Many contemporary opera-lovers must rue that they can never hear such 19th century icons as Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient or Adolphe Nourrit or the Garcia sisters, Maria Malibran and Pauline Viardot. But my impossible wish would be to hear one of the great castrati who dominated opera for most of the 18th century. I’m not the only one intrigued by these (mercifully) now-extinct musical anomalies—it’s a fascination that continues into the 21st century as heard on three variously compelling recent castrato-oriented CDs by countertenors David Hansen, Franco Fagioli and Philippe Jaroussky. In addition, the latter’s current US tour stopped by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Grace Rainey Rogers auditorium Tuesday evening.

The demanding life of a singer often requires a challenging combination of commitment and hard work, but no sacrifice compares to the practice which flourished from the 16th to the 19th century where thousands of young boys were castrated in order to preserve their high singing voices. During their heyday in the 18th century, the greatest castrati were “rock stars,” the world’s highest paid performers and much beloved by royalty, the clergy and ordinary opera fans. But they gradually lost their allure so that by the time of Meyerbeer and Rossini (both of whom wrote roles for Giovanni Battista Velutti), “musical” castration had nearly died out.

Contemporary reports praising the enthralling effect of castrati (nearly always Italian) necessarily remain mystifying today. Yes, there are a few recordings by one of the last castrati, the undistinguished Alessandro Moreschi born in the 1850s who, like the hundreds of castrati who did not achieve fame and fortune, spent his musical life as a church singer. However, he alone ventured into the recording studio in 1902 and 1904 and through him we have the barest glimpses of what a castrato sounded like.

Yet these do not begin to convey the phenomenon that bewitched most of Europe (excepting France, of course) for decades.

One intriguing facet of the public’s fascination with castrati is that many were also worshipped as erotic beings—in fact, many ladies of the upper classes sought to become their mistresses (marriage to a castrato being forbidden by the church). To snag a celebrated singer was a coup, particularly when that lover presented no danger of causing pregnancy. The complex love lives of castrati have provided rich material for a few authors, particularly Honoré de Balzac whose haunting Sarrasine found its ideal commentator in Roland Barthes who used it as the focus of his rigorous study S/Z.

A more contemporary take is Anne Rice’s 1982 Cry to Heaven which I dimly remember succeeding more as gay porn than as a portrait of the 18th century operatic milieu.

Women have been at the forefront of recent rediscoveries of music for castrati: Vivica Genaux’s 2002 recording of “Arias for Farinelli” thrust the Alaskan mezzo into worldwide prominence and also introduced many to music by Nicola Porpora, Geminiano Giacomelli and Riccardo Broschi, Farinelli’s brother. Cecilia Bartoli’s tremendous Sacrificium not only presented premiere recordings of most of its fifteen rare arias but also included (in its deluxe edition) an invaluable 150-page compendium of information about all things castrato.

And I was lucky enough to hear one of Ann Hallenberg’s glorious concerts with Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques dedicated to music written for Farinelli. London’s Wigmore Hall on April 28 will hear Hallenberg and Rousset in what I understand will be the final stop on that long tour–an unmissable event.

Much of this interest in Farinelli (born Carlo Boschi in 1705) can surely be traced to the popular success of Gérard Corbiau’s purple 1995 film about that most famous castrato. Unfortunately for all its visual dazzle and lurid preoccupation with his love life, the film drops the musical ball when it seeks to replicate the castrato’s voice by electronically combining those of Polish soprano Ewa Malas-Godlewska and American countertenor Derek Lee Ragin—a bizarre notion which proved utterly unsuccessful.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that today’s most popular countertenor, Jaroussky (the subject of a 2010 attention-grabbing profile in The New York Times Magazine) has now turned his attention to Farinelli for a new Erato CD dedicated solely to music from seven operas composed for the castrato by the great Neapolitan master Porpora, who was also famed as a singing teacher and whose greatest pupils were Caffarelli and Farinelli. While capable of dizzying florid singing, both were perhaps even more celebrated, like Jaroussky, for their performances of pathetic arias.

I have gone back and forth about this CD, accompanied by the Venice Baroque Orchestra, conducted by its founder and music director Andrea Marcon, since I first heard it. I have to admit that I’ve always been a bit baffled by the ethereal-voiced Jaroussky and his fanatical followers—the woman sitting next to me gave him a standing ovation in the middle of concert!

He has always struck me as a peculiarly circumscribed singer—wonderful in slow, melancholic music but out of his depth in bravura pieces, and his range can be quite limited—a wonderfully eloquent middle and upper middle voice with a wiry top and a hollow bottom. But he’s been wise to avoid the heroic repertoire, other than a single performance of Handel’s Rinaldo early in his career.

“Mira in cielo” from Arianna e Teseo opens the CD badly—its labored coloratura exposing the flaws in Jaroussky’s technique, but thankfully things improve in another showy aria, “Nell’attendere il mio bene” from Polifemo. Like other of his recordings, this disk again demonstrates his exquisite handling of several sublimely beautiful slow arias, including “Alto Giove” from Polifemo–long a Jaroussky showpiece–and Achille’s yearning “Nel già bramoso petto” from Ifigenia in Aulide.

