The Castrato and His Wife
By Helen Berry
Oxford University Press; 299 pp. $29.95
At a time when the issue of gay marriage continues to be challenging for many upholders of "traditional" values, this account of a celebrity castrato's union and divorce in the eighteenth century presents a nuptial story of a different stripe. Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci was born near Siena, where he was castrated at the age of thirteen to preserve his fine voice. Tenducci went to music conservatory in Naples, and in later life he credited as his principal singing teacher the renowned castrato Caffarelli. After debuts in Italy, Tenducci went to London in the late 1750s, and his career took off in the British Isles. Tenducci's first great success in opera there came with Thomas Arne's Artaxerxes, but his particular brand of charisma seems to have made him more attractive to the set who visited the gardens of Ranelagh, where he performed famous tunes and arias.
Lured by high fees to Dublin in 1765, the castrato became a guest and music teacher in the house of well-to-do barrister Thomas Maunsell. Maunsell's underage daughter Dorothea was already destined by her authoritarian father for an arranged marriage when she came under Tenducci's tutelage. What next occurred is the stuff of which modern academic lawsuits are born; the two eloped. The rest of Helen Berry's book is the account of this odd marriage and the long, curious legal process of its eventual unraveling. It is a fascinating story, supported by several extraordinary documents, including Dorothea Maunsell's own publication, A True and Genuine Narrative of Mr. and Mrs. Tenducci (1768). Many contemporary pamphlets and documents are also cited, none more fascinating than the court documents that led to the annulment of Tenducci's marriage to Dorothea. What these reveal about Tenducci and his lifestyle — some of it quite sad — opens a window on the challenging lives of so many castratos.
Berry's writing is lucid and often provocative, more for its account of the vagaries of societal injustice in eighteenth-century Europe (especially Britain) than for a sense of its artistic milieu. In setting her story, Berry opens her book with a brief history of opera; some misinformation in this early section left me on the alert as I completed the book. (Berry cites the first opera houses of Venice as having held audiences of 2,000 to 3,000, but the reality was closer to a third of that.) Once she begins telling the story at hand, though, Berry is on firmer ground, and the details of Tenducci's life through so many firsthand accounts paint a vivid picture of a castrato's life — both on and off the stage — in the mid-eighteenth century.