Senesino (Francesco Bernardi) was a celebrated Italian contralto castrato, particularly remembered today for his long collaboration with the composer George Frideric Handel. Senesino was the son of a barber from Siena (hence his stage-name). He joined the cathedral choir there in 1695 and transitioned at the comparatively late age of 13. His debut was at Venice in 1707, and during the next decade he acquired a European reputation and, by the time he sang in Lotti’s Giove in Argo in 1717 at Dresden, a commensurately enormous salary. In 1719, the composer Quantz heard him in Lotti’s Teofane at Dresden, and stated: “He had a powerful, clear, equal and sweet contralto voice, with a perfect intonation and an excellent shake. His manner of singing was masterly and his elocution unrivalled… he sang allegros with great fire, and marked rapid divisions, from the chest, in an articulate and pleasing manner. His countenance was well adapted to the stage, and his action was natural and noble. To these qualities he joined a majestic figure; but his aspect and deportment were more suited to the part of a hero than of a lover.”
Following a dispute with the court composer Heinichen in 1720, which led to his dismissal, Senesino was engaged by Handel as primo uomo (lead male singer) in his company, the Royal Academy of Music. He made his first appearance in a revival of Radamisto on 28 December, and his salary vast. Senesino remained in London for much of the succeeding sixteen years. He became a friend and associate of many in the highest levels of society and friendly with, among others, the Duke of Chandos, Lord Burlington and the landscape designer William Kent, while amassing a fine collection of paintings, rare books, scientific instruments, and other treasures, including a service of silver made by the famous Paul de Lamerie. Though creating seventeen leading roles for Handel, his relationship with the composer was frequently stormy: “the one was perfectly refractory; the other was equally outrageous”, according to the contemporary historian Mainwaring.
After the break-up of Handel’s Royal Academy in 1728, Senesino sang in Paris (1728) and Venice (1729), but was re-engaged by Handel in 1730, singing in four more new operas and in the oratorios. His antipathy to Handel eventually became so great that, in 1733, Senesino joined the rival Opera of the Nobility. Thus he came to sing alongside the great soprano castrato Farinelli, and their meeting on stage led to a famous incident. Senesino had the part of a furious tyrant, and Farinelli that of an unfortunate hero in chains; but in the course of the first air, the captive so softened the heart of the tyrant, that Senesino, forgetting his stage-character, ran to Farinelli and embraced him. Senesino left England in 1736, and appeared in a few more productions in Italy before he retired to the city of his birth, building a fine town-house there, filled with English furniture and effects.