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Howard, Patricia. The Modern Castrato: Gaetano Guadagni and the Coming of a New Operatic Age.

Howard, Patricia. The Modern Castrato: Gaetano Guadagni and the Coming of a New Operatic Age. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Cloth, xiv, 238 pp., $41.95. ISBN 9780-19-936520-3

In many ways, the life of Gaetano Guadagni (1728-1792) was typical of a mid-18th century castrato: he was an itinerant singer who had professional engagements across Europe and who held a church position when he was not traveling. In other ways, however, Guadagni was remarkable. Most notably, he was the first Orfeo in Orfeo ed Euridice by Christoph Gluck. For any singer, the distinction of creating a role is meritorious, but this opera, which paved the way for realism and natural presentation and marked the transition from Baroque to classical opera, is extremely important in music history. Moreover, Guadagni wholeheartedly embraced the dramatic reforms envisioned by Gluck and librettist Ranieri de' Calzabigi. He was a singer who was not only in the right place at the right time, but who also astutely recognized the artistic significance of the work.

This volume, however, is more than a history of Guadagni; it offers insight into the life of a castrato in the mid-18th century. While the amount of information about each castrato's life varies, there is a consistent lack of information of the surgical procedure itself. The legality of the operation in the 18th century is unclear, and little information about it is available. Charles Burney, the famous diarist whose writing illuminates many of the practices and mores of the period, lamented that he "... could get no certain intelligence" on the subject. Unlike some boys who were castrated in the hopes that a musical career would develop, Guadagni was born into a musical family, and exhibited vocal talent as a boy. By the time he was eighteen, he had earned a place in the choir of the Santo in Padua, an institution with which Guadagni would maintain ties throughout his life.

Howard traces Guadagni's path across Europe, from Italy to England, France, Portugal, Germany, and Austria. Such travel was typical of operatic singers of the era. His first trip was to London in 1748, where he appeared with a buffa troupe under the direction of John Francis Croza. His voice caught the attention of Handel, and in 1750, Guadagni joined the company of singers whom the composer directed in the performance of his oratorios. Guadagni's appointment was fortuitous, because the oratorios were a mainstay of the London musical scene and helped to establish him in the English capital. Howard points out that it was doubly propitious because Handel had rarely used castratos in his oratorios after 1737. Handel rewrote three of the arias in Messiah for him, and Guadagni also created the role of Didymus in Theodora.

Although his work with Handel advanced his career, it was Guadagni's association with Gluck that assured his place in music history. Orfeo ed Euridice, first performed in 1762 in Vienna, represented a new direction for opera, a movement away from the complexity and rigor of opera seria. Guadagni had musical and dramatic skills ideally suited to the role. While singing oratorios under Handel's direction, he had honed an ability to sing lyrically and expressively. In addition, through his work with several outstanding actors, Guadagni witnessed the change in theatrical performance practice in the second half of the 18th century. Method acting was beginning to supplant technique acting, and ensemble acting was becoming the norm. Actors strove to pay attention and react to others on the stage. Howard recounts that Guadagni did not break character to accept applause. Although his principled stance on dramatic integrity did not curry favor among audiences who were accustomed to hearing encores within the opera, the singer was adamant. Guadagni was one of the first singers to build his career through identification with a single role (Orfeo). He championed the work in his subsequent travels, and presented it throughout Europe (albeit, sometimes in "approximate or distorted reincarnations," according to the author).

The volume affords the reader a glimpse into the fascinating world of opera in the mid-18th century. Howard offers descriptions of theaters, and explains how the houses varied by nationality. She paints a detailed picture of the role of the singer in society, and how careers were built and managed. Many castrati also composed music, and Guadagni was no exception. The author devotes a chapter to a study of three arias composed by the singer. The scores to these pieces can be accessed on a companion website, where a recording of one of the arias is also available.

Patricia Howard is eminently qualified to write this chronicle. She is the author of Gluck: An Eighteenth-Century Portrait in Letters and Documents (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), as well as guides to research about Gluck and to the opera Orfeo ed Euridice. The research is fastidious, and the prose is effortless. It is highly recommended.
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Author:Greschner, Debra
Publication:Journal of Singing
Article Type:Book review
Geographic Code:4E
Date:Nov 1, 2016
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