Caffarelli – The Italian Opera Singer

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You may never have heard of Caffarelli, one of Italy’s finest Castratos so here is a a little about him….

Caffarelli, whose real name was Gaetano Majorana (1710-1783), is said to have had one of the purest voices in the history of Italian opera. Apulian by birth (from the old Puglia), he studied in Naples where he was castrated, the price for keeping his magnificent voice. He is remembered in the city of Naples by the palace he built in 1754.

The extremely narcissistic singer had these words to his own glory inscribed on the gateway of the palace: Amphyon Thebas Ego Domum – literally, “Amphion Thebes Myself this House” – by which he meant: “If Amphion built the walls of Thebes with the mere sound of his lyre, I have built this palace with the sound of my voice.”

A number of contemporary writers, including Lalande in his Voyage en Italie, mention that a mischievous spirit had written this comment on the double doors: iile cum, tu sine (“him with, you without”), alluding to Amphion’s intect male attributes, unlike those of Caffarelli. But no trace remains of this witticism.

Caffarelli, a cad and an insolent brawler, was the subject of much gossip that delighted all the scandalmongers of the time. A story doing the round in Europe claimed that he refused the gift of a valuable snuffbox from Louis XV on the pretext that it had no portrait of the King. When it was pointed out to him that His Majesty only granted such an honour to ambassadors, Caffarelli retorted: “Well, let His Majesty make the ambassadors sing!”

Caffarelli had the voice of a mezzo-soprano with an extensive range and high tessitura. Those who heard him said that he ranked only behind the famous Farinelli. However, unlike Farinelli who ended his career at the age of 32, Caffarelli kept performing well into his 50s and over. He had a long and successful collaboration with Handel, who was also notoriously difficult to get on with but the two seemed to have worked well together.

In 1739, during a concert at the prestigious  church of Donna Regina, Caffarelli came to blows with this rival, Reginelli. In 1741, he had to be handcuffed and locked up because during an opera performance at the San Carlo theatre, he shouted at the audience, jeered at other singers and exhibited openly lecherous behaviour towards one of the women. Two years, again on stage in front of the spectators, he changed the music to confuse his partner, just for the hell of it!

Friedrich Melchior Grimm up his qualities:

“It would be difficult to give any idea of the degree of perfection to which this singer has brought his art. All the charms and love that can make up the idea of an angelic voice, and which form the character of his, added to the finest execution, and to surprising facility and precision, exercise an enchantment over the sense and the heart which even those least sensible to music would find it hard to resist.:

Cafferelli died in Naples. You can find his palace – Palazzo Majorana at 15 Via Carlo Cesare, Naples.

 

(Adapted in part from Secret Naples by Valerio Grimaldi Maria Franchini, published by JonGlez)

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