The History of an Extraordinary Operatic Phenomenon
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 A remarkable topic that, unfortunately, doesn't get the nuanced handling it deserves. In a society in which the outrageous garners maximum media attention, the Baroque-era castrati should be guaranteed to lure readers other than scholars and opera fanatics. What other history can discuss sex, forced genital mutilation, religious hypocrisy, and adultery, all in the name of historical research? Incredibly, Barbier manages to make this intriguing 16th19th century European phenomenon (which involved the castration of male children before puberty to preserve the purity of their singing voices) boring, even annoying. His style is, on the whole, plodding. Particularly bothersome is his overuse of exclamation marks and his habit of asking questions and then not answering them, this despite the fact that the inquiries often go to the essence of a particular section. The chapter on the almost hysterical appeal some women felt for castrati, for instance, asks: ``Was this merely the attraction of a circus phenomenon? Was it the search by the ladies for a love-life without danger? Or the exceptional power of a voice that numbed reason and led to `the delights of paradise'? The idealisation of a `supernatural' being who belonged to both sexes without knowing the limits of either?'' Intriguing ideas. Barbier's conclusion? ``We shall never really understand the intimate motivations of each spectator, man or woman, in their relationships with the castrati.'' Which is not to say that the book is totally without redeeming features. Barbier (Opera in Paris, 18001850: A Lively History, 1995) knows his opera and is fairly thorough in touching all the important bases. As such, the book is a decent overview for people needing the basics. A lesson in how to take a great story and dull it to death. (16 pages b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Aug. 30th, 1997
ISBN: 0-285-63309-0
Page count: 240pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15th, 1997