Returning the favor for his appearing on her Mission CD of music by Agostino Steffani, Bartoli joins Jaroussky for two short duets.

The program for Tuesday’s concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was never announced, but one assumed it would be the same all-Porpora evening that Jaroussky toured widely across Europe last fall. Unfortunately this was not the case—instead we got a program entitled “A Legendary Battle: Farinelli & Porpora vs. Carestini & Handel,” a relatively short show of six arias and two Handel concerti grossi; another important castrato, Carestini was the subject of a 2006 Jaroussky recording.

Much might have been said about this “battle,” but sadly the program notes contained only one short paragraph of introduction and no texts or translations. And given that Jaroussky has been recording and performing for the past fifteen years, even though he’s just 36, I don’t think he can continue to claim to be the “young countertenor” as his bio suggested.

Again accompanied here by the Venice Baroque Orchestra (but without Marcon), Jaroussky sang three arias by Porpora and three by Handel—they, like the Farinelli CD, amply demonstrated what he does very well—and what he doesn’t do well. Like the CD, the concert opened with the Arianna e Teseo aria in which he struggled even more than on the recording, but the follow-up, “Si pietoso il tuo labbro” from Semiramide riconoscuta was exquisite—he beautifully spun-out Mirteo’s reverie on his love for Tamiri.

The Handel pair, a fiery “Agitato da fiere tempeste” (ostensibly written for Carestini for Oreste, a pasticcio, it’s actually a slight tweak of an aria for Senesino from Riccardo Primo, an opera Fagioli has been performing in Karlsruhe) and an aching “Scherza infida,” again illustrated the singer’s weaknesses and strengths, with the Ariodante piece growing increasingly despairing, arresting in its quiet intensity,.

After an expectedly fine “Alto Giove,” the concert closed with a rambunctious “Sta nell’incarna” from Alcina, precisely the kind of martial aria that Jaroussky should not sing, and his back-and-forth with the horns at the end unfortunately descended into camp, although it was still superior to the hot mess that Susan Graham made of this same aria the following evening in The Enchanted Island at the Met.

Despite his missteps, Jaroussky remains an appealing, moving artist, yet it’s difficult to say the same yet about the ambitious Australian countertenor David Hansen whose first solo recital CD Rivals: Farinelli & Co. tackles some of the most difficult arias written for castrati, although only four of the nine arias (mostly by the Leonardos, Vinci and Leo) are Farinelli’s.

The aggressive and bright-voiced Hansen first made news eight years ago when he headlined an international tour by René Jacobs and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment of Handel’s Solomon as a replacement (for Lawrence Zazzo?) in the title role. My primary recollection of the Alice Tully Hall concert was of Hansen helplessly over his head in the exquisite music. Afterward he seemed to disappear for a while but resurfaced in productions by the Pinchgut Opera in his homeland and in concerts in Norway where he now lives with his Norwegian-born wife.

Along with some recent provocative stage appearances, Rivals’s CD booklet features a smoldering photo of the singer bare-chested and bare-footed suggesting that barihunks are not the only ones working hard to be appreciated as much for their physical as their vocal attributes.

This pandering wouldn’t be so troubling if Hansen’s singing was consistently first-rate, although the bathtub rendition of the Cavalli gem is more appealing than much of Rivals. Like Jaroussky, his voice sits slightly higher than other countertenors, although listening to the CD I wished he’d stick to a lower tessitura. He too prospers in slower arias, like “Sento due fiamme in petto” from Vinci’s Il Medo, unfortunately his gummy diction interferes with his ability to transform this aria into something really moving.

But the florid singing is where he really gets into trouble. Although he displays an enviable enthusiasm, there is entirely too much screaming and scooping. Much has been made of Hansen’s including the original, less demanding version of the famous Son qual nave by Farinelli’s brother; it’s good to have it recorded and happily it avoids turning into the mess that “Talor che irato e il vento” from Leo’s Andromaca becomes. Mercifully nothing on Rivals descends to the level of Jörg Waschinski’s performances on his CD of music composed by Farinelli; the music is occasionally fascinating but the singing is truly awful.

One of the least satisfactory aspects of Rivals is its orchestra, the Academia Montis Regalis conducted from the harpsichord by its director Alessando De Marchi. For some reason, despite a full complement of winds and brass, there are just five string players, one per part. The orchestral sound seemed scrawny when I first listened to the CD and the booklet revealed why—what an odd decision!

Although he hadn’t exactly been hiding (I heard him as Tolomeo in Giulio Cesare in Paris in 2006), Argentinian countertenor Franco Fagioli finally exploded onto the international scene two years ago with Virgin Classics’s stellar recording of Vinci’s Artaserse, where amidst an all-male cast including five countertenors (with Jaroussky in the title role), Fagioli’s spectacular and wrenching Arbace stole the show. Now, he has made history again with Näive’s Arias for Caffarelli, one of the most important and exciting baroque vocal recitals ever recorded.

