The Castrato and His Wife

There is something infinitely sad about listening to the unnaturally high, reedy voice of Alessandro Moreschi, the last castrato singer and the only one to ever make a sound recording (in 1902). When he died in 1922, Moreschi was a relic of a past era. The height of the fashion for castrati coincided with the rise of Baroque music in the early to mid-eighteenth century. It continued, keeping pace with changing musical tastes, through the beginning of the more emotionally expressive opera seria, which resembled what we would now call grand opera.

Castrati occupied a strange position, both socially and aesthetically. Some of them became so famous that their lifestyles were not dissimilar to modern rock stars. They were stalked by adoring female admirers, who seemed to find them an atttractive and non-threatening object for their attentions in an age when any public impropriety was fiercely censured. Since many successful castrati had a lucrative sideline as music tutors to unmarried women, and were generally left alone with them unchaperoned, it is hardly surprising if this led to the occasional scandalous situation.

Few were more scandalous in their day than the sensational elopement of Dorothea Maunsell, the youngest daughter of an upwardly mobile Dublin family, with the famous Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci at the age of 16. Her father did everything in his power to blacken Tenducci’s reputation, claiming publically that his daughter had been abducted, but it seems more likely that Dorothea encouraged the romance to avoid being married off to a suitor she did not care for. Their union was short-lived, and ended when she left Tenducci for another man. Wishing to legitimize her second marriage and its future offspring, she became embroiled in a high-profile court case to annul her first marriage on the grounds of the impossibility of its consummation.

It’s not the kind of story that anyone comes out of particularly well. Dorothea seems manipulative and callous, but she lived at a time when women’s lives were severely limited by conventional morality. Tenducci was no saint, either – he was a lifelong spendthrift, never able to live within his means, and quite prepared to ignore his professional obligations when it suited him. What is fascinating about this strange story is what it tells us about the social and cultural background of the mid to late eighteenth century, and that is one of the pleasures of reading Helen Barry’s account of it, “The Castrato and His Wife.” It’s just been published and I was lucky enough to receive a copy from Amazon, my review of which is repeated here:

It is almost impossible to imagine the circumstances that might lead parents to submit their pre-pubescent son to castration in the era before anaesthetics or antibiotics. Yet the practice was by no means unknown in mid eighteenth-century Italy. A chld born into a poor Italian family had few options, and pressure from the Catholic Church (regardless of their official condemnation of the procedure as unnatural), plus poverty and the hope of at least a secure future in the choir of a well-known church, led the parents of Giusto Fernandino Tenducci to make that decision.

In Tenducci’s case, the gamble apparently paid off. Not only did he survive the operation, but he went on to become a sensationally gifted and famous opera singer, whose talents were particularly admired in Georgian England, Ireland and Scotland. This is a tale of paradoxes – an era when England, militantly Protestant in its official cultural and political outlook, fervently embraced all things Italian, particularly the exciting new musical phenomenon of grand opera. A time when respectable women were almost stifled by the crushing demands of propriety, yet attitudes towards marriage and sexual freedom of expression were beginning to change into something recognisable to modern society. When an Irish court judge could lock his daughter up and feed her on bread and water if she declined to marry his choice of suitor, yet a castrato and his young wife could be received as a couple in polite society. And, at the heart of this book, that regardless of his lack of the organs of procreation, Tenducci was one of a number of eunuchs who aspired to the companionship of a heterosexual marriage, even to the extent of acknowledging his wife’s offspring from other relationships as his own heirs.

This book tells a compelling and astonishing personal story; that alone would be enough to keep many readers turning the pages. However, Helen Berry is also a sound historian and a skilled writer. With admirable clarity, she fills in the background to this sensational legal case. Whether discussing changing attitudes to female autonomy, the complex politics of Irish Protestant or Catholic Italian society, the changing musical tastes of the second half of the eighteenth century or a consumer-driven celebrity culture that strikingly resembles our own, she is a clear and authoritative guide. Though brief, this book is thoroughly referenced and packs in an astonishing wealth of information about music, morality and sexuality at a time of rapid and profound change. I had my reservations about whether such an obscure subject would hold my interest, particularly since the period is not one that I know particularly well, but I found it an enjoyable and informative read, ideal for those of us who like our history to be thought-provoking as well as rich in human interest. Highly recommended.

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