Brighton Festival 2011
Featuring a live horse and variety of circus curiosities, this surreal and fast paced theatre-opera explores the strange history of the at once desired and repulsed castrati of the Italian Opera.
Monsters and Prodigies is perhaps most interesting for the fact that it is inspired in part by the life of Javier Medina – the actor who plays the soprano in the show. Suffering from leukaemia at eight years old, it affected his development so that his voice retains many of the qualities that could be found in the castrati of the 18th Century. Indeed it is very odd to see this large, strangely androgynous yet masculine figure onstage, from whom comes high quavering notes that are very different from those of a boy soprano, and not like a female either.
The singing of Javier Medina gives the audience a sense of the thrill and curiosity which sustained the barbaric procedure of castration throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, and the play effectively takes the audience through the history of this period – with the actors speaking in Spanish with English subtitles. As is always the case, you lose something with a subtitled performance, as you are unable to look at the action onstage at the same time as the words, but the skill of Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes meant that the sentiment was effectively conveyed through the actor’s physicality and tone of voice.
The play did not have a clear narrative, jumping around the eras and the different famous castrati’s exploits. This was largely fine, but towards the end of the play, once the live horse had paraded around the stage and an audience member had stood up and shouted at the actors in a thrillingly convincing way, the production became a little confused and the sense was lost at times. I do question the necessity of the live horse – exciting as it was to see a real animal on the stage of the Corn Exchange, the expense and training that must have gone into those scenes didn’t seem to justify the presence of the creature onstage.
The show was high energy, original and interesting, with some very skilled performances from the actors and musicians. Looking at a very interesting theme, the company managed to convey the opulence and strange loneliness of the castrato’s life – boys who were often sold by their family, and forced to live in isolation in brutally demanding music schools – never to see their home again. The play ends with a recording of the only castrato ever to commit his voice to disc – Alessandro Moreschi. Though reportedly past his prime when he made the recording, it is moving to hear this crackling voice from a time long gone filling the theatre.