Like Farinelli, Caffarelli was a pupil of Porpora, and legend contends that he gave the renamed Gaetano Majorano just a single page of vocal exercises to practice for six years! The composer then proclaimed him the finest singer in Europe whereupon Caffarelli made his operatic debut at 16 as a female character (not an unusual circumstance for a young castrato).

Happily, a stirring aria with trumpet obbligato from that opera–Valdemaro by Domenico Sarro–is included on the CD. While Farinelli was kind and generous, Caffarelli, a notorious womanizer, was vain and difficult, to the extreme of mocking colleagues on stage, yet his brilliant singing allowed him to hold much of the continent in his thrall.

Some have bemoaned the absence of music from the two operas that Handel wrote for Cafarelli, Faramondo and Serse, but the focus on the opulent Neapolitan school yields rare gems from forgotten composers like Pasquale Cafaro that I relish hearing.

Fagioli wields a prodigious, if controversial technique that includes an extraordinary range for a countertenor wedded to dazzling coloratura skills. Not unlike his mentor Bartoli, it is not a seamless instrument—a thrilling, bright top descends into a full and slightly plummy middle and then into a brash, baritone-like bottom, and his always bold singing isn’t afraid to recklessly dash between these disparate registers. Perhaps this is why his singing has been unduly criticized, particularly by critics from the UK, since he couldn’t be more different from practitioners of the more modest English style.

Although this recording has been most acclaimed for its bravura arias including its single smashing Porpora selection “Passaggier che sulla sponda” from Semiramide riconosciuta (which vividly displays Fagioli’s startlingly wide range), the slow arias are also extremely well done, particularly the one aria of the thirteen that I was already familiar with: “Lieto così talvolta” from Pergolesi’s Adriano in Siria which features an elaborately eloquent oboe obbligato. It’s a piece I first heard in high school when I discovered it on an LP from the public library of Bethany Beardslee singing 18th century music.

In this extravagant castrato repertoire, Fagioli has been accused of being a showboat, as if flamboyance is the last thing one would want. But Caffarelli’s music revels in some of the most awe-inspiring baroque bravura ever recorded. The final cut of the CD—an astonishing martial aria “Od oil suono di tromba guerriera” from Lucio Papiro dittatore by the heretofore unknown (to me) Gennaro Manna—features jaw-dropping vocal gymnastics unlike anything I’ve ever heard before from a countertenor.

Fagioli is immeasurably aided on this project by the superb orchestra Il Pomo d’Oro conducted by Riccardo Minasi. As fine as the group’s playing on two countertenor recitals which were recorded simultaneously with Fagioli’s, Max Emanuel Cencic’s Venezia and Xavier Sabata’s Bad Guys, Minasi’s band here rises to positively inspired heights here providing vibrant support to Fagioli with particularly impressive horn and trumpet playing.

Never before on any of these “castrato tribute” CDs (which also include Iestyn Davies’s Guadagni—The First Modern Castrato and Dmitry Egorov’s Il primo uomo ~ Arias for Nicolini) have I felt even a glimmer what it must have been like to live during the time of Caffarelli and his peers, but Fagioli and Minasi make these arias live in a way that I’d thought I’d never hear—it’s almost like being at the Teatro San Carlo in 1739.

It’s providential that a fan has paraphrased an old saying about Farinelli to now read: “One God, one Fagioli.” The great news is the divo has already set down his Porpora CD, due out next year on Näive; let’s pray that the Academia Montis Regalis and De Marchi are on better form than they are on Rivals! And a sequel of sorts to that revelatory Artaserse is being recorded this week: Vinci’s Catone in Utica with Minasi conducting Il Pomo d’Oro and Fagioli leading another all-male cast in Carestini’s role of Cesare.

All around the “castrato” trend continues: Fagioli appears at June’s Salzburg Pfingsten Festival singing 19th century music for Velutti; the delicious Romanian countertenor Valer Barna-Sabadus has recently recorded a CD of music by Gluck composed for Giuseppe Millico; and Stile Galante is fund-raising for a recording featuring Ann Hallenberg in music written for one of the greatest castrati; I know who it is, but I may not tell–the resulting CD should be marvelous!

(Full disclosure: three years ago when La Cieca and I first discussed my writing for Parterre Box, I decided to adopt a nom de guerre. Since I expected that my pieces would deal more often than not with 18th century topics, I set about trying to come up with a name. Since caffeine is not my friend and the title role of one of my favorite operas, Handel’s Serse, was written for Caffarelli, I came up with “DeCaf.” However, somehow an extra “r” showed up in “DeCaffarrelli”—I suspect I submitted it that way by mistake to La C, but I didn’t realize until after a number of pieces had appeared on Parterre that I had screwed up. But I have since learned to embrace my extra consonant.)