To get the most visible issue out of the way, it simply won't do to object to the cover graphics featuring a bearded Cecilia Bartoli in repertory as suffused with transgender issues as the music of the 18th century castrato. Not only did the castrati sing in female voice ranges, they often sang in female voice ranges in male roles. Marvel, if marvel one must, at Bartoli's voice, still flexible and attractive in her mid-50s, and the voice is the key here. Farinelli (1705-1782), born Carlo Broschi, was one of the leading castrati of the 18th century: singers castrated before puberty who grew up with uniquely powerful, affecting voices. It's uncertain exactly what they sounded like (only one castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, survived to record in great old age), but it's clear that neither a modern-day soprano or a countertenor quite duplicates the effect. Bartoli gives it an impressive try, though. Those enamored of her classic, creamy sound might be surprised by the paces she puts her voice through here, but the creaminess is not quite what it once was, and it's good to hear her try something quite new. Bartoli tries to duplicate not only the repertory but also the sound of the castrati as she and we imagine it, with long, powerful runs: Farinelli was said to be able to sing 250 notes on a single breath, and if Bartoli doesn't manage quite that many, she adds an athletic aspect that works well in the more stirring pieces like "Lontan dal solo e caro," from Porpora's Polifemo. Some of these arias have been recorded before, but there are new pieces by such obscure composers as Geminiano Giacomelli and Riccardo Broschi (Farinelli's brother), all nicely tailored to Bartoli's voice just as they would have been in Farinelli's own time. Bartoli gets excellent support from Il Giardino Armonico, under Giovanni Antonini, who provide just the right amount of oomph for her voice. Beard and all, Bartoli can clearly compete with the other singers who have essayed this repertory.
by James Manheim