Great Opera Vocalists – Carlo Farinelli

The real name of this singer was Broschi. He was born at Naples, January 24, 1705, according to his own statement made to Burney, who saw him at Bologna in 1770. He soon left the care of his father, who taught him the rudiments, to enter the school of Porpora, of whom he was the first and most distinguished pupil. In spite of his explicit statement to Burney, it is not possible that Farinelli could have made his debut at Naples in 1720 at the age of fifteen in Metastasio’s “Angelica e Medoro”;; for the latter did not leave Rome till 1721, and “Angelica e Medoro” was not written before 1722. In that year Farinelli, already famous in Southern Italy under the name of il ragazzo (the boy), accompanied Porpora to Rome, and made his first appearance there in “Eomene,” composed by his master for the Teatro Aliberti. There was a German trumpet-player at that time in the capital, who excited the admiration of the Romans by his marvelous powers. For this artist Porpora wrote an obbligato part to a song, in which his pupil vied with the instrument in holding and swelling a note of extraordinary length, purity, and volume. Although the virtuoso performed this in a wonderful manner, Farinelli excelled him in the duration, brilliance, and gradual crescendo and diminuendo of the note, while he carried the enthusiasm of the audience to the highest pitch by the novelty and spontaneity of the trills and difficult variations which he introduced into the air.

Having remained under the instruction of Porpora until 1724, Farinelli made his first journey to Vienna in that year. A year later he sang for the first time at Venice in Albinoni’s “Didone abbandonata,” libretto by Metastasio; and subsequently returned to Naples, where he achieved a triumph in a “dramatic serenade” by Hasse, in which he sang with the celebrated songstress Tesi. In 1726 he appeared in Ciampi’s “Ciro” at Milan; and then made his second visit to Rome, where he was anxiously expected. In 1727 he went to Bologna’, where he met, for the first time, the famous Bernacchi, the “King of Singers.” In a grand duo with Bernacchi, Farinelli poured forth all the beauties of his voice and style without reserve, and executed a number of most difficult passages, which were rewarded with tumultuous applause. Nothing daunted, Bernacchi replied in the same air, repeating every trill, roulade, or cadenza that had been sung by Farinelli. The latter, owning his defeat, entreated his conqueror to give him some instruction, which Bernacchi, with equal generosity, willingly consented to bestow; and thus was perfected the talent of one who has through tradition been ranked as perhaps the most remarkable singer who ever lived.

After a second visit to Vienna, in 1728, Farinelli went several times to Venice, Rome, Naples, Piacenza, and Parma, meeting and vanquishing such formidable rivals as Gizzi, Nicolini, Faustina, and Cuzzoni, and everywhere loaded with riches and honors. In 1731 he visited Vienna for the third time. It was at this point that he modified his style, from one of mere brilliance and bravura, which, like a true pupil of Porpora, he had hitherto practised, to one of pathos and simplicity. This change is said to have been suggested by the Emperor Charles VI. “You have,” he said, “hitherto excited only astonishment and admiration, but you have never touched the heart; it would be easy to you to create emotion, if you would but be more simple and more expressive!” Farinelli adopted this admirable counsel, and became the most pathetic, as he was still the most brilliant, of singers.

Returning once more to Italy, he revisited with everincreasing renown Venice, Rome, Ferrara, Lucca, and Turin. In 1734 he made his first journey to England. He arrived at the moment when the opposition to Handel, supported by the nobles, had established a rival opera, with Porpora for composer, and Senesino, who had quarreled with the great German, for principal singer. The enterprise, however, did not succeed, but made debts to the amount of 19,000. At this juncture Porpora naturally thought of his illustrious pupil, who obeyed the summons, and saved the house. He made his first appearance at the Lincoln’s Inn Opera, in “Artaserse,” the music of which was chiefly by Riccardo Broschi, his own brother, and Hasse. The favorite airs were “Pallido il sole,” set by Hasse and sung by Senesino; “Per questo dolce amplesso,” by the same, and “Son qual nave,” by Broschi, both the latter being sung by Farinelli. In the last, composed specially for him, the first note was taken with such delicacy, swelled by minute degrees to such an amazing volume, and afterward diminished in the’ same manner to a mere point, that it was applauded for full five minutes. After this, he set off with such brilliance and rapidity of execution that it was most difficult for the violins of those days to accompany him.

He sang also in “Onorio,” “Polifemo,” and other operas by Porpora; and excited an enthusiastic admiration among the dilettanti which finally culminated in the famous ejaculation of a lady in one of the boxes (perpetuated by Hogarth in the “Rake’s Progress”)”One God and one Farinelli !” His salary was only £15oo, yet during the three years (1734-36) which he spent in London, his income was not less than 15000 per annum. On his return to Italy, he built, out of a small part of the sums acquired there, “a very superb mansion, in which he dwelt, choosing to dignify it with the significant appellation of the English Folly.”

