Romantic Anatomies of Performance is concerned with the very matter of musical expression: the hands and voices of virtuosic musicians. Rubini, Chopin, Nourrit, Liszt, Donzelli, Thalberg, Velluti, Sontag, and Malibran were prominent celebrity pianists and singers who plied their trade between London and Paris, the most dynamic musical centers of nineteenth-century Europe. In their day, performers such as these provoked an avalanche of commentary and analysis, inspiring debates over the nature of mind and body, emotion and materiality, spirituality and mechanism, artistry and skill. J. Q. Davies revisits these debates, examining how key musicians and their contemporaries made sense of extraordinary musical and physical abilities. This is a history told as much from scientific and medical writings as traditionally musicological ones. Davies describes competing notions of vocal and pianistic health, contrasts techniques of training, and explores the ways in which music acts in the cultivation of bodies..
Romantic Anatomies of Performance
"Veluti in Speculum"
The Twilight of the Castrato
"Beneath my window"
On the night of 15 May 1829, Felix Mendelssohn had a nightmare about Giovanni Battista Velluti, the last great operatic castrato. Velluti's voice had been in the German's head since that afternoon, when they crossed paths at a concert at the Argyll Rooms on Regent Street in London. There he had heard the "poor wretched creature," as he called him, sing an aria by Bonfichi and a duet with Henriette Sontag, Mayr's "Deh! Per pietà" from Ginevra di Scozia. The singing of the "confounded" Italian "so excited my loathing," Mendelssohn remembered, "that it pursued me into my dreams that night." Three days later the young composer-performer was at his desk at 103 Great Portland Street writing to a friend. Outside he again spied the castrato going about his chores. "Velluti," he wrote, "is just passing beneath my window." His simple observation seemed to pinpoint the cultural position of a singing species that would not go away.
This was the fate of the castrato: he haunted cosmopolitan European culture, lurking just below its "window." When the critic for the New Monthly Magazine heard Velluti's London debut as Armando in Meyerbeer's Il crociato in Egitto and his opening accompanied recitative, "Popoli dell'Egitto," in 1825, he wrote that they "came upon the ear like the spectral moan of an unearthly being." The critic's language, as we shall see, was fired by a press dispute instigated by the Times in relation to this performance. A year later, the New Monthly Magazine rejoined that Velluti's Armando "had to us something unearthly in it." "On seeing the thin, tall form tread the stage in armour, we felt a sensation which we cannot describe," the writer mused. "It seemed as if we saw a spirit glide before us." The male soprano, for this critic, was a "twilight figure," encountered as if one were inhabiting a dream. It was little consolation that Meyerbeer had composed Armando for and in collaboration with Velluti.
In Paris, Honoré de Balzac constructed the hallucinatory world of Sarrasine (1830) around the specter of the castrato's presence. The novella was probably written with Velluti in mind, the singer having visited Paris in April 1825 on his way to London. "I was deep in one of those daydreams," the now-famous story opens, "which overtake even the shallowest of men." By way of explaining the strange wealth of the De Lanty family and the "fragile machine" who lives in their midst, Balzac's narrator tells the tale of a castrato and a young sculptor named Sarrasine. While in Rome, the Frenchman falls madly in love with the singer, believing him a woman. Sarrasine's error is revealed too late, only after he has desired too much. The story ends when Cardinal Cicognara, the castrato's patron, has the dangerously unstable sculptor murdered in order to protect his prize singer. As events unfold, it becomes clear that the source of the De Lanty's wealth is the shadowy half man who now lives in their mansion. The "real" backdrop for this story of extravagance, deception, and death-told in terms of reminiscence and metaphor-rests on his unsettling provision.
The generation of Balzac and Mendelssohn, in other words, imbued the figure of the castrato with its phantasmic charge. Donning my psychoanalytic cap, I might claim that this generation pressed the whole notion of castration into its psychological or culturally repressed sphere. This would be the argument of Mladen Dolar's A Voice and Nothing More (2006), which-in well-rehearsed Freudian style-links our "fascination" for vocal sound to castration. (Dolar defends psychoanalytical notions of "the object voice" by describing it not in the Derridean sense as productive of fantasies of self-presence, but as always already differentiated-as proof of subjective lack.) Beguiled by this uncanny sense of voice, I could argue that castration anxiety emerged as the founding moment of adult sociability and subjectivity at the time of Mendelssohn's dream. (The word "subconscious" in the English language, after all, was apparently first used by essayist Thomas De Quincy as late as 1823.) Such a position might seek out early articulations of the phallus as causative principle not only for gender differentiation but for the whole possibility of intersubjective desire. Mendelssohn's eerie encounters with Velluti thus might be taken to foreground the birth of Dolar's castration complex and the historical experience of castration as social death. Via his voice, psychoanalysis might say, castration emerged as the ghost haunting the symbolic order of "modern" culture.
Let me put this in less overwrought ways. How best to explain why the castrato became anathema? Why did Mendelssohn have this dream? Why was it at these specific moments that the castrato became not only unpopular but impossible? As Martha Feldman, Suzanne Aspden, John Rosselli, and many others have shown, unease over the castrato (as a symbol of luxury, effeminacy, popery, and artifice) was as old as the castrato himself. These singers suffered constant vilification for different reasons at different times by different communities and commentators. Velluti, moreover, achieved his fair share of praise in the 1820s, even from such reform-minded critics as Richard Mackenzie Bacon, who lauded his chaste delicacy. In 1827 the Atlas reported that demand for them had actually redoubled in Rome recently under the tutelage of maestro Sogatelli. Male soprani were feted even beyond the nineteenth century, as the career of long-standing Sistine Chapel castrato Alessandro Moreschi, who sang as late as 1913, implies. On the one hand, attacks on Velluti continued a long and often xenophobic tradition. On the other, a clear fault line opened up for an increasingly authoritative (and authoritarian) coterie of opinion formers in 1820s London, the castrato becoming unnerving enough to provoke apprehensions of nonbeing.
In what follows I first propose a series of theoretical frameworks to explain this historical slippage, exploring the abjection of not only Velluti's vocal sounds, but also those of the female contralto musico. The insights reached are then tested against the reception of Velluti's performances in Regency London. His public appearance provoked trenchant reactions, reactions of such pleasure and disgust as to throw theoretical conclusions into sharp relief. Finally, I reconstruct Velluti's vocal manner via a single musical number, an aria from Francesco Morlacchi's opera Tebaldo e Isolina, using the rich documentation of the castrato's interpretation of that number in García fils's singing treatise Traité complet de l'art du chant (1840-47). My analysis reads Velluti from the point of view of his harshest critics, hearing "the twilight of the castrato" both in Morlacchi's score and the singer's "otherworldly" appearance in it. Velluti's vocal manner was physical-inevitably so. Yet for his detractors, castration spelled failure, even "disembodiment." The overripe materiality of these sounds sickened.
One way to characterize the castrato's fall from grace would be to survey developments in vocal science, as Gregory Bloch has done. Velluti passed "beneath the window" when the issue of vocal placement was under urgent review. In the 1820s, studies of vocal function largely continued in traditional vein. Scientific discussion still invariably hinged on the fragile question of whether the vocal apparatus best resembled a wind, string, or reed instrument. In Paris, physician Félix Savart's widely read "Mémoire sur la voix humaine" (1825) revived ancient Galenic wind analogies by concluding that a hunting whistle proved the best resemblance to the vocal organ. In London, it was more usual to describe "a double mechanism," as James Rennie did in his natural philosophy of that same year. Rennie followed Balthasar-Anthelme Richerand in naming a wind-string apparatus, his identification confirming the human voice's perfection in relation to lower, inflexible instruments. Charles Wheatstone described the vocal chords as a vibrating reed attended by an ever-modifying larynx, which, trombone-like, shifted the column of air by continually shortening or lengthening its tube. A still oft-cited statistic in London was John Barclay's early-century enumeration early in the century of all possible movements of the organ: fifteen pairs of muscles capable of upward of 1,073,841,800 combinations and, in cooperation with the seven pairs of the larynx, 17,592,186,044,415. To be clear, this was an apparatus of fabulous profusion. The cultivated larynx dispensed "airs" of precision and very little essence. The equivocation of this fluctuating, variable body-deviation-is what made it human.
