His master’s voice

Guy Glass’s Last Castrato’ in New York

3 minute read
Pinion, Kreeger, Torres: Can’t escape history. (Photo: Ashley Anderson.)
Pinion, Kreeger, Torres: Can’t escape history. (Photo: Ashley Anderson.)
The Last Castrato sheds light on an important chapter of musical history, one that's as fascinating as it is complex. As its title implies, Alessandro Moreschi (1858-1922) was the last singer in the Italian Baroque tradition of the 17th and 18th Centuries, whereby young boys with promising voices were castrated well before puberty so they would remain sopranos.

Until 1904, when Guy Glass's drama takes place, the castrati were revered members of the Sistine Chapel's Papal Choir, and Moreschi was its star performer. All this was to change with the advent of Pope Pius X and a reform movement within the Church that would restore the Gregorian chant to its former prominence.

The Last Castrato takes place in an ornate chamber adjacent to the Sistine Chapel, where Moreschi's fate will be determined. As played by a fine actor, Jacob Pinion, Moreschi is sweet and guileless— a true innocent.

Convert and widow

His life is thrown into turmoil, however, when he meets two American women, a seemingly silly society matron named Mrs. Bristed (played by the veteran actress Bethe B. Austin), who provides comic relief as a new convert to Catholicism; and Lillie (the lovely Melissa Miller), a young widow with whom Moreschi falls in love.

Although Moreschi isn't gay, a fellow castrato named Cesari (Doug Kreeger) is attracted to him and, in a crucial scene, kisses Moreschi— an embrace that will produce far-reaching consequences.

While the various characters deal with their individual dilemmas, the Vatican exerts an iron hand in determining their fate. Intrigue abounds. There is the rivalry between Moreschi's friend, the aging castrato Mustafa, played poignantly by Frank Anderson, and the sinister choir director Perosi (Jonathan Tindle). Liam Torres portrays the power-hungry Cardinal Sarto.

Moreschi struggles to forge an identity as an individual— neither male nor female— so that he will be more than a voice machine. Ironically, as history unfolds, it liberates him in a most unexpected way. Enter Fred (the English actor Abe Goldfarb) with a newfangled gramophone that will bear Moreschi unique "children." The ending of the play is surprising and, happily, upbeat.

An anti-clerical play

Playwright Glass, a practicing psychiatrist by day, uses The Last Castrato to examine the issues of art, music, gender and posterity. This is as much an anti-clerical play as it is an intimate drama about several lives. No one can escape history.

Joseph Hill, a well-known countertenor, sings celestial Baroque music throughout this remarkable and thrilling play. In addition to the fine cast, the costumes, lighting and scenery are all first-rate. The talented direction is by John Henry Davis whose credits include TV's "Oz" and productions at Playwrights Horizons, the Mark Taper Forum and the Kennedy Center. An added bonus is the handsome program, which contains several enlightening essays as well as advertisements from turn-of-the-century New York.

Sometimes, the greater your distance from Broadway, the closer you come to rewarding theater.

What, When, Where

The Last Castrato. By Guy Fredrick Glass; directed by John Henry Davis. Through December 4, 2010 at the Connelly Theater, 220 E. Fourth St., New York.

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