As biography of singer, 'Farinelli' hits the right notes


So you want to be a star, eh, kid? OK, it requires hard work, discipline, great talent and, er, maybe a little something extra.

For the castrati of Italy in the 18th century, that little something extra might be called the unkindest cut of all.

These young men sacrificed their testicles in an attempt to retain the piercingly pure, falsetto voices of childhood. Carlo Broschi (1705-1782), who sang under the name Farinelli, was the most famous of them all and is the central object in Gerard Corbiau's lush and fascinating film, which opens today at the Charles.

But the story, by Corbiau and his wife, Andree, is not conceived as a documentary. It seems only marginally interested in facts and instead tells a tale as psychologically involuted and passionate as anything in David Cronenberg. In fact, it reminds me a little of Cronenberg's "Dead Ringers," about twin brothers who were consumed by their neuroses.

The brothers in "Farinelli" aren't twins, but they are consumed -- by music. Carlo, with the eerie, surgically abetted voice, is the singer; Riccardo (Enrico Lo Verso) is the song. That is to say, as the film has it (evidently untrue in reality), Carlo will sing only Riccardo's songs and operas, which the two ride to enormous popular acclaim.

Like pop stars everywhere, the emoluments of success include access to some of the fabled beds of their time, where they seem to operate as a tag team: one makes the opening moves, the other closes for the pin. The movie gets a lot of amusement out of this novel arrangement.

But its fault lines are based on serious artistic issues. What I enjoyed so much about it was that it uses the sensational sexual and show-biz materials for fun, but it's serious at heart. The dilemma here is between style and substance. For it turns out that Riccardo is something of a third-rater as a composer. His work is virtuosic, but it's shallow. It has no soul; it's all fretwork, pyrotechnics, biz and bits. Naturally, the folks love it.

The other side of the argument is represented by Jeroen Krabbe's Handel, an austere and insanely egotistical genius who nevertheless knows that his simpler and more powerful pieces manage to achieve the true emotion of art, whereas Riccardo's are pure manipulation. Handel hovers like a zeppelin of reproach throughout the film, admiring of the great voice, disdainful and ultimately contemptuous of the cheap use to which it's being put.

Farinelli (the eerily androgynous Stefano Dionisi) understands this, and despite the high-glam background, the true arc in the story is interior: his own eventual acquiescence to Handel's vision of his gifts.

Of course the irony (and the delight) is that "Farinelli" the movie wants to have it both ways. It woos us with gorgeous music that appeals to our highest instincts, and it also shows us quite a few young women who have misplaced their blouses, appealing to our naughtiest instincts.

Some things work less well. The story is confusingly told, beginning with the trope of a mysterious opening, from which point we flash back 18 years earlier and begin the journey that will explain what we have just seen. There's also some fairly transparent mumbo-jumbo revolving about the artificial veiling of the reasons and reality of the act of the castration.

bTC A second issue is equally interesting: If only the surgically mutilated can perform it, is the music of the castrati "real"? It certainly isn't natural; it's an artifice, a trick. It's like a 100-yard-dash record set on steroids. In this area, too, the movie wants it both ways.

Since no castrati exist today, music written for them is rarely performed. To achieve the range, the voices of two singers, a man and a woman, were digitally combined -- a process that the press notes make sound more complex than the actual filming. For the record, the two singers were countertenor Derek Lee Ragin and soprano Ewa Mallas Godlweska. The final voice that emerges is indeed awesome.


Starring Stefano Dionisi and Jeroen Krabbe

Directed by Gerard Corbiau

Released by Sony Classics

Rated R (nudity, sexual situations)


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