Farinelli enjoyed a quasi-mythical status, even in his own life-time. The main reason for this was his exceptional voice, although his androgynous beauty clearly contributed. Farinelli was a highly skilled performer, much praised for the beauty of his sound, the breadth of his range, the purity of his intonation and his breath control and agility. It has been recorded that the range of his voice covered more than three and a half octaves. Some accounts of his life state that he could produce 250 notes in a single breath and sustain a note for more than a minute.
"Farinelli," says Charles Burney, the leading music historian of the period, "could hold his notes for such a long time that those who heard him believed that it was impossible to do so naturally. They believed he hid a special instrument which maintained the sound of his voice whilst he took another breath."
Despite his unusual gifts, Farinelli decided early on in his career to try and steer clear of compositions which merely enabled him to show off the range of his voice. He preferred pieces which were more restrained and purer.
Farinelli's particular destiny also became part of his legend: a huge star (as were other castrato singers such as Caffarelli or Senesino), Farinelli, at the age of only thirty two, chose to retire from the limelight at the height of his success so he could sing exclusively for King Philip V of Spain who was known to have been severely depressed for many years.
According to Charles Burney: "Upon the arrival of Farinelli ... Queen Isabella contrived that there should be a concert in a room adjoining the King's apartments, in which this singer performed one of his most captivating songs. Philip appeared at first surprised, then moved: and at the end of the second air, made the virtuoso enter the royal apartment, loading him with compliments and caresses. He asked him how he could sufficiently reward such talents and assured him that he would refuse him nothing. Farinelli, previously instructed, begged that His Majesty would permit his attendants to shave and dress him, and asked that he would endeavor to appear in council as usual. From then on the king's disease was treated medically, and the singer was considered responsible for curing him."
Thus began Farinelli's remarkable Spanish career, spanning more than two decades in the service of Philip V (1700-46) and Ferdinand VI (1746-59).
The fact that Farinelli retired from public performance early in his career was unquestionably significant since Farinelli remained a success in the public imagination whilst many other castrato singers fell from their pedestals while still in the public eye. Furthermore, it is said that in addition to his talent, physical beauty and wisdom, Farinelli possessed great humility.
For all the above qualities he was frequently referred to as "the Divine Farinelli."
Castrated somewhere between the ages of seven and eight, Carlo became a pupil of the famous teacher of castrati, Porpora, considered today to be one of the most important music teachers of all time. During his musical studies in Naples, Carlo became the prodigy of the Farina brothers. To acknowledge this he adopted, according to the custom of the time, the name of 'Farinelli'.
His first appearance on the public scene came in 1720 when he was fifteen years old, at the Palace of the Prince of Torella. Farinelli had a role in "Angelika and Medoro," an opera written by his teacher Porpora with a libretto written by the poet Metastase, a very prolific writer of "opera seria." Farinelli met Metastase on this occasion and they became close friends, corresponding until his death in 1782.
Farinelli performed at all the main courts of Europe and was even requested to sing for King Louis XV of France at the Queen's apartments, for which he received a rare and distinguished honor: a portrait of the King embossed with diamonds, and a fee of 500 livres.
When Farinelli performed at Popora's theatre he was also regarded as extremely important by the English theatre going public. He was in fact offered the huge sum of 1,500 livres a season to perform and was also given numerous presents by rich admirers. Despite his success in England, historians feel that the enormous rivalry between the Covent Garden Opera House run by Handel and the Nobles Theatre put Farinelli under a considerable amount of pressure and encouraged him to accept the King of Spain's offer.
King Philip was apparently so affected by Farinelli's first audition for him in 1737 that the young man immediately decided to devote his life to the King. He thereby ended his illustrious singing career at the age of 32 but began his career as a prominent and influential courtier. Before long he was Private Counsellor to the King, receiving foreign guests, reorganizing the Madrid Opera, directing music at the royal chapel and stimulating the artistic life of Madrid in countless different ways. In 1750, he was knighted in the order of Calatrava which has led subsequent writers to speculate that his influence extended beyond the limits of his musical competence to matters of domestic politics and foreign affairs.
Farinelli's generosity impressed his contemporaries. He frequently helped Spanish families in need and even founded an institute to organize concerts, the proceeds of which went to orphans. A little before his death, he bestowed all his belongings upon his nephews and the servants who had looked after him.
Farinelli died in 1782 and was buried at his request on a hillside in Bologna. His tomb no longer exists today as it was destroyed by Napoleon's armies.