This is the tale of a Musico, or castrato, one of literally thousands of boys who, during the 17th to 19th centuries, were sacrificed in the name of music. Deprived of their manhood at puberty in order to preserve their golden voices, they went on to delight audiences of the church and the theatre with their remarkable talent, magnificent staying power, and phenomenal range. Or to die unknown and unloved, useful neither to the stage nor to the church.
Moses Froben, the protagonist, is the son of a poor, deaf-mute mother and a licentious priest, born into a humble mountain village in Switzerland. His meteoric rise from filthy urchin to prima virtuoso of the opera stage is marvellous and dramatic. This novel has all the ingredients of an excellent read: forbidden love (homosexual and across classes), fatherly love, intrigue, rags to riches, historical anecdotes, a wicked guardian and several dramatic escapes. That Moses’ actions are often irrational, and the structure of the novel sometimes haphazard, is perhaps deliberate, for such is the nature of opera plots. Do not attempt to find logicality and reason herein, for ils n’existent pas! If you enjoy the theatrical drama and incongruity of opera, then this book is for you. Even the chapters are set out in three Acts, with numerous internal “scenes”.
The author’s evident research is enlightening, explaining and perhaps debunking the myths and mysteries in which the world of the castrati is shrouded. For those curious as to whether castrati could please and love women, or father children, herein lie the answers, expressed with naïve candour by our self-effacing hero. Harvell depicts the castrati as not only demigods of the stage, but also as immensely popular with aristocratic women, for their capacity to entertain and pleasure them – without the consequences.
The Bells is an aural feast, filled with sounds both commonplace and glorious, making it almost possible to “hear” the story as well as to read it. Each page resonates with music: the tolling of bells, sacred chant in the monastery of St. Gall, and opera – specifically Gluck’s revolutionary Orfeo of 1762. Born with an exceptional gift for acute hearing, Moses brings to our attention the distant whisperings of lovers, the creak of a floorboard, the intake of breath. The reader’s auditory experiences are rich and ample, creating a new awareness of the minutiae of our acoustic environment.
Like the innovative book Perfume by Patrick Süskind, which explores to extremes the olfactory sense, this is an imaginative essay on the sense of hearing.
Will someone now write a novel exploring TASTE?
Also read: The World of the Castrati by Patrick Barber (Souvenir Press)
And see the film: Farinelli, about the celebrated castrato Carlo Broschi, starring Stefano Dionisi and Enrico Lo Verso
By Winifred Latham