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 travelling surgeon, working with two assistants. According to custom, the testicles, once removed, were presented to the new-made eunuch to keep in a silken bag. Young Ferdinando was then despatched to Naples, which had the best music schools in Italy, to begin training as a dramatic soprano. Making his stage debut in Venice in 1753, he gained his first star billing three years later in Padua, in Baldassare Galuppi’s opera Demofoonte. Talent-scouted by international agents, he was soon engaged for London, as ‘second man’ in ‘all the Heroic Operas in Musick’ at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket.
English ears took very kindly to Tenducci. Like many another divo or diva, he was a big spender and the inside of a debtor’s prison was not unfamiliar to him, but he quickly made himself popular by his vocal versatility, as captivating in ‘Scotch airs’ and favourite Handel oratorio numbers as in the newest Italian opera seria. His ultimate triumph came with Artaxerxes (1762), Thomas Arne’s brilliant demonstration that lyric drama all’italiana could work just as well with its music clothing an English text.
The Irish premiere of Artaxerxes took Tenducci to Dublin in 1765. The thirty-year-old castrato was at the height of his powers and his good looks had already wrought havoc in the breast of Elizabeth, Lady Lyttelton, whose love letters to him were cited in her husband’s request for a deed of separation. A more serious liaison altogether now developed between Tenducci and another female admirer, young Dorothea Maunsell, daughter of a Limerick barrister. As Helen Berry points out in The Castrato and His Wife, the girl’s initial feelings ‘may never have progressed beyond a harmless crush’, but the singer himself seems to have been genuinely attached to her. Dorothea had her own reasons for proposing marriage to him and the pair became husband and wife through the ministrations of a bedridden Catholic priest in the parlour of a private house in Cork.
Having thus ‘disobliged her family very thoroughly’, to adapt Jane Austen’s phrase, the eunuch’s bride seems to have been in no particular hurry to put things right. It was her Ferdinando – emerging from the whole episode as feckless, naïve but generally good-hearted – who sought to make the two of them respectable by converting to Protestantism, the confession in which his wife, for whatever good it might have done her, had been reared. Such a measure proved useless in the face of the Maunsells’ collective fury, fanned by extensive newspaper coverage and by Dorothea’s decision to publish her own A True and Genuine Narrative of Mr and Mrs Tenducci, representing herself as the victim of parental cruelty and judicial intransigence.
By the time the Tenduccis made a tactical withdrawal to Edinburgh in 1768, Dorothea had given birth to a son, whom her husband weirdly claimed as his own, on the basis of possessing a mysterious third testicle which had somehow opportunely dropped into place. After further trouble with Ferdinando’s creditors had driven them abroad, Dorothea eloped once more, this time with William Kingsman, the lover who was quite possibly her child’s real father. Had she married the castrato merely to conceal an already existing affair? Another clandestine wedding took place, now with her father’s full consent, before the Kingsmans hurried back to England to have Dorothea’s first union annulled. The tortuous and costly lawsuit involved intensive enquiry, much of it taking place in Italy and unearthing, in the process, the very same surgeon who had performed the crucial operation on young Ferdinando. Tenducci, though apparently devastated by the loss of his wife, returned to London, where he remained a favourite with concert audiences even when the vogue for castrati was starting to wane. A final brush with the bankruptcy courts in 1788 sent him back to Italy for good, and two years later he died in Genoa of an apoplectic fit.
The Castrato and His Wife presents this generally rather touching story with sensitivity both to its social and musical contexts and to wider issues of sexuality in eighteenth-century Europe. Is Helen Berry a shade too indulgent to Dorothea Maunsell? From several aspects the Irish beauty looks little better than a calculating minx, adept at playing a long game with her family and with her two lovers. There is a script here waiting to be filmed, but whom should we have in mind to play Tenducci?