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Chez Handel

On Wednesday, I visited the Handel House Museum with redkitty23, who had not seen it before, and specifically the current Castrati exhibition, which neither of us had seen before.

I think the best bit was the three large portraits of Farinelli, Senesino and Guadagni, all lined up in rich, colourful and self-assured glory in Handel's rehearsal room. But I also enjoyed the general sense which the exhibition conveyed of the extraordinary range of castrati singers Handel had worked with, as well as being in a place where lots of people were getting to listen to Alessandro Moreschi singing for the first time (on a CD in the main exhibition room). redkitty23 was underwhelmed: "He sounds drunk," she said. But at least she had the chance to listen to him and forge a reaction. Meanwhile, those who were more taken by him had the opportunity to buy the OPAL CD of his surviving recordings and Nicholas Clapton's book in the gift shop.

There was a worst bit, too, though: the very tedious woman on duty in Handel's bedroom, who just could not shut up and let us take in the atmosphere of the house in peace. I mean, I get that she knew lots of stuff about Handel and wanted to share it with us. But I already knew practically everything she said anyway, and she just didn't pick up on hints such as giving very short answers and not making any eye contact which were supposed to convey to her that I just wanted her to leave me alone and let me experience the sense of Handel's presence in my own way. Interestingly, when I began mentioning this on the phone to my Mum, who had visited the exhibition in the spring, she immediately said, "Oh, I know exactly the woman you mean: she really was irritating, wasn't she?" It made me realise that my experience probably wasn't unique, and think that perhaps I should write an email to the people who run the house, just politely pointing out that although some visitors might welcome a very chatty and enthusiastic guide, others prefer to be left to themselves. I'm sure that woman wouldn't want to think that she is actually having a negative impact on some people's experience of the house, and a polite word or two about how to tell the difference between people who want to talk and people who just want to look might help to prevent that in future.

Wednesday was also one of the hottest days of the week, which perhaps wasn't the most sensible time to go down to a big, dusty, busy city. In fact, we went shopping in the afternoon around Oxford Circus, and I wasn't at all surprised to hear on the news that the following day many of the shops we had visited had had to close due to power-cuts caused by too high a demand on air-conditioning systems. Still, we managed, and although we didn't really buy anything in the end, we had a very nice lunch (mmm, grilled halloumi!) and some much-needed iced coffees before getting on the train.

That was probably the last visit I'll make to London before I go off up to Leeds: but definitely a good one.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 30th, 2006 10:28 am (UTC)
Museum guides are often volunteers, and seem to fall into two camps: those who don't know the answers to questions you might have, and those who have an encyclopædic knowledge of their subject. Fortunately, most of the latter stay quiet unless asked. A tactful e-mail sounds like a sensible public service on your behalf for future visitors.
Jul. 30th, 2006 10:54 am (UTC)
Oh, yes, she was definitely a volunteer - judging from her age, I think it must be something she's doing in her retirement. I think it's great that she's so engaged with the museum, and from some of the things she was saying, it sounds like she's writing some kind of book as well. I don't want to discourage any of that, but then again I presume that she herself primarily wants people to enjoy the house. If I email, it'll basically be to suggest that she is gently advised on how to pick up on the difference between those people for whom that means looking around on their own, and those people who actually want to talk to her about it.

In all honesty, though, it isn't my top priority right now, what with the summer school still going on. My main goal is to do enough work today, tomorrow and Tuesday so that I don't have to work on my birthday on Wednesday.
Jul. 30th, 2006 08:39 pm (UTC)
M and I have just seen the Castrato documentary courtesy of his parents' hard-disk recorder thingum - and I have to say I thought Moreschi really wasn't a good singer. His voice had a horrible harsh brassy quality in the lower registers and seemed to lack control in the acrobatic stuff; according to the BBC thing that may be because the style of baroque singing was vastly different to what's taught today, but there again it might also be because as the last sputter of a dying art form he actually wasn't all that good...
Jul. 30th, 2006 09:45 pm (UTC)
Well, he certainly isn't for everybody. In fact, judging from the astonishing range of the reactions to his Ave Maria recording (the same one that was on the documentary) on this page, it seems he is rather like Marmite.

Personally, I'm prepared to cut him a lot of slack for using a recording medium which was new and constrained by some serious limitations. The unwanted 'noise' and lack of dynamic range are obvious, while he probably had to stick his head in a big horn to sing (not conducive to a person's best work!), and he certainly sounds rather nervous about the whole process on some of his earlier (1902) recordings. As for the style (I think you mean 'bel canto', not 'baroque'), I was put off by it at first myself, and it's certainly different from today's performances. But I've actually really got to like it over repeated listenings, and now feel it has a charm and a value all of its own.

His voice itself may not be perfect on the recordings we have. I agree that he's sometimes a little insecure, and he was probably starting to lose the upper portions of his range when he made them. But, fundamentally, I just really like the noise he produces. I love that harshness: it gets right inside me, demands my attention, fills my own chest, and even feels like it is lifting me off the ground sometimes. And the purity of his high notes once he's hit them is breath-taking. Like the 'ping' of a silver spoon on finest crystal.

I'm pretty sure from having read a lot about him that he actually sounded a lot better in real life than on the recordings we have. Around 1889, a famous female soprano of the day, Marie Durand, refused to perform in a concert after he had sung, feeling that she couldn't follow him. Meanwhile, in 1914 (ten years after his last recordings), the German musicologist Franz Haboeck described his voice as 'the most beautiful wind instrument ever given life by human breath.' I don't see why people would have made reactions like that up if he wasn't genuinely admired as a singer in his day.

Of course, that doesn't mean we have to like the recordings which survive. But for me, the point is that I do like them on their own account. Even if they may be a poor reflection of the original, I think they're wonderful to listen to as they are.
Jul. 30th, 2006 10:12 pm (UTC)
Well, sevenstring and I both had an instant 'oh wow' reaction to the few moments of Michael Maniaci we were permitted to hear by the castrati documentary, and were most frustrated to find he hasn't made any recordings we can go out and buy as a mark of our approval. So if Moresci really was better than that and a more "true" castrato voice, then yes, I'm sure he probably did merit his reviews. But: people are strange. Modern people worship inexplicable, appeal-free artificial deities like Charlotte Church and Boyzone, so you can't always judge talent from popularity; and you don't get much more artificial than a castrato. Plus, the more abstruse and training-heavy the arts (ballet, singing etc) get, the more the reviewing procedure seems to become based on arbitrary notions of correctness in the form (and frequently on social politics too), rather than of listenability or entertainingness. So I'm not sure I necessarily believe Moresci would have moved me in the same way I think Michael Maniaci is likely to be capable of. I might well have found it as dull as I do a modern female soprano singing diabolically uninteresting Italian sentimental nonsense, in spite of the unusual voice.

I'm also a terrible pragmatist, and I don't unfortunately think you can really argue the toss either way given that we have no well-recorded evidence of Moresci's best years, so I'm waiting around for the closest available modern technology equivalents to inform myself with, I'm afraid.
Jul. 31st, 2006 09:50 am (UTC)
Actually, I have some mp3s of Maniaci. Drop me an email if you'd like them (address here.

And I love your new icon! Is that from this weekend?
Jul. 31st, 2006 10:56 am (UTC)
Mailed. And yes, it is - there's a link to the full-size version, taken by ewx, buried in my entry on the weekend here.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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