The wind-string-reed debate lost focus after 1830, however, as physiologists and comparative anatomists jockeyed for vocal control. (A sign of this loss in Paris was physician Pierre Gerdy's claim that no analogy did the human voice justice-thus the futility of building artificial larynxes or replicating its sounds mechanically.) Liberal-minded reformers in London preferred their voices congenital. Charles Bell's "Of the Organs of the Human Voice" of 1832, for one, fixed voice as the principium individui, as the song of subjectivity. At once endorsing string-wind theories and wiring voice into the respiratory and nervous systems, the first professor of physiology at King's College London sourced vocal sound at the four principal nerves of throat and neck. Bell thus "unraveled" the functions of the entangled laryngeal nerves, associated voice with a "variety of offices," and multiplied to infinity the number of possible movements. The physiologist thus linked vocal sound to individual will. (This was years before the emergence of the idea that voice externalizes agency, that the voice is the signature of some fixed sexual identity, or that "having a voice" is a natural-born right, as much as the democratic right to vote.) In Bell as in Wheatstone-whose acoustic work on timbre opened the way to the later classification of so much vibrating air by sex, race, and native vocal type-the invisible worlds of the respiratory, muscular, and (later) reproductive systems were brought to the forefront of vocal research.
As early as 1832, pioneering American physiologist Robley Dunglison professed to hear age and sex in "the timbre or stamp" of each individual. In Paris, Marc Colombat de l'Isère (of whom more in chapter 5) echoed the work of Guillaume Dupuytren, who, early in the century, had dissected the corpse of a eunuch in order to test the variable sympathetic relation between voices and "non-contiguous" anatomical parts such as the larynx and testes. (It was only by midcentury, as we shall see, that "the sexual system" appeared, less a sympathetic influence upon than a reproductive source for voice.)
Already in 1819, London-based surgeon William Lawrence heard voice as a function of the species. For him, men and women were basically complementary sexual beings. His bifurcated view led him to launch a stinging attack on still-prevailing Aristotelian "one-sex" models, where women were construed falsely as a "degradation and imperfect copy of the constitution of man, while, in fact, she is the most essential part of the species." In his strong "two-sex" view, all existence bore the essential chemistry of sexual difference. A result was "the increased depth and strength of the tone of voice" at a boy's coming of age, that "strength" being useful to their "natural" function as provider-protectors of the family.
Lawrence thus construed male puberty, in line with his politics, as revolution, pace thinkers who thought of maturation as slow and fluid, as in eighteenth-century naturalist Georges de Buffon's famous view that manhood arrived only at around thirty years of age. When boys became men, for Lawrence, they moved aggressively to the masculine ideal. Woman, "in advancing towards the age of puberty, departs from her primitive constitution less sensibly than man." From this fateful moment, anatomy was destiny, sex was fixed at the organs of generation, voice was established by function, hermaphrodites were freaks, and castration was fatal. If "biology" (a word Lawrence helped to establish) determined the physical and moral life of the organism, there was no place for such "degraded" or "equivocal" individuals as castrati. Lawrence quoted the republican French philosopher Pierre Jean George Cabanis to make his point: "Eunuchs are the vilest class of the human species: cowardly and knavish because they are weak; envious and malignant, because they are unfortunate." These lusus naturae were subhuman, since "mutilation separates him in a manner from his species; and the fatal event, which deprives him of the most agreeable relations established by nature, between beings of the same kind, almost extinguishes in his breast the peculiar feelings of humanity."
One way to read Velluti's reception, therefore, would be to say that the biological determinism of these men worked to exclude him. All human process (vocal production included) was being folded into the great qualitative world of genetic law and animal function. New bodily codes, new musical behaviors, new physiological realisms, and a strict sexual dimorphism were being proscribed. (It must be said that Lawrence's "manly" proscriptions hardly went unchallenged; his "materialist" ideas were forced underground in 1819, when his much-debated Lectures on Physiology, Zoology, and the Natural History of Man had to be withdrawn after accusations of blasphemy.) These truths implied novel techniques of vocal identification and modulation, where listener-viewers listened beyond subdivision-indeed, beyond quantitative or rhetorical questions of musical skill, technique, cadences, graces, shakes, divisions, ornament, and nuance. The long view suggests that Lawrence's ideas eventually won out, imperiling the figure of the Italian castrato by pressing him beneath "species" conceptualizations of "man."
There are other ways to characterize these developments: to venture that scientific norms only shadowed trends in music rooms, concert halls, and opera houses. In general terms, it seems clear that a new art of "the voice" was establishing itself in competition with much older and still-elite disciplines of Italian song. Where usually vocal sounds were prized for their purity, polish, and science (as for the castrato), now the voice was grainy, powerful, and individual (as for the prima donna). The basics had altered: when singers sang, they were heard less to echo fixed physical, absolute emotional, moral, ideal, or mimetic states-or at least not always. Rather, they appeared to express something elusive-a physiological presence-from deep within. In these instances, to continue this line of argument, song was encountered less as the representation of a myriad of affections or passions present, visible, and real to each individual than the presentation of inscrutable personality.
In this conception, the vocal organ was less the means of expression than itssource. What occurred (to borrow from psychoanalytic discourse again) was an ennoblement of geno-song (the voice organic and immanent) over pheno-song (more poetic, grammatical, or cultivated articulations). A biomedical view, or what Elizabeth Grosz calls the "species body," gained traction: what was important was not so much pure, unfettered vocal emissions. A raw, powerful, and charged extraction was preferred. Certainly, descriptions such as that of Angelica Catalani in 1829, as "a Pythoness expanding with inspiration . . . her very impatience of the [orchestral] accompaniment shows the fullness and force of her conceptions, anxious for melodious birth," would have been unthinkable only twenty years earlier.
Where creation was experienced thus-as (female) procreation out of the natural order rather than as an ex nihilo act of (male) creation-so the castrato was driven under. His fate is difficult to sketch in ways less general than this. If anything, the temptation is to advance to a third stage of abstraction: to suggest links between experimental formations of "the voice" (as an object of artistic and scientific knowledge) and formations of "the body" as at once the subject and object of the nineteenth-century human sciences. On the basis of the history of physiological approaches to vocal sound, at least, it seems that experience of "the voice" was powerfully bound to functional notions of inner life-an indication perhaps of the success of soft power and the middlebrow call to political self-regulation or individuation. The elevation of what physiologist at the Faculté de médecine de Paris François Magendie, in 1816, disparagingly called the "voix native" to the status of the goal of the singing arts (in such vocal tutors as Joseph Concone's Introduction à l'art de bien chanter of 1845) was certainly dramatic.
After all, "romanticism"-as is commonly observed, particularly in literary studies-involved privileging orders of inborn difference (relativistic, nationalistic, individualistic, historicist, racialistic, and gendered) over "Enlightenment" principles of the universal. Yet to imply by this observation-as is frequently done-that the "romantics" suddenly discovered their own bodies or found their individual voices is to miss the point. It might prove better to speculate, following Alan Richardson, that a new conceptualization of "man" found its first articulation in the long nineteenth century, one ordered less according to theories of shared characteristics, intellect, morality, or language than in relation to the shared condition of embodiment. This naturalized sense of humanness, one might claim, threw the category of the male soprano into disarray.
