “Rendimi il caro amico” (1:17:43-1:21:33), and “Non conosco in tal momento” (2:20:53-2:24:54) increase in speed from moderato to allegro to an allegro with more coloratura as he affirms his faith in Arbace, gaining kingly decisiveness by freeing his friend. When they are reunited with back-to-back arias, Arbace’s andante “L’onda dal mar divisa” (2:34:30-2:40:25) is slower than Artaserse’s allegro "Nuvoletta opposta al sole” (2:41:11-2:43:55) but both arias are immensely virtuosic, employing lengthy melismatic passages. Arbace has not declined; rather, he has endured captivity and condemnation without abdicating morality. Meanwhile, Artaserse has risen to become a capable king of both morals and strength. As these developments occur, a softer, sweeter, more stereotypically effeminate voice demonstrates both naïveté and strength and a stronger, darker, more stereotypically masculine voice demonstrates both heroism and helplessness. Both voices relate more distinctly to character development than to gender by executing virtuosity in both controlled, sweet arias and raging torrents of song.
            The rest of the countertenor cast also supports this strategy of tying voices to characterization rather than gender, in this case across a range of different static rather than similar dynamic characters. Both women’s first arias mourn parting with their lovers. Max Emanuel Cencic’s balanced, brightly virile voice fits Mandane’s first allegro aria “Conservati fedele,” (10:32-12:38), a secure, almost masculine affirmation of love for Arbace. Valer Barna-Sabadus’ lighter voice, ranging from slightly smokier than Jaroussky in the low range to pristinely flute-like in higher registers, fits Semira, a character frequently put in a weak, stereotypically feminine position. Her first aria "Bramar di perdere troppo affetto" (37:09-41:42) is essentially a controlled, andante lament of Artaserse’s absence. When Semira learns of Arbace’s perceived betrayal, she responds meekly, asking for proof of innocence in the allegro “Torna innocente e poi,” (58:17-1:03:17). In contrast, Mandane explodes in the presto torrent, “Dimmi che un empio sei,” (1:04:49-1:07:21) going to the extreme of declaring her former lover an enemy. Only Semira’s presto coloratura aria “Se del fiume altera l'onda” (1:53:20-1:57:26) appears to possess more verve in one dramatic moment than Mandane’s preceding aria, in tempo giusto, “Se d’un amor tiranno” (1:45:20-1:52:24). Barna-Sabadus’ softer voice, however, belies Semira’s sense of confusion, while Cencic’s more robust tone supports Mandane’s driven sadness at her lover’s perceived betrayal. In their final back to back appearances, Cencic’s voice possesses a piercing, crystalline quality that heightens the sharp floridity of Mandane’s second passionate, presto outburst, “Va’ tra le selve ircane,” (2:11:35-2:14:01), which contrasts with Semira’s allegretto “Per quell'affetto” (2:14:36-2:19:55), which is also accusatory, but lacks the same causticness, a difference emphasized by the difference in timbre. Megabise’s two declarations of lust for Semira, the allegro tour de force “Sogna il guerriere le schiere” (33:36-36:17), marked by martial rhythms and predatory imagery, and the allegro, “Non temer ch’io mai ti dica” (1:38:53-1:43:15), as well as his violent support in the presto “Ardito ti renda” (2:45:30-2:48:40) of Artabano’s plan to poison, Artaserse are augmented by Yuriy Mynenko’s slavically dark voice, the most bitingly steely of the cast. Thus, of these three countertenor roles, the parallel characters Mandane and Semira are both women played by men but demonstrate masculine and feminine traits based on vocal timbre. Meanwhile, Megabise is played by the steeliest, darkest countertenor voice, highlighting violent masculinity despite high range.
The casting decisions do not attempt to subvert stereotypes of gendered characteristics. Rather, they manipulate those stereotypes to subvert the inherent gendering of the countertenor voice, instead showing that voice as capable of portraying both male and female characters embodying a wide range of gender traits that both conform to and flout character gender. Hence, like castrati, countertenor becomes a voice type disassociated from a particular gender and defined by its capability for the virtuosity Vinci’s Artaserse demands.

