True or Falsetto: A Secret History of the Castrati

A one-man show performed by Ernesto Tomasini, written by Lucy Powell
Drill Hall
(2003)

Ernesto Tomasini has an amazing singing voice of four octaves; his countertenor range has a strength and beauty well suited to the operatic arias included in the show, in particular 'Vi ricorda o boschi ombrosi' from Monteverdi's Orfeo, 'Che faro senza Euridice' from Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, and 'Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix' from Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila. The latter brought tears to my eyes, it was performed with such convincingly powerful emotion. And alongside the otherwise entirely classical repertoire came the music hall song, 'Waitin' at the Church', complete with broad Cockney accent - no mean feat for an Italian guy from Sicily!

Ernesto's performing career has been a varied one, covering theatre, cabaret and concert hall. In this show he combines all three, and keeps the audience entranced throughout. At one moment he is a mad doctor, carrying out a simulated castration (the faces of the men in the audience at this point were a picture to see - the women took it somewhat more calmly); at another moment he is doing a sinister mime, Nosferatu-style, behind a translucent curtain; the next minute he is chatting amiably to the audience about his fan mail; the next he is auditioning for Herr Gluck, and coming gradually to terms with the idea that this innovatory German composer requires absolute realism from his performers - "Mean what you sing, and sing what you mean"!

During the course of the show we learn about the history of the castrato voice - how it was 'invented' for convenience by the Catholic Church (female singers not being allowed in the Vatican), continued for four centuries, and was then suddenly abandoned as 'bad PR', leaving the castrati of the day 'in the lurch', as it were. Many castrations proved fatal, and even those who survived did not always retain a good singing voice as they grew older. Obesity was another unfortunate side-effect, as was excessive height. We hear part of a haunting recording of the famous last castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, who, hearing his voice played back to him, was horrified, and refused to sing ever again.

The show is just an hour long - a good length for a one-man show, though I would gladly have stayed for more. Ernesto was ably accompanied at the piano by Musical Director Stephen Robinson, the imaginatively adaptable set was by Simon Kenny, and the versatile costumes were by Ilona Karas Prokopcova.

True or Falsetto received its world première in 2002 at the Pleasance Theatre, Edinburgh Fringe, then went on in January 2003 to the Cosmic Theatre, Amsterdam. After the current London run it will move on to Ireland and Italy. I hope that it will return to the UK before too long - it deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible, and it would be interesting to see what could be done with it on film.

Ernesto has cult status as a cabaret performer, and I can well understand why - he is flamboyant, versatile, energetic, fascinating to watch and a joy to listen to, both singing and speaking. An image of him stays in the mind for days afterwards. If a CD of his singing had been on sale, I would have bought one. Ernesto is the besto!

Gill Stoker