Cry to Heaven: Anne Rice

★★★★

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.

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10 thoughts on “Cry to Heaven: Anne Rice

  1. Isi says:

    What an interesting topic, Leander! I can say I have never seen (nor read) a book about the castrati, and that I don't know much about them.
    I didn't know the book. I have read Interview with the vampire not so long ago and I found it really disturbing. All I can say is that I could feel that it was written in the 70s and everything sounded as if the author was a little stoned or something like that.
    So that's why I haven't read anything else by Anne Rice.
    Has this book also such a disturbing atmosphere? that's why I hesitate… 🙂

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    I had to laugh at this, Isi! Um… Hard to answer your question exactly, as I don't know exactly what made you uncomfortable about Interview with the Vampire. I haven't read that for a long time. All I can say is that Anne Rice's style is always a bit intense and heady, so if it's the elaborate language that puts you off, you would probably find that a bit distracting here as well.

    On the other hand, if it's the *events* of Interview with the Vampire that you don't think work very well, all I can say is that this is a very different kind of book. Obviously, there's no supernatural element. It's not perfect – I make no claim to it being flawless. On the contrary, as I said, it is sometimes highly melodramatic and there is an awful lot of angst. (I read it for the first time when I was fifteen, so it suited me perfectly.) But I think the light that it throws on the period is interesting enough that I could overlook some of the theatricality of the writing.

    I really don't know what to advise! 😀

  3. Isi says:

    hehee don't worry.
    The atmosphere and the character's actings were the disturbing thing, from my point of view. I have to say I have felt the same with other books written in that decade, for example, “¿Do androids dream of electric sheep?” is quite the same: everythink is so strange. It was written in 1968, but well, it is very close.
    So for the moment I will look for other books of this topic, I think 🙂

  4. Anonymous says:

    I'm currently reading cry to heaven and i'm so in love with it. Tonio's darkness and cruelty combined with his flashes of great love for his teacher Guido draw me to him. So far so i good i like what i see. I've also read her mayfair witches series along with the vampire series and i simply loved all of them. There's something about the way she writes that i just can't put my finger on. But whatever it is it compels you to read on.

  5. The Idle Woman says:

    Yes, she's a good writer, isn't she? – a little too melodramatic for my taste sometimes, but there are times when you secretly *want* a book like that. I thought her Vampire Chronicles jumped the shark with Memnoch the Devil, when I stopped reading – partly because of the whole business at the end with Armand, which traumatised me – but I came back for The Vampire Armand, which was beautiful albeit slightly disturbing. For some reason I didn't get on so well with the witches series. I think part of that was the fact that I'd fallen so much in love with a certain set of her characters that I just wanted to see her write about them, and no one else…

    I read Balzac's “Sarrasine” on the back of “Cry to Heaven” and was so disappointed… It seemed so perfunctory in comparison. I couldn't help thinking how much better a book it would have been if Anne Rice had written it first (though of course she draws on elements of it in “Cry to Heaven”). 🙂

  6. Anonymous says:

    I haven't read Balzac's “Sarrasine” but I really don't want to read anything that pales in comparison to cry to heaven. And I can't begin to fathom why u couldn't read the mayfair witches tril;ogy. I'm a vampire person myself but the witches so enticed me with their sins and secrets that I hgad to keep on reading. Please do try to read it again.

  7. The Idle Woman says:

    Apologies to Iris, whose comment accidentally got deleted when I tried to use my iPhone with my fat thumbs. Here is what she said:

    “I enjoy this book for what it is: a nice and gripping fiction, with some good intuitions. But I prefer by far “Porporino ou les mystères de Naples” by Dominique Fernandez, published in 1976. A true masterpiece,the ideal combination between fiction and academic study about castrati.
    As for Gérard Corbiau's take on Farinelli :pure lie, even from a musical point of view. It's technology, not a human voice. It's not a movie, it's a disaster…
    Only my opinion… based upon “La solitudine amica” by Carlo Broschi, “Farinelli le castrat des Lumières” by Patrick Barbier, my records by Franco Fagioli, Gérard Lesne, Radu Marian, Jean Loup Charvet, and so many others.

    From France,
    Iris”

  8. The Idle Woman says:

    Absolutely, Iris. We can only enjoy something for what it is, and I think Rice is (as ever) very much trying to tell a sensual story rather than getting too wrapped up in detail. She went to a lot of effort to research the book and I think she's done an excellent job of giving people a 'door' into a world they wouldn't otherwise come across. I've started reading “Porporino”, but haven't got very far with it yet (mainly because I discovered Fernandez's book on Caravaggio at the same time and got distracted trying to translate that). Personally I prefer something to be either a novel or an academic study, because I feel that the two are rarely combined successfully, but I may be doing Fernandez an injustice. Fortunately we've had lots of exciting scholarly books published on the castrati in the last year or so, so it's no longer such a niche subject.

    Yes, if I were to watch Farinelli for the first time now, I would probably agree with you more about the film, but this post was written three years ago at a time when I knew nothing about Baroque operas or countertenors. I still have a certain fondness for the film, both for its exuberant stage sequences and for the fact that it introduced me to a lot of music which I've now been fortunate enough to hear sung live by various extremely talented young men. Yet there's no doubt that the story is grossly fictionalised and the acting a little… variable. We can but hope for a new biopic one day – even if that's only through a film version of Farinelli and the King, which has fictions of its own…

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