horizontal line

This admirable book fully lives up to its long title. The renowned Italian castrato singer Atto Melani (1626-1714) was born in the small Tuscan town of Pistoia, one of nine children – two girls and seven boys – of whom four of the latter were castrated to prolong their musical careers. Atto, the second son, achieved the greatest success, as singer, and later as diplomat and game-player in the involved politics of the time. His life story, gleaned from letters and other first-hand records, is related here within a copiously detailed account of life among the powers in Paris, Rome, Florence and elsewhere.

In addition to his long-time paymaster, Mattias de’ Medici, Melani also served cardinal Mazarin, among others. (There is a full list, 15 pages long, in the appendix, of Melani’s letters, and another list of letters from Mattias and others to various recipients: this book is indeed thorough.)

Clearly revealed to us is the life and social position of a castrato in that period, and in particular, Melani’s efforts to rise socially and gradually airbrush out his beginnings as a singer (in 1668, at the age of 42, he sang in public for the last time).

Of particular interest to countertenors today is chapter 6 on ‘Melani and the cantata’ which gives a detailed picture of the aesthetic and metaphysical rationale and conventions of the cantata as understood among the upper crust of the time. Essential reading, in my view.

Chapter 4, ‘sexuality and the castrato’, in addition to surgical details, deals with the sex-life of castrati in general, of Melani in particular, and, in light of modern research, how much was possible, if you get my meaning.

His own compositions, predictably written for his own voice, are also, according to Freitas, all calculated with an eye to ‘business’. There are generous musical quotations, and, in one of the appendices, the full text of all Melani’s cantatas, plus translations.

A word of warning: any non-English text quoted in the footnotes and appendices, other than the cantatas, whether Italian, French or German, is not translated.

DELLA COULING Read the full review on Agora Classica

   Read full review   

To continue reading, please upgrade to a premium account. You will have immediate full access.

Read more classical music reviews online here:

Classical Music, 2014 - ©Rhinegold Publishing