De Monstruos y Prodigios, La historia de los ‘castrati’

Koninklijke Vlaamse Schouwburg / De Bottelarij

5/05 > 17:00
6/05 > 18:00
8, 10/05 > 20:00
11/05 > 19:00
Language: Spanish
Subtitles: Fr & Nl
Duration : 1 :45

At the beginning of the seventeenth century in Italy, a two-headed Neapolitan surgeon-barber carried out an experimental operation on a poor young man – castration – thus preserving his angelic soprano tessitura. This is where the story of castrati, monsters and prodigies all began. An independent director in Mexico, Claudio Valdés Kuri is exploring the social status, extravagant apotheosis, whims, superstitions and brutal fall of these creatures who were first adulated and then abhorred, according to prevailing levels of tolerance. This man of theatre is also a bass singer in the vocal quartet, Ars Nova, specialising in arias from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A two-headed man, a castrato, a harpsichordist, a centaur, a horseman and Bonaparte all play a part in the telling of this historical journey – musical, outrageous, fantastic and oh so baroque!

Text: Jorge Kuri

Direction: Claudio Valdés Kuri

Musical direction: Magda Zalles

Actors: Raul Román, Hernán del Riego, Javier Medina, Luis Fernando Villegas, Kaveh Parmas, Antonio Duque, Miguel Angel López

Lighting design: Victor Zapatero

Costume design: Mario Iván Martínez

Rehearsal director: Claudia Mader

Production manager: Grupo Estrategos

Production assistant: Marco Antonio Diaz

Executive producer: Igor Lozada

Coproduction: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes/ Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (MEX), Compañía Nacional de Teatro (MEX), Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores (MEX)

Presentation: de bottelarij/koninklijke vlaamse schouwburg, KunstenFESTIVALdesArts

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My dear child,

It does not surprise me that you have had an insurmountable aversion until now for that thing in the world that matters to you most. Unrefined and coarse people have spoken to you bluntly about having yourself castrated. It is such an ugly and horrible expression that it would have repelled a far less delicate mind than your own. For my part, I will try to obtain your fortune in a less disagreeable manner, and will say to you, using insinuation, that you need to be softened by a little operation that will guarantee the delicacy of your complexion for many years to come and the beauty of your voice for the rest of your life. Today you are on familiar terms with the king, you are caressed by duchesses, praised by persons of quality. Yet when the delightfulness of your voice is gone, you will just be Pompée’s friend and despised perhaps by M. Stourton (the Negro and pageboy respectively of the Duchesse Mazarino). But you say that you fear the ladies will love you less. Lose that apprehension. We are no longer living in a time of imbeciles. What we know quite well today is that glory follows the operation, and for a mistress with M. Dery as nature made him, a softened M. Dery will have one hundred of her like. You are therefore guaranteed to have mistresses and it is a great fortune; having no wife means you are free from a great evil – you will be lucky to have no wife, even luckier to have no children! A daughter of M. Dery would get herself pregnant, a boy would get himself hanged and, what is surer still, his wife would make of him a cuckold. Protect yourself from all these ills with a quick operation; you will have only yourself to be attached to, enjoying glory after this little thing that will make your fortune and give you the friendship of the world. If I should live long enough to see you when your voice has broken and your beard grown, you will be reproached greatly. Prevent this from being the case and believe me to be the most sincere of all your friends.

1685. Letter from Charles de Saint-Evremond to M. Dery, young pageboy of his mistress,

in Histoire des Castrats [The History of Castrati], Patrick Barbier, Grasset, 1989

Claudio Valdés Kuri is tackling the story of ‘castrati’, prodigals and monsters at the same time. They were children born into poor families who were propelled to the level of stars that shone in the frivolous constellation of the important courts in Europe. A theatre director from Mexico City, Valdés Kuri is also bass singer in the Baroque vocal quartet, Ars Nova, which specialises in Mexican colonial music of the sixteenth, seventeenth and very early eighteenth centuries. Deprived of the delights of Castile society, Spaniards who followed Cortez to the ‘New Spain’ (Mexico) complained of the natives’ musical barbarism until they discovered the refinements of Indian musicians who enjoyed great privileges at Emperor Montezuma’s Aztec court. From that moment on, the ‘conquista’ also incorporated music – many Spanish and Portuguese composers emigrated to the New World while Indian nobility gave cathedrals a Baroque mixed with their native tongue and heightened with ‘negrillo’ tones. At that time, Jesuit missionaries were opportunistic enough to tolerate the indigenous languages banned by the King of Spain. The formidable machine of evangelisation had to adapt to have more success over the ‘ungodly’!

