Did I lay eyes on the lovely Zulietta before she died? Try as I might, I’m unable to remember…
It was opening night at the Teatro San Marco, with all the attendant bustle and confusion on both sides of the crimson curtain. Though the performance had barely begun, I’d already torn the tunic of my soldier’s costume on a nail protruding from a piece of scenery and had my toes mashed by a nervous white stallion awaiting his appearance near the end of Act One.
Several of my fellow singers were as jumpy as the horse, but they needn’t have been. In all my years on the stage, I’d seldom performed such a jewel of an opera. In Armida, Maestro Torani had crafted a spectacle certain to make even the most jaded Venetian sit up and take notice. Besides its delightful score, Armida served up a fiery chariot belching white-hot sparks and an enchanted palace hung with rotating globes that mimicked an array of silver stars. Our wily maestro had even persuaded the Senate to cough up sufficient funds to uniform the orchestra in scarlet and gold to match the interior of the vast theater.
The singing wasn’t half bad, either. Thanks to me and my talented colleagues.
I was playing Rinaldo, a knight of the Crusades and hero of the piece. My longtime rival, castrato Emilio Strada, was playing the Crusader captain and would sing an aria while mounted on the white stallion. Better him than me. The rest of the cast were also singers I had worked with before. All made pleasanter colleagues to sing alongside than the arrogant Emilio, who had recently seen fit to inflate his stage name to Emiliano.
While awaiting my entrance cue, I took stock of the house by means of a peephole concealed by a curtain flap. Every taper in the auditorium’s massive ceiling chandelier was aflame, as well as those in the smaller chandelier above the stage apron. Surrounding the tiers of boxes, mirrors amplified the light from triple-sconces so that the auditorium was filled with thousands of bright pinpoints. I favored my throbbing foot as I squinted through the smoke-hazed light that fell on patrician and commoner alike.
On the other side of the orchestra, a noisy crowd had gathered on the floor of the auditorium—what we called the pit. Wooden benches sagged beneath high-spirited students who might well have sacrificed their dinner money to see the opera. They rubbed elbows and traded insults with clerks who had flung their arms around black-eyed women in tattered finery. Then there were the gondoliers, the music-loving boatmen who were already stamping their feet and hooting for their favorite singers.
I chuckled. Maestro Torani had arranged a surprise that would soon shut them up. I glanced up into the maze of catwalks and ropes and flying scenery above the stage. Any minute now. Yes!
A stagehand detonated a vivid green lightning flash, and through the clearing smoke a mechanical cloud shuddered downward. The machine bore our prima donna, Vittoria Busanti, costumed in a mantua gown of glittering gold with a matching petticoat. I applied an eye to the peephole and watched hundreds of jaws go slack with surprise and delight.
Vittoria was past her first youth, but she had kept her figure and was a fine little actress. Stopping mere inches from the footlights, she struck a dramatic pose before nodding her readiness to the conductor at the harpsichord. He replied with a stirring chord. As Vittoria launched into the sorceress Armida’s menacing aria, her full breasts rose and fell and her panniered skirts swayed with the suggestion of generously rounded hips. My colleague was certainly on voice tonight. Trill followed trill, up and down the scales, sending her admirers into paroxysms of delight. In a perfect melding of song and motion, Vittoria’s sultry femininity spilled over the rim of the stage like summer waves lapping at the sands of the Lido. Every man in the pit would have gladly dived in. Even those who couldn’t swim.
Satisfied that the rabble was suitably impressed with our opera, I lifted my gaze to the boxes that curved around the auditorium. The first tier, elevated only a few feet off the floor, held courtesans and other persons of dubious repute. Pointedly ignoring Vittoria’s performance, the brightly dressed ladies of pleasure were bantering with young bucks promenading the perimeter of the pit. The higher tiers were occupied by noble families and wealthy merchants who rented boxes by the season, year after year. They were passed down from father to son, these miniature drawing rooms that served as nightly rendezvous for much of the populace.
It was the third week of Carnevale, so masking was in order. Venice had acquired her unsavory reputation partially based on this extended opportunity for disguise, but most mask wearers were not fleeing creditors or hiding out from foreign authorities. They simply enjoyed the frivolity of going incognito. Women from lowest to highest station favored the moretta, an unadorned oval of black velvet that lent an air of mystery to their pale, painted faces and didn’t compete with complicated hair arrangements.
The men’s masks were more varied. I saw several naval officers sporting flat pig snouts; the pointed beak of the plague doctor and the chronically happy Arlecchino were also popular that season. For complete anonymity, many men settled on a traditional bauta that combined a white mask of leather or papier-mâché and veiled tricorne.
If I had observed the tragic Zulietta that night, she would have been sitting among the upper tiers, hobnobbing with the ladies and gentlemen dressed in silk and lace. But just then I took no note of anyone in particular. I was searching for my family’s box.
It was mere curiosity. A failing of mine, I admit. My sister Annetta and her husband, Englishman Augustus Rumbolt, weren’t in attendance. Gussie had turned in his key to the box office before leaving Venice last month. For any other opening, they would have been in their regular place, loyally cheering each one of my arias.
