The Castrato and His Wife by Helen Berry

An intriguing story of a castrato’s unprecedented marriage and its implications for society at large.

Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci was an 18th-century Italian opera singer and a celebrity in England. Part of his mystique and mystery, and the reason both for his reportedly divine voice and his unusual social standing, was his status as a castrato. Tenducci had been castrated as a young boy in the hopes that he would make his fortune out of his singing. As historian Helen Berry explains, a surprising number of Italian youths underwent this dangerous operation in Tenducci’s day, although (like today’s hopeful rock stars) few actually succeeded. Tenducci not only beat the odds by making a (sometimes tenuous) fortune in opera, but also accomplished a surprising feat: he married a young English girl of good family.

The Castrato and His Wife is the story of that brief marriage and its annulment in an extremely curious extended legal case. It is also the story of Italian opera in the 1700s, both as an institution and as a business; of castration and its relationship with the Catholic Church; and of the institution of marriage and society’s changing concepts thereof. Berry’s prose can be a touch long-winded and academic at times, but Tenducci’s heart-wrenching story is unusual and evocative. Berry addresses a topic we still find mysterious, and Tenducci’s distinctive situation is surprisingly relevant to the ongoing question of what constitutes legal marriage.

This review originally ran in the January 6, 2012 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

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