The Musical World confirmed the projection of this singing species below language when another castrato, Paolo Pergetti, visited London in 1844. This was at a time when, as the writer put it, even "the negroes of the British dominions have been placed in the class HUMAN." Only chained consonants could do Pergetti's performance justice: "Sbgrmld-vxgspl-zb-tdpmbg-qz." This class of being, in other words, was unspeakable. As Balzac put it, the castrato was a "creature for which the human language [had] no name, a form without substance." Cut off from the emerging truth, his unnatured vocalizations no longer made sense. Human expression could not still be reflected or exchanged in the manner of hard currency. No longer belonging to cultivated nature, vocal sounds now cleaved to physiology, to the physical organization of the brain-mind and the materiality of consciousness and emotions. This earthly frame was not to be done away with or denied; the naturalized self, the individualized "body," was to be imagined as definitively and all-embracingly human.
Before "the voice" so-called
The 1820s were pivotal in these processes. Important changes in vocal technique were taking hold; alternative schooling methods were being tested across Europe. In the previous century, singers trained in fine elocution and messa di voce spent their hours of practice acquiring sounds, skills, and qualities. They built expression from the ground up, softening the organ, unraveling its individualities, smoothing away brute distinctiveness, and setting aside such impediments as texture, timbre, and personality. What l'arte del canto aimed at was pure, unmodified vowels in all parts of the range, vast expressive scope, an unbinding of inert materiality, unhindered volubility and flexibility, and the cultivation of imperceptible shifts between sounds-most of all, between chest and head voices. The London Magazine toed the old-fashioned line in 1825 when it lauded the "artificial formation" of Velluti's tone. "His portamento is exact," it wrote, "no taint of nose, mouth, or throat, is discoverable in its production; nothing can be more perfect or more finished; there are no roughnessses, no inequalities."
Denis Diderot, hardly the most obvious writer to cite in defense of castration, had famously made the development of nonindividuality the highest objective of art. In "The Paradox of Acting" (1773-77), an essay published only in 1830, he listed the attributes of the actor graced with "the gift of mimesis." "Perhaps it is just because he is nothing," Diderot argued, "that he is before all everything. His own particular form never interferes with the shape he assumes." The finished actor, like the finished singer, only found true form, the philosopher found, once he had been emptied of self. To be the echo of every passion was to wipe the slate clean and to attain to a moral absolute: total insignificance. Nothingness was the actor's guarantee of perfection, and it could be achieved only with devotion, sacrifice, and long periods of discipline and privation. Every aspect of self had to be abstracted away.
In a musical sense, the ne plus ultra of the ideal formed in the voice and figure of the castrato. Not only was he subject to the rigors of the conservatorio. Such a nonperson was ideal precisely because originary significance had been taken from him as a child. Since adult adjuncts had been cut away, he was free to cultivate or acquire a vox perfecta from a nascent position of "first things." Via a small act of violence, his body had been opened to every oratorical possibility. Hypostasized as an object, his figure-this house of the living artwork-had a nonidentity liberated from self. Living at the zero-point of subsistence, castrati, it was widely reported, had weak heartbeats, poor eyesight, and almost no pulse and they lacked blood pressure. Medically, their susceptible temperaments, pale countenances, enervated sensibilities, and absence of inner heat bore out their variability of being. John Ebers, who was manager of the King's Theatre from 1821 to 1827, reported how sparing Velluti was "in the pleasures of the table; a cup of coffee and a little dry toast form his breakfast, and his other meals are in proportion." Compare this to Malibran, who, it was reported, lived on breakfasts of oysters and port. If in the eighteenth century castrati had generally been vilified as the ultimate in overblown luxury, by the nineteenth they were usually portrayed by their antagonists as pale, inanimate, threadbare beings.
In its best sense, castration was not only a reversion to a life of prepubescence (Velluti was regularly castigated in the press for his infantile temper and childlike personality); it also freed the singer to acquire an instrument attuned to all shades of emotion and expression. A physical refinement had taken place that was not so much an act of mutilation as an opportunity to produce without hindrance, to lay aside and start afresh. As if to memorialize his conversion, a long poem in the Examiner in 1825 hearkened back to Velluti's "second baptism" as a child. More beautiful than woman, the evirato had seen his ability to procreate exchanged for an ability to become somebody else in an ex nihilo act of (male) creation. His capacity to impersonate, to be everything, gave him-from a positive point of view-tremendous virility. Far from sacrificing potentia generandi, he might acquire godlike status, so endowed was he with the power to create from nothing. More soberly, his model would be Hermes, the genderless messenger-god who merely carries, at no stage interfering with the swift execution of his task. The castrato's vocal flights served lofty functions, bearing texts effortlessly into the ears of listeners. If not the bearer of letters, then the castrato was his own sign system-the voice of logos-part of an empty grammatical system awaiting signification or meaningful drawing-together. More pointedly, he might embody music itself. In 1828 the Athenaeum made clear that Velluti was "a being with a soul breathing nothing but music."
It was not for nothing that British critics made ironic reference to Giovanni Cipriani's motto, still eccentrically displayed above the Covent Garden stage when they brought the last operatic castrato into question: "Veluti in speculum" (literally, "as in a mirror"). Even in the 1820s it was understood that the singer-actor had honed his art precisely in order to mirror truth. All in all, the soprano in perfect form-Velluti at his best-was the blank that signifies, inviting his audience always and everywhere to inscribe their passions back on him. The true reflection of every figure and every form, Velluti echoed those sharply defined "varieties of the voice" so beloved of such writers as Rennie-the tenderness of the aria cantabile, the dignity of the aria di portamento, the caprice of the aria di mezza carattere, the impetuosity of the aria parlante-without distortion. The listener sang through him, as it were, his passions sung back to him through another mouth. Pace modern erotic notions of the castrato, he was not in the classical sense an object of desire, nor of repulsion. He in no way expressed himself or some inner sex, impulse, or feeling. Rather, he expressed others' feeling, or, more widely, that economy of universal emotions. To be all, to acquire all, one must first make oneself nothing.
The opaque form of the female contralto
If the castrato fell beneath the window of culture around this time, then roughly the same may be said of the other eminently neoclassical figure of the era, the female contralto. Were a date to be chosen, these formidable women could be said to have taken center stage at opera houses in Italian states around 1806. This year witnessed the retirement of the charismatic Milanese castrato Luigi Marchesi (who inspired such forgotten masters as Niccolò Antonio Zingarelli, Giuseppe Nicolini, Simon Mayr, and Angelo Tarchi) and the debut, in Verona, of Adelaide Malanotte, Rossini's first Tancredi. (Of the castrati, only Girolamo Crescentini in Paris and Velluti remained in the top flight.)
The contralto both resembled and was dissimilar to the castrato (each, in fact, could be called a "musico"). Descriptions of womanly character in the first two decades of the century continued to imagine her as a degenerate or passive homology of the male. Her ability to impersonate depended on a certain involuntary blankness, a mimetic flatness that smoothed over her as yet indistinct vegetality and predisposed her to artifice and playacting in the manner of the castrato, a figure now on his last legs. Although her vocal sounds were never fully as imitative, they did preserve what Rossini called the castrato's "ideal and expressive" legacy. So, in one sense, women took up where the male musico left off. In another, they were more than merely his stand-in, more than a substitute for an unproductive masculine type: they were a point of arrival, a privileged new subject position in culture.
