‘Monsters and Prodigies’ at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Hybrid life

The partially open curtain reveals a man naked from the waist up. He has clattered to the front of the stage, and he reveals in words what he disguises behind a waist-high screen inscribed with a white circle—that he is a centaur: a half-man, half-horse monster. After telling a series of histories about deformed children caused by an “excess” of sperm, he draws a parallel between himself and a manmade phenomenon of Baroque opera: the castrato.

The castrato is a hybrid as well: part man (genetically), part woman (in the soprano range of his voice, its tone and its flexibility), part child (in his inability to reach sexual maturity). This “hybridness” strings the castrato between two poles of abnormality: that of the monster and that of the prodigy. A monster because of his physical deformity and a prodigy because of the angelic beauty of his voice.

Such is the supposition of Monsters and Prodigies: The History of the Castrati brought to Yerba Buena Center for the Arts by Mexico’s Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes.

The Teatro’s production has its own qualities of monstrosity and prodigiousness. It’s a study in absurdist contrasts. An academic lecture on music history, even more thoroughly decorated with details in Spanish than the supertitles suggest in their translation, crossed with a rollicking, violent staging reminiscent of the Three Stooges, embellished with makeup and costuming right out of Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract. And no plot whatsoever. Hey, who needs plot?

The theatrically excellent cast includes Edwin Calderón, who is pretty fancy on the keyboard, as the 17th-century composer and harpsichordist Baldessarre Galuppi; Miguel Ángel López as the centaur Chiron; Raúl Román and Gastón Yanes as a pair of Siamese twins named, presumably, after the 17th-century military surgeon Ambroise Paré (and perhaps his 20th-century reincarnation as Canadian chef, Jean), who masquerade as the two-headed barber who instituted castration as a means of preserving young boys’ soprano voices; and Kaveh Parmas as Sulaiman, who, in beads and frilly short-aproned thong, portrays some mysterious manifestation of the New World native.

Javier Median, as Il Virtuoso, creditably acts and sings the part of the chubby and, at first, overwhelmed castrato child who learns to vocally wind his way through Handel, while decked out in ludicrously elaborate outfits of blue satins, red velvets, gold embroidery, flowers and feathers.

The mysteries of life in a flying bun

As exotic and captivating as the cast is, there is an overall silliness and pointlessness that undercuts the mysteries of sex and art that seem to have been the motivation behind the project. In countries like Mexico, where gender and sexuality are more strictly defined and effective within the culture, Monsters and Prodigies may seem revelatory and profoundly revolutionary. In this area, it’s more difficult to be moved by the cultural quirks of 17th-century Italy, where poverty, lack of children’s rights and the church’s profound misogyny combined to create the castrato. It may be more an issue for feminism than the core all-male cast might have us believe.

At one point actor Heather O’Brien creates uproar as an outraged audience member who yells at the cast, “No wonder there are no intermissions. If you had an intermission everyone would leave.” Some people in the audience applauded, giving approval to the sentiment. The outburst was followed onstage by hundreds of buns (the ones made out of flour) flying every which way in a culinary reenactment of the Napoleonic wars.

The most moving moment was at the end, when the child castrato figure listens, head down, while seated in the middle of the darkened stage, to Alessandro Moreschi, the last known castrato, singing “Ave Maria,” in a truly lovely recording made at the Sistine Chapel in 1902.

—Jaime Robles

This article first appeared in the Piedmont Post