Gussie and I had been fast friends ever since he landed in Venice to sample life as an artist. I was pleased when a bequest from one of his doting aunts liberated him from the ancestral duties he found so onerous, and absolutely delighted when he and my sister announced their intent to wed. Now Gussie had taken Annetta and their three children to visit England for the first time since he had made our island his permanent home— sheer rebellious folly his mother had accused in one of her infrequent letters. I’d often wondered how they were all getting on. Did England seem like a foreign country to my brother-in-law who had become thoroughly steeped in Venetian ways? Was the frosty Lady Rumbolt welcoming Annetta or making her feel like an uncouth barbarian? And to assuage my curiosity, who was occupying their usual box on this special evening?
There, just as Vittoria hit her top note, I spotted Gussie’s box to the right and one tier up from the Doge’s more ornate accommodation. The figures framed by the looped-back curtains applauded furiously. They were strangers to me: two unmasked men in full, starch-white bob wigs flanking a masked woman. Colored jewels glittered on the woman’s bosom and her fan fluttered in excitement. Behind the three at the railing, anony- mous maskers occupied extra chairs brought in for the night. Impossible to say who they might be. The party could have been anything from an ambassador’s retinue to young men on their Grand Tour sharing a courtesan for the night. They could even have been spies from a rival opera house.
I felt a presence at my shoulder an instant before a phlegmy voice whispered, “So far, so good. Don’t you think?”
I turned to find Maestro Torani rubbing his hands with cau- tious delight. The old man was short and wiry, more stooped of late and no longer able to take his rightful place at the harpsichord because of the rheumatism that crabbed his fingers. In honor of Armida, he had donned a gold-embroidered jacket and purchased a perfumed peruke with three rows of tight curls. His fashionable new headgear was not on his balding head, however, but in his hand. Our maestro could never keep a wig on for more than ten minutes straight.
Torani and I had worked together for so long I could almost read his mind. He was relieved that Vittoria had climbed out of the cloud machine without tripping on her train as she had in dress rehearsal and delighted at the audience’s response to her first aria. But he was still nervous. The natural state of a musical director on opening night, I supposed.
I encouraged him with an emphatic nod. “Everyone loves it.
Tomorrow the Gazzetta Veneta will be singing our praises.” “They’ve sent a man?”
“I spotted him first thing.”
“Where?” Torani pushed me aside to peer through the small square in the canvas.
“Second tier, center of the fifth box from the left.”
“I see…but that man is masked. How can you know who he is?”
“I’ve noticed him before. His mask can’t disguise the way he leans forward and cranes his neck like a stork. And take a look at his right hand. I’d wager he’s the only member of the audience holding a quill.”
The director drew breath with a hiss. “He’s writing his piece even now?”
“Why not?” I shrugged. “If I had his job, I’d carry a small lap desk and get my work done on the go.”
“Well, the size of the house should impress him, even if nothing else does. The box office just sent round a note. We’re packed to the gills. Every free box has been let. Even the fifth tier.”
I leaned over to take one last squint. Torani was correct. Tucked under the coved ceiling painted with cavorting cherubs, the fifth-tier pigeon lofts usually contained only a few middling tradesmen or other penny-pinchers. No one would pay top price for a view of the stage blocked by the massive chandelier. But tonight even this tier was fully occupied. Apparently, everyone in Venice who mattered was depending on Armida to make this an evening to talk about for some time to come.
I sighed, suddenly remembering that Liya, the person who mattered most to me, wasn’t out there with the rest.
Torani was as sensitive to my moods as I was to his. He let the canvas flap drop over the peephole and turned to me with an inquisitive frown. “Not worrying over the little boy are you?”
I shook my head. He was speaking of Titolino, my adopted son. Over the past several days, the boy had developed a fever and a wheeze in his chest. “No, he seems to be on the mend, but Liya stayed behind. Just to be certain.”
“Did you have the doctor in?”
“You know my wife,” I replied with a smile. “She’d as soon call for a doctor as one of the quacks who hawk their foul elixirs on the Rialto. Liya’s been bathing Titolino with cool cloths and coating his little ribs with a poultice of her own concoction.”
“Clever with herbs, your Liya. I thought your inflamed tonsils might scuttle last spring’s season, but she managed to cure them overnight.”
“Indeed. She’s quite adept.” My bland tone covered several years’ worth of scintillating memories. Liya’s herbal skills covered much more territory than simple healing. Torani had no idea. The director fell silent, his attention diverted by stagehands wheeling in an apparatus that would cause a fountain to spout water in the courtyard of the enchanted palace. “Look lively,” he uttered before he dove back into the shadowy wings to see to some mechanical detail of pumps and tubing. “You’re on next.”
I made my way to a painted flat at deep stage right and readied myself for my entrance. Hidden by batten and canvas, I carefully directed my helmet plumes away from the lamps that ran up the inside lip of the flat. They say misfortune comes in threes. I’d already been stepped on by a horse and torn my costume; I didn’t want my third mishap to be flaming headgear.
