Book Review: "The Castrato and his Wife" by Helen Berry

The scandal is explicit on the flyleaf: The Castrato and His Wife, and historian Helen Berry weaves an account that fulfills her intriguing choice of title. Beyond the sensation, she sketches an ethnographic narrative around the life of Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci, an eighteenth century castrato "rock star." From his servile origins in Tuscany, Tenducci achieved considerable fame in Europe, performing for royalty and collaborating with Amadeus Mozart, J. C. Bach, Christoph Gluck, and similar figures. However, mere musical fame could doubtfully produce a book of this depth. Berry's account results from the extensive documentation of the marriage annulment case between Tenducci and Dorothea Maunsell. After six years of matrimony, Dorothea married another man. For the annulment and her second marriage to be legal, the prosecution had to prove Tenducci incapable of consummating the marriage. This led the court to shed light on topics previously shrouded in secrecy. Berry writes her narrative effectively, and has crafted a welcome addition to the existing literature on castrati (e.g. Clapton 2004; Feldman 2008; Freitas 2009). In this respect, she makes a new contribution to the fields of history, music, and cultural studies. In general, studying the castrato as a liminal person in the period gender binary system illuminates the social constructs that define sexuality in art. In this book, studying an exceptional instance of that liminality sheds light on the everyday.

The castrati as a European phenomenon began around the mid-sixteenth century in Italy. Boys with good singing voices were castrated to preserve their vocal quality, a goal not always realized. What began as a church tradition eventually moved to the operatic stage, and baroque Italy produced a number of famous castrati, among them Farinelli (Carlo Broschi), Senesino (Francesco Bernardi), and Cusanino (Giovanni Carestini)—the stars of the era. In the present day, the western art music written for and performed by castrati has undergone a revival. As the practice of castration has thankfully ceased, male falsettists or "countertenors" such as Philippe Jarrousky, Andreas Scholl, James Bowman, and Max Emanuel Cencic now sing the music (women playing pants roles—operatic drag—have also undertaken this repertoire). Yet, historical accounts attest that the sounds of male falsettists and castrati vary distinctly. How different we will never precisely know, although there have been attempts to recreate that original sound (for example, in the BBC documentary Castrato and the film Farinelli, il Castrato). Although there do exist a few performing endocrinological "castrati" (men who naturally do not fully undergo puberty because of a hormone anomaly) such as Michael Maniaci, their sound still differs from the historical castrato. Beyond the search for the castrato's vocal sound lies a search for voice in another sense: Interiority. As distinguished oral historian Valerie Yow has noted, the interior motivation, feelings, fears, hopes, and aspirations of the individual represent some of the crucial factors that direct human activity (Yow 2006:36). Although there has been some success at uncovering the interiority of the castrato, there ought to be more, and Berry's book successfully moves in that direction.

Unsurprisingly, Berry organizes her nine chapters of "microhistory" and analysis chronologically. Although Tenducci is Italian, Berry focuses this work on English history. She therefore sets her initial scene ("Prelude") in 1735, at a high society concert by the famous castrato Farinelli, in a luxurious West End London residence. There, the singer creates music that is "'a revelation... for I realized that till then I had heard only a small part of what human song can achieve'" (Berry 2011:3). Tenducci's birth in that same year to an impoverished Tuscan servant family far from the baroque extravagances of London draws stark attention to the "complex web of competing economic, cultural, and social forces in a rapidly changing" European milieu (Berry 2011:4). Rather than providing a mere biography of Tenducci the musician, Berry uses his story as a lens through which to examine that complex web, essentially creating an ethnography both of Tenducci the individual and of the Georgian England era.

The author’s decision not to write a biography is a necessary one. Although the annulment case provides a great deal of data, there exists little information regarding other aspects of Tenducci's life story. The man left few personal documents and fewer letters, making it difficult to recover his voice. To illuminate this void, Berry turns to informed inference based on documented experiences of similar or related individuals, diaries (by Samuel Pepys, for example), and analyses of sheet music, portraits, and engravings. She once even resorts to contemporary psychoanalysis in an attempt to understand the relationship between Tenducci and his father (who ordered his castration) after the operation. Although potentially problematic, her judicious speculations breathe life into his lost interiority. Despite the precarious nature of retroactive psychoanalysis, Berry fashions especially cautious prose, and suggests a prospective and intriguing view into a hidden portion of this castrato's life story.

Of his life story, Tenducci's childhood most clearly lacks his voice. In her first two chapters ("The Pig Man Arrives in Monte San Savino" and "Schooling Angels in Naples"), Berry infers Tenducci's family situation, youth, and schooling based on what little information still exists. Although she creates an informative narrative, lack of data necessarily makes these the two weakest chapters in the book. Berry describes the generalities of servant family life in Tuscany and student life at the Conservatorio della Pietà dei Turchini in Naples. Tenducci is barely present, yet the reader succeeds in catching a glimpse of his activities. For example, shortly after he graduated, the governors of the conservatory petitioned the King of Naples to stop their young castrati consorting with the ballerinas of the Teatro San Carlo, who encouraged them "to drink, gamble, and engage in other bad habits" (Berry 2011:36). This petition hints at a counter-culture of adolescent castrati, and suggests that the conservatory education was not as "angelic" as the church would have wished.