            The costuming of the Purcarete production visually aids the primacy of versatile, gender-neutral virtuosity, defining character gender but supporting cross-gender characterization. It channels period dress but makes that dress itself virtuosic. Throughout the opera the ensemble of hoopskirts and rigid bodices worn by both Mandane and Semira define them as women, relying, like the castrati, on external costuming to define character gender rather than gendered characteristics inherent to the voice or body. Additionally, the similarity of the costumes illustrates that, dramaturgically, the two mirror each other, static, if very different, characters in love with men of power. In Acts I and III the nuanced difference in feather headdresses, Mandane with two “wings” and Semira with a single “mohawk,” helps further align the characters while subtly differentiating them. Costume color builds on these differences. Semira’s Act I outfit is pure white, representing her stereotypically feminine position as a helpless, indecisive reactionary to the actions of Artaserse and Arbace and her sexual objectification by Artabano and Megabise. In contrast, Mandane’s outfit is a greyish-black, representative of Mandane’s more stereotypically masculine declaration of love for Arbace and bellicose reaction to his perceived betrayal. In Act II the two women’s columnar hairdos mirror even more completely, highlighting Semira’s seaweed colored dress against Mandane’s fiery red, reflecting Semira’s confused reaction to events compared to Mandane’s resolute conviction. Finally, in Act III, with the return of the headdresses and feathery skirts, Semira returns to her white dress, anointed with gold. Meanwhile, Mandane’s costume is white and blood red. Semira’s garb befits the anointed wife of a king while Mandane’s befits the fierce lover of a warrior who saves the life of his best friend and ruler. Hence, though costuming confirms both characters’ womanhood, it tracks with the casting in highlighting both masculine and feminine characteristics. Additionally, the costuming of the female characters in the Purcarete Artaserse, full of enormous outfits in bright colors with huge hairdos and feathered headdresses, is itself virtuosically over the top, heightening the perception of the countertenor voice’s function, like that of the castrato voice, as an inhumanly virtuosic entity supported by the drama.
Costuming for the opera’s male characters similarly defines their gender, represents their dramatic function, and is intrinsically virtuosic. For the men, Act II serves as the keystone in a sartorial palindrome in which the male characters’ appearances move from divergence to convergence and back again, separating the dynamic heroes from the static villains.[7] Arbace begins the opera in Act I wearing ashen floor-length robes that seem fitting for a courtier, sartorially masculine and richly clothed but not overly appointed. At the opera’s close, Arbace once again dons the same outfit, but in gold. He has progressed sartorially, as he has vocally, from a man tied to a murder at the beginning to a true, honorable friend who endured captivity and saved the king. Nevertheless, the bulbous shoulders, slimming robes, and outrageously tall hat reflect the over-the-top nature of the costume scheme, emphasizing otherworldly virtuosity. Artaserse’s Act I costumes, a white shift reminiscent of women’s Victorian undergarments and a goth outfit with a blade-like black mohawk and spiked pauldrons, represent his indecisive, stereotypically effeminate naïveté and the unjustly cruel violence it inflicts upon Dario. When he returns in Act III he is clothed ostentatiously in a white-feathered shawl that incorporates the mink so iconic of royalty and the largest headdress (among many large headdresses) in the opera, sporting gold crown and enormous black feathers. This costuming captures Artaserse growth into a capable, autonomous king, which reflects the interaction between Jaroussky’s voice and the role while itself reaching the pinnacle of visual virtuosity. By contrast, in Acts I and III the two villains wear only their dark or metallic colored, viciously predatory outfits. Artabano’s horned helment channels a bull or minotaur and Megabise’s feathered pauldrons a bird of prey. Only as Artabano must confess his guilt and Megabise returns from the dead in the victorious final chorus, “Giusto re, la Persia adora” do their costumes change, with Artabano’s pauldrons turned from black to white and Megabise in a golden breastplate. Hence, their costuming, like their timbres, represents their static villainy until the heroes force their repentance. Their costumes remain in scheme, however, virtuosically representing villainy through clothing that goes far beyond staid period accuracy.