Toward the end of 1736 Farinelli set out for Spain, staying a few months in France by the way; where, in spite of the ignorance and prejudice against foreign singers which then distinguished the French, he achieved a great success. Louis XV gave him his portrait set in diamonds, and 500 louis d’or. Though the singer, who had made engagements in London, intended only a flying visit to Spain, his fortune kept him there nearly twenty-five years. He arrived in Madrid, as he had done in London, at a critical moment. Philip V, a prey to melancholy depression, neglected the affairs of the state, and refused even to preside at the Council. The Queen, hearing of the arrival of Farinelli, determined to try the effect of his voice upon the King. She arranged a concert in the next room to that which the King occupied, and invited the singer to perform there a few tender and pathetic airs. The success of the plan was instantaneous and complete; Philip was first struck, then moved, and finally overcome with pleasure. He sent for the artist, thanked him with effusion, and bade him name his reward. Farinelli, duly prepared, answered that his best reward would be to see the monarch return to the society of his court and to the cares of the state. Philip consented, allowing himself to be shaved for the first time for many weeks, and owed his cure to the powers of the great singer. The Queen, alive to this, succeeded in persuading the latter to remain at a salary of 50,00o francs, and Farinelli thus separated himself from the world of art forever.

He related to Burney that during ten years, until the death of Philip V, he sang four songs to the King every night without change of any kind. Two of these were the “Pallido il sole” and “Per questo dolce amplesso” of Hasse; and the third, a minuet on which he improvised variations. He thus repeated about 3600 times the same things. It is not true that Farinelli was appointed prime minister by Philip; but under Ferdinand VT, the successor of Philip, he enjoyed the position of first favorite, superior to that of any minister. This king was subject to the same infirmity as his father, and was similarly cured by Farinelli, as Saul was by David. His reward this time was the cross of Calatrava (1750), one of the highest orders in Spain. From this moment his power was unbounded, and exceeded that ever obtained by any other singer. Seeing the effect produced on the King by music, he easily persuaded him to establish an Italian opera at Buen-retiro, to which he invited some of the first artists of Italy. He himself was appointed the chief manager. He was also employed frequently in political affairs, and was consulted constantly by the minister La Ensenada.

In all his prosperity, Farinelli ever showed the greatest prudence, modesty, and moderation. Having one day heard an officer in the antechamber complain of the King’s neglect of his thirty years’ service, while riches were heaped on “a miserable actor,” Farinelli begged a commission for the grumbler, observing mildly that he was wrong to tax the King with ingratitude. According to another anecdote, he once requested an embassy for a courtier, when the King asked him if he was not aware that this grandee was a particular enemy of his. “True,” replied Farinelli; “but this is how I desire to take my revenge upon him.”

Shortly after the accession of Charles III to the throne (1759), Farinelli received orders to leave the kingdom, owing probably to Charles’s intention to sign the family pact with France and Naples, to which the singer had ever been opposed. He preserved his salary, but on condition that he should live at Bologna and not at Naples. Once more in Italy, after twentyfive years of exile, Farinelli found none of his friends remaining. Some were dead; others had quitted the country. He passed the twenty remaining years of his life in a splendid palace, a mile from Bologna, contemplating for hours the portraits of Philip V, Elisabeth, and Ferdinand. He received the visits of strangers courteously, and showed pleasure in conversing with them about the Spanish court.

When Burney saw him at Bologna in 1771, though he no longer sang, he played on the viol d’amour and harpsichord, and composed for those instruments. He had also a collection of keyed instruments in which he took great delight, especially a piano made at Florence in 1730; and a fine gallery of pictures by Murillo and Ximenes, among which were portraits of his royal patrons, and several of himself, one by his friend Amiconi, representing him with Faustina Bordoni and Metastasio.

Fetis falls into an error in contradicting the story of Farinelli’s suggesting to the Padre Martini to write his “History of Music,” on the ground that he only returned to Italy in 1761, four years after the appearance of the first volume, and had no previous relations with the learned author. He was in correspondence with him certainly as early as April, 1756, when he writes in answer to a letter of Martini, and, after adverting to the death of Bernacchi, orders twentyfour copies of the “History,” bound in red morocco, for presents to the Queen and other notabilities of the court. It is, therefore, quite possible that their corre spondence originated even long before this. They remained in the closest intimacy until separated by the decease of Farinelli, July 15, 1782.

Martinelli speaks in glowing terms of this great artist, saying that he had seven or eight notes more than ordinary singers, and these perfectly sonorous, equal, and clear; that he had also much knowledge of music, and was a worthy pupil of Porpora. Mancini, a great master of singing and a fellow-pupil of Bernacchi with Farinelli, speaks of him with yet more enthusiasm. “His voice,” he says, “was thought a marvel, because it was so perfect, so powerful, so sonorous, and so rich in its extent, both in the high and the low parts of the register, that its equal has never been heard in our times. He was, moreover, endowed with a creative genius which inspired him with embellishments so new and so astonishing that no one was able to imitate them. The art of taking and keeping the breath, so softly and easily that no one could perceive it, began and died with him. The qualities in which he excelled were the evenness of his voice, the art of swelling its sound, the portamento, the union of the registers, a surprising agility, a graceful and pathetic style, and a shake as admirable as it was rare. There was no branch of the art which he did not carry to the highest pitch of perfection. . . . The successes which he obtained in his youth did not prevent him from continuing to study; and this great artist applied himself with so much perseverance that he contrived to change in some measure his style and to acquire another and superior method, when his name was already famous and his fortune brilliant.”