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You must meet my knife

castratoWhich cord does one snip to make a castrato? So goes a running joke in The Last Castrato by Guy Fredrick Glass, a play about Alessandro Moreschi, the last living castrato and the only one ever recorded. Much of his career was spent as the first soprano of the Sistine Chapel Choir, both because of his virtuosity and because there were no other venues open to castrati by the end of the 19th century. Those who take issue at Stoppard or Shaffer are probably not going to be pleased with the historical accuracy, but Glass presents a chilling image of the last castrati growing old and watching their former patrons enforce silence upon them.

The play takes place in the Vatican, opening with the arrival of Moreschi, played by Jacob Pinion. The other castrati anticipate this new virtuoso as their savior, while the fully-corded members of the clergy see him as a threat to their plans of reform. As happens in such plays, another castrato named Giovanni Cesare (Doug Kreeger) develops a huge crush on Moreschi, who has his eyes set on a young American widow named Lillie (Melissa Miller). All of the Vatican, in fact seems rather gay, with the soon to be pontified Sarto (Liam Torres) and the choir director Perosi (Jonathan Tindle) bantering like the queens on The A-List – and these are the two with balls intact. Of course when Cesare kisses Moreschi, all hell breaks loose.

With heavy themes of masculinity, homosexuality, and even pederasty, Glass wisely uses a keen sense of humor to keep the audience focused. Unfortunately the cast is uneven, and only a few of the actors are able to make the witty language sparkle with Wildean innuendo. Pinion lacks the wattage and charisma one needs to see from the last true male diva, and as a result he sometimes disappears behind the larger story of religious politics. Special notice goes to scene stealer Bethe Austin as Mrs Bristed, another American widow with an inability to understand the mechanics of castratoism.

In an otherwise conventional staging, John Henry Davis makes a wise choice of placing countertenor Joseph Hill on a platform above the actors to portray Moreschi’s voice. The Connelly Theater is an intimate space, and using a live, unamplified performer shows a level of respect for singing that is rare on New York theatre stages today. When Moreschi hears his “recorded” voice for the first time, it is actually a live performance – by far the strangest rendition of “Addio, senza rancor” imaginable. Hill’s voice floats easily through the house with the sweetness one imagines of the castrati, sounding like an echo of something past.

Like the more successful historical fantasies that have gained popularity on stages and film screens, The Last Castrato is interesting because it draws the past into the struggles of the present. The political agendas of patrons are a source of much debate on this blog, from the Kochs to the Basses. And if anything, the gray areas overlapping sexuality and religion have only increased as they have begun to become a part of public and legal discourse. Like Moreschi’s recordings, The Last Castrato is a treat for the viewers who can see past the imperfections to a voice of great beauty.

Photo: Ashley Anderson.

6 comments

  • Constantine A. Papas says:

    Anatomicaly and physiologically speaking is wrong to equate castrati with countertenors. Countertenors have the vocal cords of a grown man, regardless of sexual orientation, trained to sing head-falsetto voice. Castration before puberty delays the growth of the vocal cords- they remain short and thin- that they look like the cords of a mezzo’s or even a soprano’s. A mezzo’s voice is closer to the castrato’s timbre than the voice of a countertenor whose timbre is rather monochromatic and tedious. Castration, though, does not stop the developement of the rest of the body. With a man’s size chest and icreased lung capacity, castrati produced bigger volume voice than mezzos. That’s what the advandage of countertenors is in comparison to mezzos: the size of the voice but not the color.

    • Cocky Kurwenal says:

      Beg to differ, pace your medical knowledge, Constantine. Even really excellent, full, well released counter-tenor voices like that of David Daniels and his ilk seem quite a bit smaller than your average lyric mezzo. Daniels himself says he always tries as far as possible to do what directors ask of him, while making sure he always hangs out practically in front of the proscenium arch.

      • lorenzo.venezia says:

        I heard Daniels in Gluck’s Orfeo at the Ordway theater in St. Paul last month, which is roughly the size of the Prinzregenten Theater. Clarion highs, but the middle and bottom disappeared, flat out. However the orfeo-eurydice duet with Susanna Phillips was gorgeous, the voices blended beautifully and without the stenorian solo voice it was a more fully audible and yes, sung up front.

  • overexposedamericansoprano says:

    “Countertenors have the vocal cords of a grown man, regardless of sexual orientation.”

    Has there been some question of disparity between straight vocal cords and gay vocal cords?

  • Constantine A. Papas says:

    No, it has not. I may add that testosterone deficiency, though, can arrest the developement of the vocal cords without castration.

  • lastcastrato says:

    As the author of the “The Last Castrato,” I want to thank those Parterrians who have been checking out our play. And I want to extend the half-price offer (only $9 a ticket!) to the next four performances: tonight Sunday 21st at 8, Friday the 26th at 8, Saturday the 27th at 8, and Sunday the 28th at 3. All information about the venue and cast can be found at http://www.lastcastrato.com. Tickets can be purchased at the door, cash only. Furthermore, I am pleased to say that, in addition to the lovely review on Parterre, we have had eight other splendid reviews. Here are links to two of them: http://www.edgenewyork.com/index.php?ch=entertainment&sc=theatre&sc2=&sc3=performance&id=113088 and…. http://www.nytheatre.com/nytheatre/showpage.php?t=last11124
    If you want to enter the world of Nordica, Melba, Caruso, and the early days of the gramophone, for less than half the price of a CD, there are eight remaining performances!