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Seldom have I come across a book so garrulously stuffed with facts, a large proportion of which have little or nothing to do with the subject. To give one typical example, the painter Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun is introduced as follows: ‘even Marie-Antoinette’s personal painter Madame Vigée-Lebrun called the sopranists’ performance of Allegri’s Miserere at the Sistine Chapel “truly the music of angels”.’ Vigée-Lebrun and her husband were in Rome, having fled the Revolution, long after Marie Antoinette had lost her head. It seems that no connection is too tenuous to be hauled in. It also means that in a book of 420 pages, only 260 are of main text, 100 are taken up with (copious) endnotes, 30 of bibliography. The index, however, is quite short.

In spite of which, as the reader hacks a path through this tangled jungle, occasional glimpses of light can be seen, a faint glimmer of chronological progression, an outline of a social environment in which castrati lived, and indeed why they became castrati and why and when the practice died out. Who wrote for them, who the great ones were, where and for whom they sang. Napoleon banned the practice, but once he became emperor, morphed into a fan, and even ennobled a castrato.

But the author is so keen to parade all her knowledge that the book turns almost into a grotesque parody of the academic thesis. Towards the end, she even hurls herself into a long riff involving Lacan, Barthes and other worthies, and an analysis lasting many pages of Balzac’s Sarrasine, all under the cloak of the vague ‘Reflections on Natures and Kinds’ stated in the book’s title.

Feldman also seems to have a muddled grasp of social classes, blaming laws governing primogeniture for the decision to castrate younger sons, such laws surely affecting only the wealthier classes, who would never have contemplated taking such a step. she does, however, deal anecdotally with the social rise of many successful castrati (the so-called ‘deluxe castrati’), and their demise brought about as a result of the enlightenment, the French revolution and a growing democratic worldview.

There are many rather murky illustrations, and also musical examples of the castrato repertoire.

DELLA COULING Read the full review on Agora Classica

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