Did you know that it’s meant to be summer in Britain? You didn’t? Well, you’re not the only one. And in addition to all the other weather-based complaints I could number, I have one very specific one close to my heart: it’s too rainy to lie on the grass in a park reading trash.
Well, you know what? Summer isn’t summer without a little bit of light reading – what Orwell so eloquently and accurately described as “good bad literature” – so I thought I’d share one of my very favourite comfort books. If you have to settle for reading it in a cafe with a mug of something hot then so be it. Scandal, smut, fencing, revenge, romance, fancy clothes and, above all, opera – well, if you thought Anne Rice was just about monsters or erotica then prepare to be amazed.
“He was alone. He could hear the silence again. And the world was coming back, and he could not even lift his head. And telling himself he expected nothing, he felt that in this moment he could have begged for anything. But he felt Guido near; Guido’s hands, so heavy, so strong, were tugging at him, and rising abruptly he thrust his heated face into the crook of Guido’s shoulder. Those dusty curls brushed him, and it seemed all of Guido cradled him, even the fingers so firm and warm, and this was Guido holding him and loving him and kissing him now with the tenderest mouth and they were absolutely together.”
Purple prose? Absolutely. But exquisitely researched purple prose that actually manages to capture what making music feels like, what singing feels like. Plot with spoilers here - all I feel I have to say is castrati singers, female artists, 18th century excess and tonnes and tonnes of exceptionally queer sex. And did I mention the opera?
Points awarded for: superb knowledge of Baroque music and musical life, showing that relationships don’t need to be monogamous to be loving and life-changing, a protest against societies that deny equal rights to women, positive kinkiness, general bodice-ripping, historical romp goodness.
Points deducted for: complicated, unsettling and morally ambiguous aspects of Tonio and Guido’s relationship (teacher-pupil = not good, two castrati locked together in a world that’s mistreated them, creating their own world of wonder = very lovely indeed), old fashioned use of the word ‘rape’ to mean consensual rough sex, a sexuated division of the world into men (manly), women (womanly) and castrati (just generally hot).
Goes with: longing thoughts of travelling throughout Italy, thick Italian hot chocolate, a glass of chianti by candlelight.
Then listen to:
- Arias for Farinelli – Vivica Genaux (Harmonia Mundi)
- Sacrificium - Cecilia Bartoli (Decca)
- The World of the Castrati - Patrick Barbier (Souvenir Press)
- Angels and Monsters - Richard Somerset-Ward (Yale University Press)
- En Travesti: Women, Gender Subversion, Opera - ed. Corinne Blackmer (Columbia University Press)