The Castrato and His Wife by Helen Berry - review by Jonathan Keates

Jonathan Keates

Unlucky Voice

The Castrato and His Wife

By

Oxford University Press 288pp £16.99 order from our bookshop
 

The ascendancy of the castrato singer constitutes one of the more bizarre aspects of European cultural history during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. From 1650 to 1800 the most sought-after vocal stars in court theatres, public opera houses and Roman Catholic chapels and churches were gelded Italian males, whose parents had subjected them, at an early age, to the removal of their testicles as a guarantee of a secure and profitable future career. The operation was a gamble, as most operations tend to be, and not every little boy with a fine singing voice would end up swanning around in Roman armour on the stages of Milan, Mantua, Munich or Mannheim, sending grand duchesses and prince-bishops into swooning paroxysms of ecstasy with his cadenzas and roulades. Yet if all went well, the rewards for a poor peasant lad from some squalid mountain hamlet in Calabria or the Abruzzi could surpass his most riotous fantasies.

Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci’s fortunes as a castrato, to start with at any rate, looked promising enough. The son of a household servant to the governor of the Tuscan town of Monte San Savino, he was gelded at the age of twelve by a

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