Beyond the second chapter, Berry comes into her own. Her specialization and superlative research skills in eighteenth century British history resonate as she depicts Tenducci's reception in London society ("The Castrato in London" and "Fancying Tenducci"). She writes of the positive reaction of the British press to his musical abilities, but also of the scandal wherein he was implicated in the formal separation of Lord and Lady Lyttelton (She wrote him love letters). In this and other episodes Berry interrogates period gender relations. On one hand, the castrati existed as something of a paradox in that their emasculation excluded them from full status as men. However, some castrati—like the broad shouldered Tenducci—"cut fine figures of manhood which conformed to idealized notions of male beauty and bearing at the time" (Berry 2011:75). In fact, the polite masculinity of Georgian England often positioned castrati as admired cultural leaders (Berry 2011:70). Berry notes that they were generally regarded as sexually harmless because they were not fully men. Respectable women could therefore make castrati the object of their affections and emotions without incurring moral censure from society (Berry 2011:56). This precise position of castrati as somehow safe directly led to Tenducci's nuptials.

Berry focuses four chapters on the circumstances surrounding Tenducci's marriage with and separation from Dorothea Maunsell ("A Dublin Scuffle," "The Elopement," "Married Life," and "The Trial"). The daughter of a wealthy and influential Dublin barrister, Dorothea would publish an account of the relationship and elopement in 1768, two years after their union. Berry argues that this text "was a form of self-fashioning and performance" in which Dorothea intended to justify her actions and reestablish her and her new husband's good names (Berry 2011:97). Yet, despite Dorthea's description of the account as "true and genuine," we do not know its accuracy, nor her true feelings for her castrato husband (nor indeed if she is the veritable author). These doubts aside, the account necessarily forms the backbone of these chapters.

Dorothea met Tenducci in 1765, when the singer traveled to Dublin for a series of recitals. The crush that Dorothea developed on him offered her an escape route when her father, Thomas, attempted to marry her off. Furious at her secret elopement with a castrato, Thomas attempted to salvage his family's reputation by arresting his son-in-law and imprisoning his daughter. After a year of this and similar harassment, the newlyweds were reunited and embarked on married life. When the couple traveled to Italy in 1771, however, Tenducci's intense performance schedule gave Dorothea the time and opportunity to meet and subsequently marry William Long Kingsman. For this second marriage to be legal, the Tenducci marriage had to be annulled. The British plaintiffs had to prove the castrato's inability to consummate the marriage—that is, uncover exactly what happened to him when he was a boy. Nearly two and a half years later, the court annulled the marriage, thereby excising it from official record.

Throughout this chronology, Berry brings a vast understanding of the period into conversation. As she combines biography with ethnographic detail, the reader can envision a shifting picture of Europe—and especially England—through the growing Enlightenment. She discusses the social expectations of young women like Dorothea Maunsell. The fact that Dorothea was not always met with censure and even later managed to regain respectability sheds light on the growing role of meritocracy and mass celebrity culture in Great Britain (Berry 2011:158). Had the Tenducci marriage taken place earlier, she likely would have been ignored and castigated by society at large.

The tale of Mr. and Mrs. Tenducci remains as sensational now as in Georgian England. Beyond the intrigue, Berry helps to reclaim part of the obscure history of the thousands of boys castrated for their vocal potential. The final two sections ("Legacy" and "Coda") discuss that history from a contemporary perspective, reproaching an era capable of mutilating and trafficking children in the name of art. Berry’s ethnography, not unlike the novels of Jane Austen, depicts the broader cultural inheritance of modern Europeans regarding the nature, limitations, and definitions of love, sex, marriage, and the relationship between the genders. Beyond these topics, she writes a compelling narrative of a fascinating, yet little known story.


Countertenor Philippe Jaroussky sings Vivaldi's "Vedro con mio diletto"

Works Cited:

Berry, Helen. 2011. The Castrato and His Wife. New York: Oxford University Press.

Castrato. 2006. Francesca Kemp, director. BBC Channel Four.

Clapton, Nicholas. 2004. Moreschi: The Last Castrato. London: Haus.

Farinelli, il Castrato. 2000. DVD. Gelrard Corbiau, director. Stephan Films. Culver City, CA. Columbia TriStar Home Video 10629.

Feldman, Martha. 2008. "Denaturing the Castrato." Opera Quarterly 24(3-4): 178-99.

Freitas, Roger. 2009. Portrait of a Castrato: Politics, Patronage, and Music in the Life of Atto Melani. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.

Yow, Valerie. 2006. "Biography and Oral History." In Handbook of Oral History, edited by T. L. Charlton, Lois E. Myers, and Rebecca Sharpless, 425-464. Lanham, Maryland: Altamira Press.

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