First things first: just in case you jump to conclusions on seeing Anne Rice’s name, or the design of the current book cover on Amazon, this is not about vampires. This is one of her earlier books, published after Interview with the Vampire but before the rest of the Vampire Chronicles, and it is pure historical fiction. Moreover, it deals with a subject that (as far as I know) has been very rarely covered in fiction, with the one notable exception of de Balzac’s Sarrasine: the tragic and breathtaking phenomenon of the castrati.
Initially introduced to Europe as a solution to the rules of Papal Rome, which forbade female actors on the stage, the castrati became the superstars of eighteenth-century Europe, able to create just as much of a stir as any rock star would today. To be honest, few authors could handle all that is tied up in such a story quite as well as Rice. Passion, despair, darkness, sensuality, lust and transcendent beauty are her metier and, although the book frequently strays over the line between the dramatic and the melodramatic, there’s something that compels me to keep reading.
Marc Antonio Treschi is the last of his line: the son of an old Venetian family, born to a childlike, emotionally unstable mother and her much older husband. Trained in all the arts of the gentleman, he grows up captivated by the theatrical rituals of the Serenissima, knowing that he is destined to succeed his father as a Senator of the Republic and to take part in all these mysteries himself. But, when Tonio’s elderly father dies, all the certainties of his young life are overturned. His exiled older brother Carlo, of whom his father never spoke, returns from banishment in Istanbul and quietly assumes command in the house, seeking a way to regain the birthright that has been denied to him. In a world of growing bitterness, clouded with unmentionable secrets, Tonio’s only pleasure is to sing – escaping from the oppressive palazzo at night and wandering the calli and canals with a group of street musicians.
Running alongside Tonio’s story is that of Guido Maffeo, the son of a peasant family who was castrated as a child and brought to Naples to study at the conservatorio, becoming one of its brightest stars. However, Guido’s dreams of success and security crumble when he loses his voice (at the time it would have naturally broken), shortly before his professional debut. Reduced to nurturing in others the talent that once burned so brightly in himself, he sets out to travel through Italy, in the hope of finding untrained voices that he can mould into brilliance. In Venice, he is finally transfixed by the beauty and clarity of Tonio’s voice, but it is a hopeless case. Guido is searching for voices to preserve through the act of castration, and no Venetian patrician would make that sacrifice. And yet… Hearing of the Neapolitan maestro who thinks his little brother has such potential, Carlo Treschi finally sees a way in which he can remove Tonio from his path once and for all. The scene is set for a story as rich and extravagant as one of the early operas, taking in betrayal, desire, vengeance, and all the scintillating splendour of Rococo excess.
When the woman is taken out of an entire realm of life that must needs imitate the world itself, then some substitute for that woman is inevitable. Something must rise to take the place of what is feminine. Something must rise to be feminine. And the castrati were not mere singers, players, anomalies; they had become woman herself.
Tonio’s fate is a double-edged sword. At one stroke, everything he planned has been snatched away from him – marriage, children, security – and yet his dazzling ability promises to offer him entry into a glittering world of fame and glory. It’s a bitter bargain to make, but for the handful of very talented castrati it was one that had its advantages (we mustn’t forget, of course, that many of the boys who were cut turned out to have only mediocre voices and never enjoyed this kind of popular acclaim). One of the book’s strengths is in the careful exploration of the terms of this bargain. What did it actually mean to be a castrato? Tonio has to accept that the elasticity of his bones mean he will grow much taller than he would if he had gone through puberty and become a man; that his arms and legs will become abnormally long; that his rib-cage will swell to accommodate his powerful lungs. And on top of that, he must accept that he now forms part of a third sex, able to assimilate both male and female characteristics, and therefore an object of desire not only for the women in his audience but also the men.
On that note, I should mention that Rice accurately reflects the fluid sexuality of the period in some fairly explicit scenes, so if you’re squeamish about homoeroticism, this probably isn’t for you. She is particularly good at conjuring up the tantalising, transgressive mimesis of femininity which some of the younger and more beautiful castrati could carry off. Tonio’s early scenes with Domenico reminded me of the confusion suffered by de Balzac’s hero in Sarrasine. (And, if you needed any proof of how difficult it could be to tell the difference, just remember that even Casanova couldn’t quite make up his mind on one occasion.)
There are moments when the prose becomes rather too flowery and intense even for my taste, and the characters occasionally declaim rather than speak, with copious numbers of exclamation marks. But I can’t think of any other book where such a flamboyant, theatrical tone feels so appropriate. And I have to applaud it for introducing me (when I first read it, some time ago now) to such a compelling aspect of European cultural history. Although there are moments when it is very much a bodice-ripper, it also has a lot of more serious points to make about the psychological suffering these immensely talented men underwent, about how they were trained, and about their relationship with their adoring public. I’d recommend it to anyone who has an interest in this period, if only because there seems to be so little else out there on the topic.
This is a post that comes with recommended listening. (Just to clarify, I have updated this paragraph since I first read the book, at which time I knew of nothing that I could suggest apart from the Farinelli soundtrack). There is of course the famous recording of Alessandro Moreschi, the only castrato whose voice can still be heard today; but, with no disrespect meant, he was no Caffarelli and seems to have had a bit of trouble with the high notes. In recent years we might have come a bit closer to understanding what the castrati really did sound like: take a look here, for example, here or here or, in a lower-quality recording, here. And yes, before you ask, those are all men singing and no, they’re not dubbed and nothing unfortunate has happened to any of them. For (a lot) more on this subject, take a look here.