Shifts in notions of human sexuality, however, have obscured the significance of her historical achievement by positing this woman as a transitional figure separating the age of the castrato from what came to be known as "romantic opera." From the point of view of the future-from the perspective of the 1830s-the voices of these women were ambiguously sexed and, frankly, unattractive. Singers such as Rosmunda Pisaroni were not yet "fully woman" in the contingent sense of Sontag or Malibran, who rose to fame during the late 1820s. Even during the attractions of Sontag and Malibran, in any event, voice types were classified not according to some preconceived notion of body type but according to pansexual standards of absolute beauty. As late as 1830, Bennati-who was a specialist more in the anatomy of singing than in the matter of Paganini's left hand-identified three voices in human existence. (A full examination of Bennati's intriguing view will have to wait until chapter 5.) These voices were separable by range only: soprani sfogati, tenors-contraltini, and basses-tailles. The ear, nose, and throat specialist's sexual blindness, betrayed here in a paper given to the Académie des sciences, replicated the time-honored models of the ancients. Bennati could not shake the weighty traditions of the past. He had studied singing, after all, under the great castrato Gasparo Pacchierotti.
Whereas audiences would throw texts, poems, or sonnets at Pisaroni, flowers-organic, natural objects (as well as sonnets to be sure)-would fall at the feet of the first modern divas. The first time that wreaths and bouquets were thrown at the Théâtre Italien in Paris was for Malibran's Desdemona in Rossini's Otello on her season debut of 31 March 1829. This at least was according to the Havanese aristocrat of Creole extraction, singing enthusiast, and leading salonnière in the city Maria de las Mercedes Santa Cruz y Montalvo (better known as la Condesa de Merlin). In May of 1835 in London, the practice was novel enough for the Times to recommend instead "a shower of cabbage-leaves" for Giulia Grisi's Elvira (Bellini's I Puritani). "This practice, which a few contemptible sycophants have introduced among us within the last four or five years," the writer complained, "is an exceedingly silly one, and not at all in harmony with English notions and English customs."
Even Giuditta Pasta, not always a contralto in the strict sense, perpetuated the classic ideal, particularly during her peak in the early to mid-1820s. As long as she held court, the femme grecque ideal of le code Rossinien would remain. Critics hailed her as the ultimate animate artwork. The Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review's description of the pose she took while listening to Leicester (Curioni) in Coccia's Maria Stuart, Regina di Scozia on 7 June 1827 was typical: "The attitude was so perfect-was taken with such slow and solemn stillness, and kept with such immovable beauty, that we never recollect to have seen such a personification of the attributes and effects of sculpture; and if art is employed in the imitation of nature, here it seemed as if nature had been turned towards sculpture for her model and authority." Metamorphosing from one attitude to another, Pasta-according to Stendhal-copied the sculpted poses of the actor de' Marini and of Viganò's principal ballerina, Pallerini. Her style was perfectly matched to the firm plasticity Rossini scripted into his characters.
Like every musico before her, Pasta was an impersonator. While her womanness was not in doubt, her genius hinged on an ability to hide it. She was of that malleable sort of sex that was in no way significant to her acting parts. Her performance en travesti mobilized this essential mutability; intrinsic personal beauty was of no matter. When Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote to the Examiner in 1826, she took the opportunity to point out what she felt to be Pasta's chief shortcoming. The style of "Velluti's pupil," the author of Frankenstein argued, "wants the 'touch of nature.'" For Shelley, Pasta's gender was not variable enough, her "local and arbitrary modes of expression" falling short of the "generosity" and "sentiment attached to [Velluti's] person." Shelley thus both protested the language used by the newspaper to attack Velluti and chided republican men for their unnatural stance on sexual difference. (She had firsthand knowledge of Lawrence's misogynistic "two-sex" idea, the surgeon being her personal physician and a close friend of her husband.) John Ebers disagreed in relation to Pasta in 1828: "There is no perceptible effort to resemble the character she plays; on the contrary, she enters the stage [as] the character itself; transposed into the situation, excited by the hopes and the fears, breathing the life and the spirit of the being she represents."
Similarly, in Rose et Blanche, a novella cowritten by George Sand and Jules Sandeau in 1831, the protagonist recognizes Pasta only at the beginning of the last act of Tancredi. Rose lets out a cry of surprise: "This handsome warrior-this was a young woman who shook the pale Rose-here was the revelation! Tancredi was Judith Pasta." Such surprise was echoed in the Examiner when it hailed Pasta's Nina:
Her voice is veiled. . . . She is of the Bolognese school of art-no glancing lights, no meretricious expression, no extravagance, no violent contrast,-she goes straight on to her end, and arrives at it. She does not shine in parts, but in the aggregate impression-the whole is well-balanced, continuous, firm. . . . She gives herself entirely up to the impression of her part, loses her power over herself, is led away by her feelings wither [sic] to an expression of stupor or of artless joy, borrows beauty from deformity, charms unconsciously, and is transformed into the very being she represents. She does not act the character-she is it, looks it, breathes it . . . her whole style and manner is perfect keeping, as if she were really a love-sick, care-crazed maiden, occupied with one deep sorrow, and who had no other idea or interest in the world.
Stendhal too was obsessed by Pasta's plasticity, the way she projected the bello ideale, the pacatezza (sedateness) of her phonation, and her arcane, "celestial beauty." What was most celebrated in her art was her ability to deny the self and breathe every character into life. Not so much a creation from within nature, Pasta perfected nature from without.
In the 1820s the sublimated beauty of this ideal followed in the footsteps of her older siblings, the ailing female contralto and castrato. Pasta's song, her elevated speech, was no longer absolute, at least for her critics in London. Both the sounds she made and her en travesti tendencies could be positively off-putting. To "express manly sentiments of love and attachment in the acute sounds of the additional keys," in anything "additional" to the male register, the New Monthly Magazine wrote of her Tancredi in 1826, was "preposterous and ridiculous, whether such sounds proceed from eunuchs, or from females in male disguise." (Audience expectations and critical language were very different elsewhere; in north Italian urban centers, for example, hardly a twitter of protest was heard in view of contralti until much later in the century.) The London critic continued, "Let us have Nature; let us have all that Nature will afford for our enjoyment-mental or physical. What is beyond, is evil."
Attacks on the contralto in London
Pasta left London on 2 August 1828 after a disastrous year dogged by illness, Sontag mania, and performances of Armando in Il crociato that failed to live up to Velluti's precedent. The editor of the Harmonicon, William Ayrton, summed up the season by observing that "Pasta's magnetic powers have deserted her, and none but Madlle Sontag has drawn the crowd." The Athenaeum of that year complained that her voice "is still naturally defective, naturally so, especially in its lower tones, which are not only husky, but so weak, that some will scarcely pass the orchestra to the nearest ear in the pit." Even Pasta fell victim to the vogue for charged, powerful singing. Nine months later, around the time of Mendelssohn's nightmare, she was plying her trade in far-off Milan.
As listeners in London preferred "natural song," so the squat physicality of those female contraltos bequeathed to cosmopolitan Europe by the 1810s-Malanotte, Grassini, Pisaroni-became disconcerting. Pisaroni being engaged at the King's Theatre in 1829, the Harmonicon chose her benefit night to criticize "her hard masculine voice" when she sung Arsace opposite Sontag's Semiramide. "With a full consciousness of her merits," the critic confessed, "we always witness her performance with pain." Harriet Granville made a nastier assessment of her in a letter to her sister in 1827:
On Saturday we had Pisaroni, magnificent, wonderful, entraînante, electrifying Pisaroni. Hideous, distorted, deformed, dwarfish Pisaroni. Add it up, dearest Sissee, divide, subtract, multiply, it is capable of all for it is marvellous. She has an immense head, a remarkably ugly face. When she smiles or sings her mouth is drawn up to her ear, with a look of a person convulsed with pain. She has two legs that stand out like sugar tongs, one shorter than the other. Her stomach sticks out on one side of her body, and she has a hump on the other, not where stomachs or humps usually are, but sideways, like paniers [sic].