The Act II costume of white coat, stockings, shoes, and wig worn by all four male characters represents a turning point as Arbace and Artaserse develop and Artabano and Megabise do not. Arbace is the first to don the outfit in Act I, scene xiv, losing the wig and neckpiece almost immediately as he despairs his disgrace. Meanwhile, because Artaserse remains in full regalia, his power over Arbace is clear. Once he also loses the wig at the end of Act II as he reels from the pain of condemning his best friend, the two have been reunited in sympathetic friendship. Indeed, at the opening of Act III during the rescue we see them clothed the same, as equals, before Artaserse offers Arbace his golden robes, restoring him with an upgrade that matches Artaserse’s own glorious clothing in the finale. By comparison, the villains spend all of Act II in the full regalia, with Megabise changing only for his resurrection in the finale and Artabano changing only halfway through Act III. These static villains are stuck in the rubric of the Act II outfits, continuing in them long after the heroes have begun to shed the scheme. This juxtaposition emphasizes in one act the development, or lack thereof, of four characters representing a huge range of masculine and feminine traits while clothing them in masculine attire matching their character gender. Meanwhile, the pompous ostentation of the outfits, which channel Le Grand Siècle and Louis XIV, go even further, giving “cat ears” to the wigs and representing the virtuosic opulence of that period.[8]

            Whether for male or female characters, the effect of the exaggerated costuming in the Purcarete production of Artaserse mirrors the effect of the casting, showing an enormous palette of characterization that, by blending stereotypical gender traits across character genders in keeping with castrati capabilities, emphasizes the virtuosity of the performers.
Lastly, the Purcarete Artaserse employs Verfremdungseffekt, putting these cleverly cast and clothed countertenors on display. This showcases their virtuosity so we may gaze upon it like voyeuristic observers watching an exotic animal in a cage.[9] The abstract set, with black turntable, Vitruvian Man-inspired backdrop, and sliding panels pointedly eschews period style, other than the clever pun. Instead, it is a space dominated by gaudy makeup tables downstage and clearly visible lights and other “theatre parts” backstage. Inhabiting the space are the “stagehands,” wearing backstage “blacks” and headsets but with faces painted white, matching the performers. This clear peeling back of the theatrical guise supports the Verfremdungseffekt principle of forcing audiences to be aware that they are witnessing theatre-making and not suspend disbelief by buying into the world of the drama. When the performers enter this world for the first time during the sinfonia, they are visible to the audience as costuming is donned, makeup is touched up, and collegial words are exchanged. This Verfremdungseffekt tactic supports gender-versatile virtuosity established by casting and costuming by displaying it, but simultaneously reveals the dark truth that in the ogled display-case of the theatre, the castrati were forced into the limelight precisely because of their fascinating inhumanness.

