In The Castrato and His Wife, Helen Berry explores 18th-century marriage, gender and celebrity through the “extraordinary, forgotten story of Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci”. The castrato’s voice has been “difficult, but not impossible, to recover across the centuries”, asserts Berry. Strictly speaking, of course, this must be impossible, not least because the practice of castrating young boys in order to preserve a particular quality of singing voice is no longer deemed acceptable. An attempt was made in 1994 for the soundtrack to the film Farinelli to reimagine that vanished sound. Two voices – a soprano and a counter-tenor – were recorded separately and then digitally merged, but one can never know how close the result came to the reality.
The book grew from a chance discovery Berry made in the London Metropolitan Archives of a bundle of documents relating to the case of “Kingsman, formerly Maunsell, falsely called Tenducci”, which came before the London Consistory Court in May 1775. The “formerly Maunsell” in question was Dorothea, the feisty daughter of an Irish barrister, who in 1766 ran away with the Italian singer and married him to avoid being forced into an arranged marriage by her father. The need for an annulment came when she married again, this time to the more suitable William Long Kingsman. The documents include witness statements from Italy, attesting that Tenducci’s castration rendered him “totally incapable of the Act of Generation or procreation of children and consequently of consummating Marriage”. One can understand how such a cache was irresistible but it has been quite a challenge to base a whole book upon them, and at times the foundation feels too flimsy for the edifice Berry has built.
Tenducci was born in 1735 in the Arezzo region of Italy. His father, a servant, was instrumental in having him castrated, possibly for financial gain and possibly with the support of the local clergy, the 11-year-old Giusto having already proved his abilities as a choirboy. Tenducci’s career flourished from 1761 until the 1780s and encompassed the heights of fame (delighting audiences at London’s Ranelagh pleasure gardens) and the depths of financial disaster (he was several times incarcerated for debt). In between, the singer enjoyed romantic entanglements; Dorothea was not the only one to be fascinated. But what Tenducci himself thought is not recorded.
In 1768 Dorothea published an account of her elopement, in the form of a 68-page booklet entitled True and Genuine Narrative – although there is no evidence she actually wrote it. What is most evident is that Dorothea knew how to get what she wanted. It suited her to run away with Tenducci when her father wanted her to marry someone else, and it suited her to desert him when the opportunity arose. Very soon after her marriage to Tenducci she had become pregnant, but who the father was – apart from the fact that it was definitely not the castrato – is, like so much else in this story, unknown.
Virginia Rounding is author of ‘Catherine the Great: Love, Sex and Power’ (Hutchinson)
The Castrato and His Wife, by Helen Berry, OUP, RRP£16.99, 312 pages