The desire to "divide, subtract, multiply," to locate Pisaroni in terms of her "singing parts," threw her undeniable vocal excellence into disarray. The great contralto's technique of forcing her mouth to the left on high notes-a style discussed in detail by Bennati-became curiously injurious to her success.
Many other singers suffered the trend for operagoers to listen for natural conditions in the voice. When Velluti was appointed director of the King's Theatre in 1826, he engaged one of his protégées, Giovanna Bonini, as prima donna. No doubt he looked forward to singing "Ravvisa qual alma" with her. This celebrated duet was the highlight of the 1824 Florentine version of Meyerbeer's Il crociato in Egitto and one of the castrato's showpieces. A rondò finale for Armando had ended the original Venetian version of the opera, which had premièred only eight weeks before this second production. In Florence, the presence of Adelaide Tosi meant that Meyerbeer and Velluti favored a duet to the original rondò. In London a year later, the castrato having shipped the set designs, costumes, and music over from Florence with Meyerbeer's blessing, Maria Caradori-Allan had partnered Velluti in this climactic moment to great acclaim. The New Monthly Magazine exalted the blend of Caradori's "clear tones" with the castrato's "penetrating soprano." "Let [the] duet with Velluti at the very conclusion of the opera be listened to," the critic enthused, "and no more be said." Before the King's Theatre revival of 1826, in other words, the duet's reputation was second to none.
With Bonini in tow, however, the number faltered, the problem being that, as Richard Bacon put it, the prima donna was "old, exceedingly plain, and took snuff." In the duets Velluti had taken to forcing her to "stand through the scene with her eyes fixed on his face, and if possible with both her hands in his, that she might be guided in her performance by his slightest look or movement." An extraordinary passage in London Magazine lambasted this sycophantic gesturing. Reading her body through her voice, the critic found Bonini's muscular lyricism painful to experience; watching her sing was like watching the most elemental emission:
The severe struggle with which she draws a thin and wiry note ab imo pectore, and the awkward pain with which she delivers herself of it, can only be likened to one operation in nature. She obviously labours under a vocal constipation. The pencil of Cruikshank can alone do justice to the distress of the poor Signora in the popular duet in the finale of the Crociato. We cannot describe the effect of Velluti, with his tall figure bending over the little lady, and holding her up by the hand as if to lift her over the gamut, as a careful father lifts little miss over the gutter; then, when the time comes for the high note, the manager seems to coax, wheedle, and encourage her for a violent squeeze; the hand is carried up by jerks to its highest possible elevation, and the voice appears, by some curious attraction, to follow it, and at the critical moment no one but the artist we have named can do justice to the awkward anxiety of the struggling Prima Donna's countenance.
This harsh form of natural-physical attack on singers-castratos as well as female contraltos-became routine in the late 1820s, not only in satirical print but also in pictures. The engraving "An Italian singer, cut out for English amusement; or, Signor Veluti [sic] Displaying his Great parts" circulated in 1825. The military officer in the center of the picture exclaiming, "Do you not think he's a well made man!" is probably the Duke of Wellington, one of Velluti's keenest fans. In radical culture, the political explanation typically given for the success of the castrato in the 1820s was that he serviced the repressive tastes of the ruling elite. "Cut out" for their amusement, he was seen to mirror and exemplify aristocratic dandyism and effeminacy. The Times made clear that although Velluti might preen the feathers of the higher orders, he was below the tastes of "the manly British public." In figure 1 Louis Marks (a contemporary of satirist George Cruikshank) depicts the castrato showing off "his parts" (displaying a manuscript in his right hand). Something vital, it is clear, is missing from the scene. As the lady standing in the back row with her lorgnette points out, Velluti is "not quite" complete.
The procreating eunuch
In London, at least, the castrato was dogged by this awareness of the fundamental lack at his core. Those thin features, smooth, glistening skin, pale and beardless features, high, narrow shoulders, arched back, rounded hips, and fine wrinkles ringing the eyes all covered over the nagging void. For reformist writers, as we have seen, the castrato lacked the basic materials from which to create. He possessed an engrossing strangeness that thrust him outside the human, an emptiness that made him seem at once animal and machinelike. The New Times condemned Velluti for attacking "the manliness of our [British] national character." The writer continued, "He stands forward as living evidence of the lamentable extent to which human nature has been degraded in order to satisfy human sensuality. . . . It is not to be borne with patience, that for the sake of such an exhibition, the mind of a young and virtuous female should be exposed to the consequences of dangerous curiosity and vicious insinuation." Since the first principles of production were missing, any creative generation on the eunuch's part was unthinkable.
Velluti's detractors wanted to expose his lie, to strip him down and uncover his deception. There they would find not that he was nothing, but rather that he was something, a terrible something-without. His was a figure of tremendous repressed pain; his outward form muffled a screaming silence. Because of his mutilation, in an inhuman twist, he was apparently barred from protesting the injustice he had faced; vocal resistance was pathetic, shrill. Shorn of biology, his was a reality of pure, acid pain (of the kind later revealed in Wagner's Klingsor, a role originally conceived for the castrato Domenico Mustafà). In the 1820s Velluti's voice began to recall a gutless past of old mores, powdered exteriors, and false-faced aristocrats in court shoes.
In the midst of the hype surrounding Velluti's public debut and the first London performance of Il crociato in Egitto in 1825, the Times orchestrated a full-blown press war. On the morning of the English premiere (30 June), the newspaper printed a stinging denunciation. "Some savage," the London Magazine reported, "took the trouble to translate the brutal article in The Times of the Thursday, and sent it to Velluti" just before curtain-up. The public took up the newspaper's goading, having not witnessed a vocal species of this type since the days of the second-rate appearances of Neri and Roselli in 1800. As the Examiner put it, they "anticipated a disturbance." The King's Theatre was packed with the most fashionable of patrons that evening. A party dining at Apsley House led by the Duke of Wellington was in attendance, as was the extravagant Lord Maryborough and "a lady for whom we feel too much compassion to mention her name" (as the Times put it; this was probably Byron's ex-lover, Lady Caroline Lamb, who was separating from her husband in June and July.)
A delay of several minutes as the scene was prepared heightened the mood of anticipation before Velluti's entry. Armando's ship eventually docked in the port of Damietta and the castrato timidly stepped down the galley to "mingled applause and disapprobation." The Times reported how he "trembled excessively" before bowing "respectfully to the audience." "The most profound silence reigned in one of the most crowded audiences I ever saw, broken on his entering by loud applauses of encouragement," wrote Lord Mount Edgcumbe. "The first note he uttered," he recalled from his box, "gave a shock of surprise, almost of disgust, to inexperienced ears." Ebers recoiled at the "preternatural harshness" of Velluti's first words, which jarred "even more strongly on the imagination than on the ear." The New Monthly Magazine detected in the shrillness of his voice an "extremely nervous state" brought about by having to oversee two last-minute rehearsals the previous day. "The most grave of Velluti's supporters," the Times rejoined, "could not conquer their inclination for laughter." Velluti responded to an attempt to encore the famous first-act trio, "Giovinetto cavalier," by reentering the stage in an attitude of humility. An uproar ensued, led by those wishing to sabotage the repeat. "Certain imitations of his voice, proceeding chiefly from the gallery," the Times observed, "defeated the intention." "For a few moments he appeared overwhelmed, and as if crouching for mercy," the London Magazine added, "but, after a short time, he drew himself up and folded his arms, with the air of one whose sprit was roused by unjust and barbarous treatment." Taking "Caradori by the hand, he stepped forward, cast a most imploring look towards the audience . . . and retired." By the final act, the gallery had taken to singing back to him in mocking high catcalls whenever he made his entry. After a long and eventful night, the curtain finally fell in a tumult; the house emptied in anticipation of the ballet.