The Act I, scene xiv aria “Vo solcando un mar crudele,” sung by the primo uomo Arbace, is probably the opera’s showpiece and is the peak of the Verfremdungseffekt technique. A virtuosic “storm-at-sea simile aria” supported by raging strings that paint the stormy text and undergird the coloratura vocal line, it goes beyond Arbace’s diegetically patient disconsolation and hope to escape from condemnation, representing the virtuoso’s patient performing of his gift and hope he can escape from scrutiny.[10] Before the first A section of the ABCAB aria, Fagioli throws off his black cloak with vitality, accepting the attendants’ proffered wig and makeup assistance. After singing the entire text of the A section of the AB poem, even supporting it by fluttering his hands to represent waves and incorporating pseudo-Baroque acting gestures, he haughtily flips his jacket, thinking his job is done and heading upstage. The attendants bar his attempted escape, with one returning him downstage. When he sings the aria’s B section, a more virtuosic setting of the A text, his gestures also increase. He once again attempts to escape upstage, hoping he has fulfilled his duty but more attendants stop him, two returning him downstage where he sinks to his knees and sings the C section of the aria, which corresponds to the poem’s B section text, the most dejected. He ornaments the final cadence of this B section, creating a cadenza of enormous range worthy of an aria’s final cadence. Hoping this is sufficient but not trusting the attendants, he attempts to slyly escape stage right and is captured once more. Before beginning the A section of the da capo, he gestures to the attendants with both hands up, as though saying, “alright, once more.” This time, his ornamentation is exceptionally florid while his gestures become increasingly erratic, if still Baroque-like. In his final escape attempt, he throws off the wig, a clear gesture of finality. Still, the attendants capture him as he almost collapses, a virtuoso nearly spent. For the final B section, the most highly ornamented of the performance, they offer their arms to support him as he sings, helping him contain his even more erratic gestures and supporting him when he again almost collapses backwards. He even gestures to one attendant to return her arm to him, knowing he relies on them at this point. For the final cadenza, he tears off his neckpiece before soaring to a show-stopping C#5 in an ultimate show of finality. The audience roars and, their appetites satiated too, the attendants allow him to collapse back into their arms as they shower him with gold.
There is fame and adoration with acclaimed virtuosity. Like Fagioli at the beginning of the aria, many of the castrati appreciated this as much or more than modern performers.[11] The performance expectations virtuosity creates can also be an immense, exhausting weight, however, requiring consistent and even increasing feats to gratify listeners. Purcarete’s use of Vermfremdungseffekt throughout Artaserse puts virtuosity on display, highlighting it like the casting and costuming but also raising the question of its price. Indeed, no greater price can be levied than genital mutilation in pursuit of virtuosity.[12]
In 1730 Italy when Vinci’s Artaserse premiered, the castrato voice was admired for its sweet control, lightning coloratura, and unusual timbre, which in combination constituted inhuman, otherworldly virtuosity. Capturing the essence of Artaserse outside of the 18th century castrato-influenced context produces challenges. Silviu Purcarete’s 2012 production of Artaserse attempts to honor the centrality of castrato capabilities. Careful casting of five very specific countertenor voices with distinct timbres reflects the versatile, gender unspecific virtuosity of the castrati. Costuming, meanwhile, helps technically define character gender while visually reinforcing the versatility shown by the casting. Combined, these tactics create the perception that the countertenor voice, like the castrato voice, is less a feminine voice from a male body and more an otherworldly voice capable of singing across a huge range of both male and female characters. Taking these countertenor voices and putting them flagrantly on display through Verfremdungseffekt, the sense that the very purpose of these performances is virtuosity itself becomes even clearer. Simultaneously, however, the price of this exacting voyeurism that demands so much from these virtuosos is also revealed. Purcarete’s Artaserse pursues an echo of the 1730 experience of castrato virtuosity, but also warns of the dark cost of that seductive echo.


Bergeron, Katherine. “The Castrato as History.” Cambridge Opera Journal 8 (Summer 1996): 167-184.

Carlin, Francis. “Artaserse, Opéra national de Lorraine, Nancy.” Financial Times, November 6, 2012,

Dame, Joke. “Unveiled Voices: Sexual Difference and the Castrato.” In Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology, edited by Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood, and Gary C. Thomas, 139-153. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Feldman, Martha. Opera and Sovereignty: Transforming Myths in Eighteenth-Century Italy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Markstrom, Kurt Sven. The Operas of Leonardo Vinci, Napoletano. OPERA Series 2. Hillsdale: Pendragon Press, 2005.

Schafer, Elizabeth. “The male gaze in Woyzeck: re-presenting Marie and madness.” In Madness in Drama, edited by James Redmond, 55-63. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Taruskin, Richard. “The Limits of Authenticity: A Contribution.” In Text and Act, edited by Richard Taruskin, 67-82. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Troy, Timothy X. “Brecht: The Life of Galileo.” Freshman Studies Lecture, Freshman Studies Lecture Series from Lawrence University, Appleton, 18 September 2013.

All score references and markings taken from at the links listed below:

All timings taken from now deprecated YouTube videos. At time of submission “Vo solcando un mar crudele” is available at this link:

     [1] Taruskin, 78-81.
     [2] Though the premiere was primarily adhering to the Roman edict that forbade women from performing, it only offered greater opportunity for presentation of castrato virtuosity. Feldman, 5-11, 248-249.
     [3] Dame, 142-144.
     [4] “Alienation effect,” a theory devised by Bertolt Brecht. Troy, “Brecht: The Life of Galileo.”
     [5] Dame, 148-151.
     [6] Feldman, 253.
     [7] Carlin, “Artaserse, Opéra national de Lorraine, Nancy.”
     [8] Ibid.
     [9] Schafer, 55-56.
     [10] Markstrom, 309-314.
     [11] Bergeron, 167-170.
     [12] Ibid., 170-174.


Popular posts from this blog

Wiener Staatsoper, The Insanity of All: Richard Strauss' "Salome"