We went to RedCat last night and saw The Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes perform “De Monstruos y Prodigios: la Historia de los Castrati.” We went because the ads promised humor and baroque music, which there was, along with much more. It was prodigious and we walked out baffled but entertained.
One way to describe it would be to say it was a lecture on the rise and fall of the castrati fad. A troupe of seven men took turns narrating and falling into roles and acting out scenes. They took us through the medical procedure that made boys castrati, their musical training, their role in baroque music, their life as musical superstars, the contrasting musical cultures of France and Italy, and the detractors that eventually led to their disappearance.
This would be pretty tame if the characters presenting the story didn’t include besides a composer and a young castrato, an aboriginal slave, a centaur, a set of Siamese twins, and a mute man riding a live horse. The performers were all odd specimens, to add to the strangeness. They were also accomplished orators and comedians. The show zipped along at a brisk pace: it was performance art with all the boring bits left out. The end of the castrati was signaled by the man sitting next to me standing up and screaming insults at the performers, precipitating a food fight that pummeled the audience with biscuits. After that it was complete mayhem, ending with Napoleon blowing everybody up with a canon.
What did it mean? I don’t know. One thread seemed to be the tug of contrasting forces of nature and art. How these two things provide opposite points between which lies a a spectrum of possibilities in which people orient themselves. Some are more wild (the centaur, the slave), others more artificial (the castrato, the Siamese twin explicators).
Another thread seemed to be the element of weirdness in Baroque music that is entirely surpressed in performance today. Lorriane Hunt-Lieberson singing “Lascia ch'io pianga" on a CD is one thing, and a 18th century transsexual in a hoop skirt and feathers (and full baroque theatrical scenery) is another. The whole modern sense of Vivaldi, Handel, & Purcell as wholesome, upbeat entertainment misses out on their decadent aspect, how their original performance context was more like Las Vegas plus a drag show than a modern-day concert performance, with good manners, and polite attentiveness to the music.
Sweet Sunshine, the pale grey horse white spots, was the handsomest performer on stage, danced and demonstrated the “canter pirouette, piaffe, passage and Spanish walk” impressively.
Shamefully, it was my first time seeing a performance at RedCat!