The mob in the gallery mimicked his voice as if to interpret these sounds as the cause or symptom of some terrible illness. "A hero, a valiant crusader, a soldier, a victor, and a lover, venting his emotions in a squalling treble, singing of valour and glory as it were in a consumption, and making love in a feeble voice, higher than the mistress of his affection," the Examiner complained, "was more than we could well endure." When he sang, he recalled only the slicing of the knife, that formative moment in his youth. "There was something in the voice of Velluti," the Times reported, "which, mingled with the reflection on his situation, really set the teeth on edge; and people were heard to suck up the breath as if in pain." Reviewing the 1826 production of Il crociato, the London Magazine found it "painful to our sense of hearing to listen to Velluti's singing, as it is to our sense of sight to see a man standing insecurely on a dizzy height." The vertigo of having to deal with the constant deferral of "natural" resolution was particularly unbearable when the castrato's voice apparently cracked momentarily. "The Signor frequently loses command of his voice," the critic explained, "and bitterly does it then grate on our musical nerves, like the scraping of a slate pencil, or the chromatic performance of a grinder on the edge of a saw." Whereas, according to an oft-repeated anecdote, in the eighteenth century the castrato's voice was greeted with cries of "Viva il coltello!" (Long live the knife!), now there were shouts of laughter-in the reform-minded press at least. The Atlas critic complained that he had tried to educate his ear by persevering "night after night" with Velluti, having expected "by repeated doses to cure our nausea." But in vain: "The more our ears took in," the critic admitted, "the more we sickened."
What made many listeners queasiest was Velluti's epicene gender. Talk among his detractors had it that he was attempting to pass himself off as a woman. Censorship in the papal states of a backward Italy, it was thought, had forced these poor simulacra into existence. This was also the Balzacian view: that the eunuch was a creature desperately seeking fulfillment as a female. Why else would Velluti display what the Harmonicon described as such "morbid antipathy" toward the fairer sex? The fact that he had been a lady-killer in his prime was now long forgotten. Only dim memories remained of him fleeing Milan in the wake of Rossini's Aureliano in Palmira (an opera written in 1814 for him) after a scandalous affair with a young lady of good standing (recorded in accounts of Velluti's biography as the Marchesa Clelia G-).In ten years his voice had become both mocking and jealous of the sex he secretly admired. The prima donna's excess of life and proximity to nature accounted for his every display of envy, competitiveness, and misogyny.
The "woman issue" dealt several damaging blows to Velluti's career. His engagement as director of the King's Theatre furnished an example. In the wake of his benefit of that year, Velluti neglected to hand bonuses to the women in the chorus. Hauled before Middlesex County court on charges of "sordid and grasping conduct," the castrato was foiled by the articulate plea of one of the young women, the timely intervention of Pasta on behalf of the chorus, and what the judge described as Velluti's own "trumpery defence." During the dispute, the press took the opportunity to both leap to the aid of the oppressed and jump on Velluti. For at least one commentator, the "extraordinary brevity" of the girl's petticoats on any given night at the opera was the most obvious measure of the director's "screwing down" and exploitative tendencies. He was not reengaged at the King's Theatre the following season.
Velluti's reputation as antiwoman was not improved by his championing of Bonini. "If Signor Velluti had his way," the Atlas remarked in reference to the chorus dispute, "we should not see a woman on the stage, unless one, perhaps, as old and as ugly as original Sin." Elsewhere, in a review of Bonini's Cenerentola, the same critic found it hard to believe that the hero would fall for "a lodging-house char-woman." "If the Prince wanted a maid of all work to scrub and scour his palace," the correspondent explained, "he could not have made a more prudent choice." Also in that year, London Magazine protested at the decline of "the Star of Venus" at the opera and savaged the "brace of effete old women, whose voices do not gain even by comparison with the manager's." Since attractive women had disappeared under Velluti's management, the opera house was becoming a confusing place. Edward Holmes commented on the 1826 production of Aureliano in Palmira with Bonini as Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, and Velluti as Arsace:
Madame Bonini wore an immense sword by her side, which she, on certain occasions, drew, and carried about the stage in the stirring attitude of a kitchen poker. Her use of this substantial tool reminded us of Cinderella. . . . At the conclusion of the second scene of the Aureliano, and before the third began, a figure nearly six feet high, clad in robes of virgin-white, and wearing a fine black bushy beard, came on and sung for a good space. . . . The party in question may be a gentleman; for really, as things are ordered now at the Opera, there is no making out the sexes. The gentlemen look very lady-like, and the ladies are so hard-favoured, that we no longer know how to distinguish the one from the other. They ought to be labelled like decanters, for fear of mistakes.
The virgin-white figure without the label was, of course, Velluti.
The lobby against effeminacy, dandyism, extravagant male attire, and cross-dressing became powerful and vocal by the late 1820s. "Let your dress be as cheap," warned Tory radical William Cobbett in his Advice to Young Men of 1829, "as may be without shabbiness." Given his lavish dress, Velluti became an easy target for scorn. The proscription of vocal finery, ornament, and display attended the proscription of lace and embroidery in men's clothing. Several melodramatic imitations of him appeared in London theaters. J. Russell, for example, played Arionetti in The Son-in-Law at Drury Lane, making, the Courier noted, "a capital imitation of Velluti in a Recitative. . . . Every species of theatrical ingenuity had been resorted to, for the purpose of rendering the outward appearance of Mr Russell as feminine as possible: his very plain face was carefully rouged; full flowing ringlets fell upon his high shoulders, a timid step and childish gait." The Examiner pulled apart the castrato's ladylike crusader garb in Il crociato. The hero's "lank face, hid up in a helmet with a most injudicious bow of white satin ribbon on the tip of his chin," the radical paper summed up, "seemed to have been dressed up by his enemies to look as ridiculous and effeminate as they could make him." Such imprudence was not becoming of a self-made man. The worst thing about Velluti-mean, arrogant, peevish, vain, and excessively interested in sartorial splendor-was that he was a female substitute. He made women despicable, undermining them at every opportunity. Worse still, he corrupted desire for them by poisoning the male imagination. In Sarrasine Balzac has the sculptor despairing, "I shall forever think of this imaginary woman when I see a real woman." Screaming at this fake feminine object, he chokes, "Monster! You who gave life to nothing. For me, you have wiped women from the earth."
From poetic to hermeneutic listening
To construe sex in this way is to tune into a different way of knowing. The vocal source, for such listeners, is no mere instrument, no mere bodily appendage to be isolated and played. Rather, the vocal organ obeys the drives of an invisible, even inaudible kind. What becomes fascinating for many an audience, no matter who the singer, is to extrapolate backward, from the sonority heard to the situation of the expressive body that generated it. Poetic or intellectual eloquence is no longer at issue. Turning from what has become "superficial," audiences increasingly read sounds as traces of something else, as symptoms of an a priori nature, expressions of a truth that has come before. For them, this is a game of identification, a way of isolating and registering (embodied) difference. As ever, listener and performer possess and breathe into each other in a sensual, physical way. But a new level of absorption, of deep listening, is required to generalize first a sounding physiology and then a living cause. Now that vocal sounds are heard as a form of evidence, a desire to identify-a hermeneutic curiosity-begins to characterize their reception.
What this implies is that the listener engages every aural faculty in locating "the voice" behind the acoustic veneer. Since this elusive and largely inaudible singularity is powerful, it impinges on its hearers, crying out for interpretation. Thus critics, physiologists, and natural historians begin to sexualize this presence. Identifying a gendered charge in production, an obvious derivative of listening for its biology, became a prime preoccupation in these decades. The paradigmatic argument of the century would be Charles Darwin's in The Descent of Man, wherein he claimed that the vocal organs had evolved in mankind as a way of propagating the species by sexual selection. "Throughout the animal kingdom at large, the commencement of reproduction," he observed, coincides with an "unusual vivacity of every kind, including vocal vivacity." The drive to song was engendered (in this view) by desire, biology, and animal magnetism. Virtuosity-and here the stock nineteenth-century operatic heroine comes to mind-only added to the vivacity of the preternatural cry. The throat, in other words, was "revealed" to have a sexual density proper to its bio-evolutionary function. More than any nonreproductive body part, it was heavily sexual.