Valdés Kuri has a particular interest in musicology, researching and unearthing a number of scores that had been lying dormant in ecclesiastical archives in Mexico. With his quartet, he has enjoyed making CDs of them, performing the sophistication, gaiety and virtuosic nuptials of bass, soprano, contralto and counter-tenor voices, accompanied by viola da gamba, flute, percussion instruments, harpsichord, baroque guitar and castanets. He is also an independent director and a particularly fine director of actors. There is nothing surprising in him marrying the two exuberant facets of his art during two years’ research into the very western, very Italian and very baroque history of the ‘castrati’. They were an unprecedented musical, social and cultural phenomenon. From 1700, the court in Madrid, which vied on all things with the court in Naples, played host to Farinelli for 30 years as a therapist and confidant of Philip V, the depressive, establishing him as Philip the Great of Spain.

Yet in giving us a musical approach as fantastical as it is rigorous, the director does not omit casting an exhilarating and saving glance over the excesses and artifices of European men of nobility and religion, pursuing their shamelessness and emphasising their hypocrisies. His accurate and frenzied documentary is not devoid of irony either when it comes to these aristocrats who were happy to colonise the body of a lowly-born child for the sensual pleasure of frivolous feasts and liturgical spectacles. In their quest for a ‘pure’ and ‘gratuitous’ beauty, they had no scruples recommending that others be mutilated in this most barbaric way.

To the sand-covered stage, a small-sized circus ring, Valdés Kuri summons wigs and ostrich feathers, gold and brocades. The courtly celebration is taking place in an arena. His corrida can begin, a “performance-reading”, according to Valdés Kuri. It is more a performance than a reading! Two brothers, Siamese twins, are the masters of ceremony – just one black doublet with lace for this torso with two heads and four legs. These are the Paré brothers, Jean the surgeon-barber and Ambroise the opera critic, who both chronicle and act out archived documents and testimonies from that time. They are pontificating scholars, sly and quarrelsome mimics, each head vying with its other half using his display of knowledge and song. For these two amazing actors are also professional bassesin real life. Opposite them is Galuppi, a harpsichord teacher, tenor and heavily ridiculed bourgeois, and the ‘sopranista’, a castrato by accident in real life, with his angelic voice, plump physique and chubby face. He is their ‘curiosity’, the plaything of these men of fashion.

Completing the picture is Sulaimán, an eastern eunuch, scorned slave and exotic souvenir from the colonies, and, made to feel similarly inferior, the centaur Quirón, a runaway vagabond who holds the degrading superstition that he is the fruit of zoophilic sexual practices. In this arena, the sublime has a touch of the ridiculous about it, and there is little to choose between affectation and barbarity or between tragedy and buffoonery. The musical theatre in it carries the lone and melancholic voice of the castrato soaring to the divine heights of arias by Pergolesi, Bononcini, Handel and Gluck. The political theatre in it mocks class prejudices and the ambiguous attitude of the Church. Opposed to the ‘diabolical’ public presence of women in places of worship, the Church legitimised then banned castration, whilst continuing to invite the most wonderful sopranists to sing beneath the vaulted ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. That political theatre is a scandalmonger too, revelling in salacious tales and feasting on farce and jealousies, both those of diva sopranos towards the heavenly male sopranists and those of composers tyrannised by the whims of arrogant angels.

It is a small part of a greater History. The last sparks of brilliance in De Monstruos y Prodigios, La historia de los ‘Castrati’ are put out in the devastated arena, amidst the indescribable chaos coming at the peak of the Age of Enlightenment with the clamours of the French Revolution. Its extravagant and incredible journey pays homage to the Baroque spirit that astounded itself with exquisite abundance in order to distract itself from the gaping metaphysical void, whilst at the same time mocking this void too, juxtaposing its artifices and consented cruelty to satisfy its whims. The journey is a moving one too. After ‘Cinema Paradiso’, comes ‘Sopranista Paradiso’ and... ‘Inferno’.

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