The book is organized into three sections: “Reproduction,” “Voice,” and “Half-light,” which could be more conventionally titled something like Birth, Voice, and Death, as they cover first the cultural situation that created the castrato, then a summary of what forensic reconstructions we can do of the castrato voice, and finally the denouement of the castrato phenomenon in the 19th century. A perfectly sensible structure for an overview and introduction to the castrato in Western music, and it works.
Overall, this book is primarily focused on the castrato as an object, not as a person. You will not get to know any particular castrato in this book, except maybe Filippo Balatri, whose claim to fame is being the only castrato to write an autobiography, which she quotes generously. The castrati you meet in this book are misty figures, who exist only on an abstract plane of gender and social role, in generalities about castrati and their inevitable contractions, just name after name washing over you in a mass. Sometimes a good history book can make you look right through time to meet a fellow human’s eyes, to see their joy, pain, and life; to maybe to see a piece their story in your own; and to leave with their name forever etched upon the ventricles of your heart. This is not that kind of book. It’s highly successful as an academic introduction to the castrati, ranging from masculinities theories to vocal theories to literary theories, but if you’re looking at it as possibly the only book someone may ever read about them, it’s a bit sad that it’s so impersonal.
Unfortunately, Feldman still has the same problem from her earlier works holding her back from writing a perfect book: her writing is really quite bad. I am normally a big proponent that anyone can and should read an academic book if they wish, but I have hesitated to recommend this book and her last one even though I thought the history was amazing, because the writing is so dense and self-enamored that I'm afraid of scaring people off academic literature entirely. She names her chapters things like “Cold Man, Money Man, Big Man Too” and “The Man Who Pretended to Be Who He Was” when she could just as easily name them slightly more understandable things like “Denouncing Castration: Romantic Understandings of the Male Body” and “Cultural Significance of Origin Myths of the Castrati.” Feldman’s writing though has, I think, actually gotten better in general, having read her last book.
For the history content: it is actually pretty close to perfect, once you dig through the alphabet soup marshes to find it. There’s a couple of places where I would disagree with her analysis, though that’s fine of course. The largest one is that I find her analysis of the “Death of the Castrati” right before the 19th century is too dependent on traditional notions of Romantic sensibilities, and her dismissal of John Rosselli’s claim that the end of the castrati is tied primarily to economic recovery in Italy, in favor of her own idea which is that it is tied to the death of patronage systems and patriarchal social systems, is too hasty and not well-supported. But there’s little things like that, nothing technically wrong, just differences of academic interpretation.
A good book for sure, and very groundbreaking, but recommended with reservations. Feldman is brilliant, an astonishing mind, earns her fellowship and then some, and I’d like to pay her to think for me.... but I wouldn’t let her write the copy for the back of a Cinnamon Toast Crunch box.