Music and the oriental machine
A range of historical evidence invites reconstruction of Velluti's vocal manner. Fortunately this great survivor left behind him one of the most complete records of his school's methods of performance. That he rubbed shoulders with Rossini and Meyerbeer allows his style to be compared with more familiar singers and practices. Add to this that the castrato helped Manuel García, son of the tenor and brother of Malibran, publish a detailed guide to the performance of an aria from Morlacchi's Tebaldo e Isolina and the evidence mounts (see figure 2).
"Caro suono lusinghier" occurs in the last act of the opera, which Morlacchi had composed in 1822 for Velluti in the role of Tebaldo. In the preceding scena, a suicidal Tebaldo despairs of his separation from Isolina and fears her dead. As events turn toward theromanza, he thinks he hears her strumming a harp. The sound of this offstage instrument encourages him to recall the first time he heard her playing and singing, the moment he fell in love with the daughter of his mortal enemy. This recollection dates back to an episode that Gaetano Rossi described in the long introduzione to his libretto, which set the scene for the main action. "Caro suono lusinghier," in other words, hearkened back to a moment preparatory or external to the operatic plot-to a framing narrative, where Tebaldo unwittingly lost his heart to the voice of Isolina.
The song was adjudged the most engaging of the opera. Ebers recalled how it "enchained" and "enthralled" in London, not only because of Morlacchi's evocative use of the orchestra, but also because of the visual spectacle accompanying the music. Its moonlit scene, Ebers wrote, bound the audience, "as it were, by a spell." A pale light was called for from the King's Theatre technicians to "deepen [the music's] sombre and unearthly aspect." The moon, hovering against the backdrop, appeared as a thinly disguised metaphor; it symbolized the position of the protagonist, the half-lit environment mirroring Velluti's sense of abstraction. Music played its part too. Diegetic gestures abounded: the offstage harp, the musical form of the romanza, the return to an imagined, preexisting performance. It was as if Tebaldo's aria had been cut off from the main narrative: a suboperatic song. "While this scene is displayed, which seems to paint the silence of night even to the eye," Ebers wrote, "the full orchestral accompaniment is hushed-the flute and the harp alone are heard to prelude the mournful air that breaks from the lips of the melancholy warrior." The stillness of the scene presented an inactive twilight world to the audience, where nothing (new) was happening. Events had been suspended on the surface, as if to simulate the haze of a dream.
Musically, the most striking feature of Tebaldo's song is its harmonic stasis. The romanza is in two stanzas, the first beginning at measure 9, the second at measure 39. Overall, the harmony moves within a spectacularly narrow orbit; background interest is subordinated to foreground melody and ornament. Apart from the briefest dominant arrivals at bars 27 and 54, there is hardly any harmonic movement. Mirrored phrases (like those at bars 19-20 and 21-22), fragmented appearances of the theme (bars 31-35 in the flute and bars 59-63), and repeated cadential echoes in the tonic (mm. 18-23; mm. 36-39; mm. 48-51 and mm. 64-70) extend the form and preserve the mood of suspense. The stiltedness is particularly remarkable in the first stanza (mm. 9-38), with its interrupting pause marks and unmetered sections of vocal display (mm. 18-25). The propulsion of an andante mosso will come only at bar 39 with the words "Caro suono lusinghier." Yet Velluti's embellishments showcase a vocal range of nearly two and a half octaves, from the singer's low E♭ ossia (bar 47) to high A♭ in bar 50.
For the first nine bars the absent Isolina plays a simple dominant seventh sweep on her harp. We can imagine her audience holding its breath in anticipation of the melody. But instead of a singing voice as expected in measure 9, a parlando section ensues, with the cantabile played by a flute. For a full thirty bars Velluti merely apostrophizes beneath and around this tune. We are in Tebaldo's mind, the flute a surrogate for the lost voice of Isolina. Her imagined song begins with three phrases ending on dominant fermatas, reinforcing the tonal hovering. Only the forte cadence brings resolution (upbeat to measure 16), although the cadential echo sung by Velluti nullifies its grounding effect, with an asymmetric fifth phrase shorn of accompaniment and meter (m. 18).
In this tentative first stanza the castrato has been subtracted from the scene; dramatically he is trying to make sense of a song heard in his head. It is as if the real world of Isolina's aria is offstage and absent; the castrato is reduced to commenting on a memory, observing an intrusion from the past. The stage is set on the other side of the musical experience, in the dark space of listening rather than in the light of performance. Here Tebaldo joins his audience; the actor is reduced to directing his and their experience of the action. As the flute plays the opening melody, Velluti interprets it as "the sound of love" (il suono d'amore), his identification of this voice in measure 18 registered in melismas "performed by supple movements of the throat." He makes the identification, in other words, in an alienated or estranged style of vocalization. Similarly, when he first recognizes the love-object-the sound of the flute-he utters "lo conosco" (I know it) in "tones from the outside," in a covered timbre (m. 11). The implication is that he is external to experience, that his voice is partially missing. Unable to speak or sing of love directly, he must comment from the still, enigmatic world of his subconscious.
As if to reinforce the sense of an onstage subject being spirited away, Tebaldo's romanza appears as a kind of shadow aria. From the first statement of the melody Velluti's voice is cut away-compensated for by the missing Isolina, this "real" diegetic sound, this sound of fullness and earthy femininity. His voice has been mis- or displaced. There is a real sense in these opening lines that the audience must listen for an absence, something that has passed. When Velluti finally answers the flute with "Caro suono lusinghier," when he finally arrives at his beginning, he has been preempted; an excuse has been made for him. Once the music reaches the second stanza at measure 39, he merely repeats a preexisting melody. When the flute echoes his "Caro suono" with a melodic summary of the two phrases that have come before, the line has been divided or split into octaves (m. 42). Velluti's response is to sing "dolce ognor mi scendi al cor" in "tones imitating an echo" and smorzando (m. 46). Tebaldo's vocal statement here is a sad reflection of what it means to be "touched sweetly by love." Melodically, moreover, he is in tatters; he has entered the aria only on the occasion of its embellished repeat. The castrato's failing subjectivity has been scripted into the score; only a mutilated commentary, an echo of Isolina's original, remains.
In the 1820s "Caro suono lusinghier" owed much of its popularity to the way in which Morlacchi underwrote the onstage subject's castration. Velluti's lack of agency is also dramatized in such bizarreries as the flute-voice clashes (F♮-F♯/F♯-G♮) from the end of measure 28, the hemidemisemiquaver echo in measure 48, and the offbeat forte stresses in measure 52. All these reinforce his sense of stylization; his removal from the musical scene is striking. After all, the romanza itself was about loss or absence, a fact that no doubt excused the thinness of the castrated sound as expressive rather than pathetic. The refrain that "will never more return" (non mai più ritornerà) in the concluding bars must have been poignant for audiences in the late 1820s. We can imagine listeners drawn to Morlacchi's dramatization of the castrato staged in the twilight of his career, attracted as much as repulsed by the smooth wailing of his voice. All in all, "Caro suono lusinghier" appeared as a way of integrating the castrato's outdated micromanaged aesthetic into an emerging expressive framework, where expiry and expiration (literally, if you take Velluti's audible expirations into account) were drawn on as a dramatic resource. The castrato was heard as if in a dream, in the same "virtual" way Mendelssohn experienced him on the night of 15 May 1829.
