“The Last Castrato,” by Guy Frederick Glass

Gay psychiatrist Guy Frederick Glass has written an interesting play probing the career of "the last castrato," Alessandro Moreschi, who sang in the Sistine Chapel Choir and is the only castrato to have actually made sound recordings – late in his career.  Glass's play was undoubtedly significantly aided by the advice and support of his partner, Dr. Lewis Baratz, a musicologist who contributed an interesting note on the castrati for the program book of the production at the Connelly Theater in the East Village and served as music director for the production.

How much of this play and its plotting is based on documented fact and how much is imaginative recreation is not made clear by the notes in the program book.  The general idea is that until the "reforms" introduced by Pope Pius X, the high voice parts in the Sistine Chapel Choir were sung by castrati.  Castrati were men who had been castrated in youth to prevent their voices from breaking into lower registers – a practice that began in the Baroque period in Italy when castrati were among the most highly sought-after performers for their distinctive blend of the high, clear voice of a boy together with the maturity and lung capacity of a man.  That this practice would have developed in Italy is attributed in part to the church's prohibition on the use of women in the sacred church choirs, and the civil prohibition on women appearing on the stage.  The castrati could portray female roles in opera and oratorio, and sing the highest lines in the polyphonic music performed in church.

Moreschi was a late example of the species, having been born in 1858 and thus castrated in the mid-1860s, by which time the practice was largely dying out as the use of high-voiced men to sing female roles in opera had dissipated due to changing mores and the desire for realistic casting with the emergence of musical drama in the mature stage works of Mozart and his successors.  The Sistine Chapel Choir was one of the last bastions of castrato singers, who were beloved by the Pope who came before Pius.

Moreschi joined the choir at a time when certain authorities within the church were eager to end the participation of castrati.  The play presents us with the co-director of the choir, Mustafa, as a castrato whose voice has faded but who as a teacher takes Moreschi under his wing.  Another castrato in the choir, Cesari, is presented as an effeminate, queeny gay man who is instantly infatuated with Moreschi and eager to make him his lover.  Moreschi's own sexuality is a bit confused, but eventually resolves towards heterosexuality despite his inability to perform sexually.  The other main characters include Cardinal Sarto (the future pope), who is determined to end the use of castrati, and Father Perosi, co-director of the choir and Sarto's confederate.  In a bit of nasty twist, there is a broad suggestion of an ulterior motive by Perosi, who is presented as a pedophile who is eager to substitute boys for the castrati in order to give himself unholy access…, and the suggestion that Sarto is aware of this and uses it to enlist Perosi in his schemes.

How much of this is factual and how much supposition is, as I noted above, unclear.  But I can report that the play itself is fascinating, the cast, made up of Equity members to an extent that seems unusual for such a production, is strong overall, and the costumes and sets seem appropriate to the period.  John Henry Davis has directed with great affection for the production and the subject matter.

Since the actors are not singers and music is central to the story, the playwright adopted the device of having an actual counter-tenor (a modern quasi-equivalent to a castrato) sing some of Moreschi's repertory, as appropriate to the plot, from a platform set above and to the rear of the action.  The counter-tenor, Joseph Hill, sings well – although his accomplishment here pales compared to some of the great counter-tenors who have emerged in recent years: Jaroussky, Daniels, Asawa, Taylor….  But he is adequate to the task, although those attending the play should be aware that this is not what a real castrato sounded like.  (Moreschi's records were made too late in his career, and too early in the history of recording, to give us a full idea, either, but he didn't sound like a modern countertenor.  When the movie "Farinelli" was made  several years ago about a great 18th century castrato, the soundtrack recording was doctored to digitally mingle a soprano and a counter-tenor in order to approximate the supposed sound of a castrato…)

A word about the cast members.  Frank Anderson was quite entertaining as old Mustafa, Jonathan Tindle appropriately evil as Perosi, Liam Torres smarmy and smirky as Sarto (and later Pope Pius), and Abe Goldfarb particularly amusing as Fred Gaisberg, the early Gramophone Company recording engineer and entrepreneur today celebrated for having made not only the first recordings of Enrico Caruso and other notables of the early 20th century but also Moreschi.  Women in the cast include Bethe Austin as Mrs. Bristed, an American tourist infatuated with the Sistine Choir, and Melissa Miller as Lillie, a vocal student of Moreschi who also becomes his love interest. 

Saving the most significant for last, there are Jacob Pinion as Moreschi and Doug Kreeger as Cesari.  I had a problem with Mr. Pinion's stage manner – I thought he smiled too much and too constantly. Perhaps this was an attempt to present Moreschi as a very happy, even-tempered man, but it seemed to me discordant with much of the plot and at times absolutely incongruous.  Otherwise, he filled the role reasonably well. As to Doug Kreeger, I thought his performance was really "over the top" and might have been a bit more effective if a bit more restrained.  The theater is small enough that a more subtle performance could work and convey the character's passion without quite so much ecstatic swooning and exaggerated gesturing.  On the other hand, both of these gentlemen were certainly entertaining, and one assumes they were doing what the director asked them to do.

Certainly anybody interested in the phenomenon of the castrati will find this production of interest, there is plenty of entertainment for more general music lovers, and the printed program distributed for the performance is itself worth the modest price of admission, having been conceived as if a product of the period of the plot (1903-4), with period advertising and extensive notes by playwright, musicologist, counter-tenor, and director.  I had a great time.  The remaining performances are on Nov. 18, 19, 20 (matinee and evening), 21, 26, 27, 28 (matinee), and December 1, 2, 3 and 4.  Tickets can be purchased on-line at www.BrownPaperTickets.com .

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