Sat 14 Jan 2012
The Castrato and his Wife - Helen Berry
Oxford University Press, New York 2011
One of the principal difficulties of writing an academic text about a figure like Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci (1735 - 1790), a noted Italian castrato singer in his day who made his biggest impression in England, Scotland and Ireland, but not as well-known, well-documented or important to the opera scene as Farinelli or Senesino, is in obtaining sufficient documents and accounts of his life. Much of the account of the early life of Tenducci here is therefore presumed from parallel accounts of the experiences of others of a similar social background, since the assumption is that it was rare for anyone to deviate from the social conventions of the day. All the in-all-likelihoods and may-have-beens are inevitable therefore and in all probability true, but in the case of Tenducci, they at least lead to the author researching and exploring exactly what those mid-eighteenth century attitudes were, which is actually where the most interesting part of the book lies, particularly in how those attitudes conflict with the extraordinary circumstances of this particular castrato and the case of his ‘manhood’.
It is this one vital factor of Tenducci’s life that is rather more documented and speculated upon, subjected as it was to a number of legal disputes and trials, since this particular castrato, although a eunuch, was married and even reported to be a father. The Castrato and his Wife consequently examines Tenducci’s position as a public figure, as an Italian and a Catholic, and his reputation as a singer of not inconsiderable talent – J.C Bach, Thomas Arne and Mozart all composed works for him to sing, and he was particularly noted for his performances of Artaxerxes and Gluck’s Orpheo – as well as being a composer himself, and it gives a good if somewhat cursory account of the post-Handel opera scene in London, Dublin and Edinburgh, but principally, it considers the impact and the enigma of Tenducci being a castrato in a society that was fascinated by but didn’t quite know how to treat this indeterminate gender. The nature of the medical procedure that creates a castrato is shrouded in some secrecy – since despite the Catholic church being responsible for the fashion of castrati singers, it was considered a barbaric and immoral practice. It certainly wasn’t acceptable – on pain of death in Italy – for a castrato to marry, and it certainly stirred up some passions when in 1765, Tenducci eloped with Dorothea Maunsell, the 15 year-old daughter of an eminent Irish family – for which the singer was captured, imprisoned and the legality of his marriage eventually tried in court.
Considering the attitudes of Georgian society, and the attraction that the enigmatic figures of castrati exercised over both men and women, almost the entire hook of The Castrato and his Wife consequently hinges upon the question of whether a castrato would have been able to consummate a marriage. Considering that the process of castration was shrouded in mystery and secrecy, subject to much gossip and speculation in his time, the accounts of Tenducci’s divorce trial uncovered by the author therefore provide an interesting insight into the practice and into contemporary attitudes towards it. The Castrato and his Wife can be a little dry and academic, the writing is not particularly engaging and seems somewhat padded out, providing a lot of unnecessary detail and digressions that don’t seem relevant or interesting, and it is also somewhat repetitive, but the question that is – if you’ll pardon the expression – dangled before us, does keep the reader involved.
Ultimately The Castrato and his Wife is less of a biography of Tenducci and more of an investigation into questions of gender, sexuality and celebrity, and there at least it does manage throw some interesting new light on a curious and scarcely documented aspect of the times, as well as consider its contemporary relevance.