Velluti's style of performing Tebaldo, as exemplified in García's tutor, hearkened back to a bygone era, an era before the individuality of the singer was expressed according to pure vocal timbre. Here was a time in which personality was expressed via spontaneous selections from the vocal armory: a learned technical palette with preparations, formulas, and other "parts of speech." Minute gradations of smorzature, rinforzi, gruppetti, mordenti, trilli, appoggiature, mezzotinte, and sfumature were called forth to etch the precise emotion. A myriad of chiaroscuro and ombreggiamento effects added to the innumerable modifications in tone quality. Never once was the purity of the vowel disturbed. Here was music to elevate, educate, and ennoble, "felt within the soul," as Rossini would have it, and a material body of enormous susceptibility shorn of vulgar essence.
In many ways, even now, the performance markings and ornamental finery are disturbing. From the point of view of modern practice, it is debatable whether a historically informed restitution of Velluti's style is musically useful or desirable-not to speak of ethical. One of the assumptions of authentic practice is that "correct" performance makes for a pleasant, wholesome encounter. In the case of Velluti, the stench of antiquity that hangs over his manner is on the contrary disengaging. There are places in history, this being one, that are perhaps best left alone. (Even the most open-minded of us would surely never assent to the castration of Italian boys?) This music is not ours.
For Velluti's critics, as we have seen, such an accretion of signs was equally affected, even sickening. All these inflections added up to little more than endless and empty whimpering. More disconcerting for the modern ear was all that soft moaning, the sniveling half breaths, the fussy silences, the supple movements in the throat, the audible exhalations, the thrilling "jerky inhalations" of air, the echo effects, glottal sounds, sustained consonants, sobs of passion, snuffed finishes, constant diminuendos, mooching swells, the lack of brio-the refined whining, sighing, and panting. This school's miniaturist aesthetic had no breadth of vision. It felt effete in the way it evaded cultural work, swooping pusillanimously from one note to the next. (These sounds, of course, were far from disembodied; it was just that the kind of body given to them had become difficult to ingest.) This canto di maniera-this mannered style-possessed little organic power, conviction, or direction. There was hardly anything there, as if the thoracic cavity, the vocal carriage, had been hollowed out. Everything happened externally, in the always already of a boyish throat. If sound issued from the castrato's languorous body at all, far from being expressed, it seemed to be emitted accidentally. It was as though the voice was secreting or discharging passively. The music had nothing to do with expression-natural self-expression-in the modern sense.
On one level, Velluti was animal, "a reptile to be loathed," as the Examiner suggested, with a voice like a "peacock's scream"; on another, he was machine. The artificiality of his acting drew repeated comment, the Atlas being troubled by the "incessant jerk of the head, like a mandarin in a china-shop." London Magazine linked his style to singing machines and steam engines:
If we could imagine an automaton as skilled in singing, as Roger Bacon's fabled clock-work head was in speaking, we can fancy that the effect would be similar; for the precision with which Velluti executes the most difficult passages, can only be compared with that of a piece of machinery, and the likeness would hold good also in respect of an occasional want of modulation in his highest tones, and a certain grating sharpness of finish. Some pieces of music he performs exactly as a steam-engine would perform them, if a steam-engine could be made to sing, taking each note with unerring accuracy, and taking each by a separate impulse, instead of floating on the gamut as less perfect singers commonly do.
The end of the passage is interesting. When Velluti did receive praise, it was usually because he avoided "connecting the sound with another by whooping, hectic slides," as the New Monthly Magazine put it in 1826. The technique of vocalization referred to here is foreign to the modern ear, although it is plain that such sliding across notes was expected, particularly of castrati. The practice of connecting tones microtonally, though Velluti was chaste in his use of it, was fresh enough in the memory to be described in García's tutor in 1847. Portamento di voce or the related agilità di portamento, García suggested, was indicated by what we would today interpret as a legato slur, as in measures 54, 48, or 36 of Morlacchi's aria for Velluti. Both Bacilly (1669) and Tosi (1723) describe a similar portamento or port de voix as a style of "sliding" or "dragging" one note into another. García was clear that the serpentine line implied by this pre-nineteenth-century indication "revolts a man of taste." This winding, phonetic genus, although apparently on its way out, was nevertheless lodged in the vocabulary of mid-nineteenth-century song. Stendhal's description of Velluti's voice as a "terra incognita" was not idle. The castrati were always best made sense of in terms of an ethnography of song.
Tebaldo e Isolina failed miserably when Velluti presented it in London in 1826. The New Monthly Magazine found it tiresome and complained at "the abundance of subjects in the minor mode," "dissonant harmonies," "diminished sevenths with inversions without end," and "chromatic modulations of the deepest die":
The ear soon grows tired of a continued succession of larmoyantes melodies, and lugubrious harmonies. . . . Such lympomania is perhaps more endemial here than anywhere else, as may be inferred . . . from the numerous gloomy subjects daily poetised upon among us. . . . Patrons of the woeful, whose bliss are groans and tears, have a delightful treat prepared for them in Morlacchi's music of "Tebaldo e Isolina," especially when moaned out in the lugubrious and impure intonation of Signor Velluti.
A pall of decay and gloom seemed to hang over Morlacchi's music when the castrato discharged it via his "sickly" body. The Examiner called it "a thing of shreds and patches" and "a mere cobweb in composition." "All is cut and frittered away," the reviewer argued, "in a constant succession of unmeaning flourishes." The sound seeped like vapor from the singer's tall, gothic form. At least one caricature related this Tebaldo to another "freak," a certain Claude Ambroise Seurat, who was being exhibited at the Chinese Saloon. This emaciated Frenchman-the so-called l'anatomie vivante, "living skeleton," or cupidon français of 94 Pall Mall-lived off Velluti's continued celebrity, or so most of the public understood. "The gaunt frame and awkward gait of Velluti," the Examiner concluded, "looked like an embroidered skeleton with a spangled death's hand, aping the hero and the lover."
In the end, "the painted sepulchre," as the Times labeled him, concealed a deception fundamental to everything-death. Bizarrely, though he was at least forty-four in 1825, London Magazine introduced him as being "no more than twenty-four years of age." He was apparently both old and young. His lack of center emptied him of history, made him a relic or corpse with the opera house his tomb. "Were I to scour your body with this blade, would I find there one feeling to stifle, one vengeance to satisfy?" Sarrasine asks the eunuch in Balzac's story. "You are nothing," he rages. "If you were a man or a woman, I would kill you."
Velluti arrived for his final season in London on 11 April 1829. He was no longer welcome at the opera. Instead he earned his living teaching the wives and daughters of the haute ton at his Singing Academy on Regent Street (the School of Cant, as it was affectionately known). Occasionally he would venture into public to perform, although by the end of the season he was reduced to singing English concert airs, such as Thomas Welsh's "Ah! Can I Think of Days Gone By." A plan he brokered (which garnered the support of the Duke of Wellington and the ballet master D'Egville) to turn the Argyll Rooms into a venue to rival the King's Theatre came to nothing in 1830 when the building burned to the ground. Broken and dispirited, at the end of 1829 the castrato returned to Italy, where he patched together appearances in Tebaldo e Isolina (Lugo di Romagna, 1830), Il crociato in Egitto (Brescia, 1830; Florence, 1833), Aureliano in Palmira (Brescia, 1831), Nicolini's Il conte di Lenosse (Venice, 1831), and, bizarrely, an Italianized La muta di Portici (Venice, 1831). For all intents and purposes, however, the writing had been on the wall during those last days in London. At the close of the 1833 season he retired to a quiet villa on the banks of the Brenta near Venice. There, as if to make peace with the natural laws that had put paid to his career, he spent his final thirty years as a gentleman farmer, communing with the fields and flowers.