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In some ways, Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci was a prototype for the modern-day child star. His career, along with his social and sexual future, was decided for him around the age of 11 when he was castrated at the behest of his father. In relative terms, he was one of the lucky castrati, growing up to be an international superstar of opera seria, with a legion of aristocratic groupies. He also amassed and lost a fortune, endured several spells in prison, and was embroiled in several smutty scandals, the most salacious of which provided the impetus for this book: his marriage, which began sensationally and somehow ended even more so.

In 1766, around the age of 30, Tenducci eloped with 15-year-old Dorothea Maunsell, the youngest daughter of an influential Irish lawyer. Her family kept Dorothea under house arrest, to impel her to renounce the relationship, but failed: Dorothea married for love. Her husband’s motives are less clear, but the union was unprecedented for a castrato, being legally forbidden to marry in his native Italy. Thus a few years later, when the couple fl ed to Tuscany to escape Tenducci’s creditors, their marriage was invalid, of which fact Dorothea took advantage when she married another man in Rome. However, to notarise the marriage in Britain, she needed to secure an annulment from Tenducci, and in doing so begat a legal fi rst: the protracted proceedings had to determine whether their marriage was ever valid at all, if castrati were incapable of consummation and reproduction; and amid full-beam publicity Tenducci suffered the humiliating scrutiny of the peculiarities of his physique.

Alas, Tenducci’s feelings on the matter are a mystery, as barely any first-hand material survives, and he remains a rather distant character throughout the book. However, his extraordinary case provides a fascinating platform for Helen Berry to consider the plight of the castrato in general: though on the one hand some enjoyed great celebrity, on the other they were freaks in society, robbed of their masculinity; while musically, their popularity waned when the enlightenment eschewed an art form born of physical mutilation.

HELEN ZALTZMAN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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