Today these castrati roles have been transformed into pants roles for mezzo sopranos or contraltos or they are sung by countertenors, men with naturally high voices who have nurtured the art of singing in the contralto and even soprano range.
Once an oddity found mainly in Britain, countertenors are now fairly common in the United States and are often heard in Handel operas such as the current production of "Orlando" at the New York City Opera. Since the late 20th century revival of interest in 18th century opera, countertenors are very much in demand in opera houses around the world.
Handel wrote two of the three leading male roles in "Orlando" for countertenors, the title role sung by Bejun Mehta, whose career has taken him to every major opera house in the United States and Europe, and the role of Medoro sung by Matthew White, also an international star. White is making his New York City Opera debut this season, joining Mehta and John Gaston as the Lincoln Center company's countertenors in residence.
Mehta and White are typical of the most talented and musically resourceful countertenors of the day, having voices that are masculine in timbre, clean, penetrating and flexible with an instrumental purity that might be likened to a clarinet. Mehta's voice is particularly lovely, even haunting in the highest register and most difficult coloratura, as well as in the vocal ornamentation typical of the Baroque era, and he is the better, more graceful actor.
Handel wrote the role of Orlando for a leading castrato of the day, Senesino, for whom he had written 17 leading roles. Unlike most of these previous roles, Orlando lacked extended arias that provided opportunities for flashy ornamentation and was disappointing to Senesino, who left Handel's employ as a result. The opera had 10 performances in Handel's lifetime and was not revived until the 20th century.
The plot of the three-hour work, based by librettist Carlo Capece on Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto's "Orlando Furioso," is a flimsy one about a young hero (Orlando) who woos a princess of Cathay named Angelica. Orlando discovers Angelica is in love with a scholarly African prince named Medoro who, in turn, has betrayed a shepherdess, Dorinda, who nursed him back to health and loves him devotedly.
Angelica's elopement with Medoro, sends Orlando into a fit of raving jealousy that develops into madness. He is restored to sanity by the ministrations of Zoroastro, a magician representing reason who is determined to lead Orlando away from the seductions of love and back to his profession as a knight errant. It's the sort of romantic piffle that audiences expected of opera in 1733 and can be forgiven by modern audiences because of Handel's sublime musical score.
In addition to the outstanding performances of Mehta and White, the richly endowed bass David Pittsinger turns in a towering performance as Zoroastro, who lurks at the edges of the action and intervenes only when things are not going his way. Soprano Jennifer Aylmer is delightful and fresh-voiced as the lovelorn Dorinda, who seems to be running a rural sanitarium for victims of Cupid's bow, and soprano Amy Burton is elegant of carriage and voice as the aristocratic Angelica.
Director Chas Rader-Shieber's production is conceived in children's storybook terms with several children garbed as winged cupids scampering about. First seen at the Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, N.Y., two years ago, it benefits strongly from David Zinn's imaginative sets, which can be transformed quickly from an enchanted woodland to surreal interiors, and from Lenore Doxsee's exquisite lighting effects. Zinn's costumes designs adhere to period fashion.
Antony Walker, making his company debut, conducts a continuo consisting of six musicians with all the skill of an 18th century music specialist, shaping the contours of Handel's melodies with striking clarity and attention to rhythmic beat worthy of a rock musician. "Orlando" represents a remarkable achievement and one of the highlights of the current New York musical season.
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