Almost time. Cheers and applause filled the theater as Vittoria finished her aria. She ended on a sustained high E that threw the audience into a frenzy. From my protected position, I watched as the soprano gathered bouquets tossed from the pit and the boxes that bordered the stage. She acknowledged the adulation with artfully blown kisses and low, sustained curtseys that puddled her shining skirts into pools of liquid gold.
I felt lightheaded, and as often happens before my first entrance, all my senses condensed into sharp focus. My nose was suddenly full of paint and dust and horse dung, undercut by the tangy smell of the rosin box used by the ballet girls. My ears picked up the rustle of Vittoria’s skirts as she made her sweeping exit, then heard the whispered oath of her dresser as she pricked her finger in her haste to relieve her mistress of her roses. The brass fanfare from the orchestra sounded overwhelmingly sharp and shrill. My lips felt numb. My foot hurt. My heart hammered against my ribs. Dio mio, I was suffocating. How would I ever sing a note?
All was forgotten the moment I stepped onto the wide stage. As I paraded forward, more cheering and applause buoyed me with palpable force. I was no longer the castrato soprano Tito Amato, but Rinaldo the princely Crusader, scourge of the Saracen horde. My pasteboard sword had turned to steel, and the costumer’s fabric armor would be capable of repelling the thrust of the sharpest lance.
Why had I doubted my voice for even a heartbeat? A crystal stream of melody poured from my lips, the notes swelling and diminishing with practiced ease. From a celebrated castrato, the audience expected vocal pyrotechnics.
I didn’t disappoint.
Plumbing my capacious lungs, I treated the audience to a feast of sweet sound. So forceful was my delivery, so rapid my divisions, so smooth my glissandos, the orchestra was challenged to keep pace. What a noble hero, this Rinaldo. How spirited! How brave!
Even as I played my role to perfection, I studied this closer view of the house over the shimmering light from the footlamps.
The gondoliers were entranced. Excellent. The crucial opinion of these boatmen would pronounce Armida a success or failure. If they liked what they heard, they would be warbling the airs down the canals the next morning. By afternoon, the entertainers on the makeshift stages of the Piazza would take up the tunes, and within hours, all Venice would be whistling and humming the latest sensation.
The box holders were similarly agog. Everyone in the great scarlet and gold horseshoe had come to their feet. As I continued to sing, I saw men weeping and women swooning. Many were already tossing bouquets and folded slips of paper that contained impassioned sonnets. Here and there, a bold woman hung over the box rails waving her handkerchief, desperate to gain my notice and elicit some sign that I would welcome a dressing-room assignation.
I was in my element, doing what Fate had prepared me for. A man could hardly ask for better. Every eye and spyglass in the place was glued to my person, every ear attuned to my song.
Except…Could it be? One box had its scarlet curtains completely drawn.
There, in the fourth tier. As glaring as a missing tooth in a great lady’s smile. Someone had shut me out. Someone was ignoring me.
Later, after Armida had played for several nights, I would expect some curtains to be at least partially drawn. With the arias already becoming familiar, the primped and pomaded nobility would train their opera glasses on each other, this social scrutiny being part and parcel of their nightly entertainment. They would flit from box to box to pay calls, play cards, or enjoy a warm supper wheeled from home by running footmen. And down in the pit, while we players poured out our vital force in song, the gondoliers would turn their backs to gaze on the antics of their betters.
But hold up—this was opening night. What could be so pressing that someone drew the curtains on a bravura aria by Venice’s reigning castrato? Unbridled lust? Intrigue fit to bring down the Republic?
Rubbish! Let love and politics take their course in their own good time. It was music that should reign over all tonight. My music.
I aimed my voice at the thin shaft of light that split the scarlet panels. Gilding the bones of Maestro Torani’s lovely melody, I sailed up a flight of semitone octaves and held the last note with all the exquisite power and strength I possessed. That pure, crystal sound sailed aloft, straight as an arrow, driven by the sheer force of my will.
Ah, it was working. I’d gained their attention.
A woman’s white arm parted the curtains; a sleeve of peacock blue ended in lace ruffles at her elbow. But something was wrong. The arm thrashed and flailed as if its owner were drowning, and once she had bunched the curtain fabric in her fist, she pulled so hard that the taffeta panel ripped from the rings that supported it.
To my horror, I realized the woman was struggling with a tall man in a full bauta. His hat brim shadowed the lower half of his face not covered by the mask, and a thick veil fell down his back, obscuring his wig and blending with his black cloak.
The woman tore at his mask, but the curtain panel that had wound itself around her arm hampered her reach. A froth of white petticoat popped into view. She was kicking, kneeing, aiming for her assailant’s groin. But he didn’t hesitate. Sweeping his cloak back like the flapping of a raven’s wings, he thrust one arm forward to connect with her midsection.
Only years of disciplined training kept me singing until the end of the phrase. By then, the woman had collapsed over the railing and was tumbling head over heels in a whirl of brilliant blue skirts, ruffled petticoats, and scarlet curtain. She hit the floor of the pit with a sickening thud.
For a fraction of a second, the great theater was frozen in silence, then screams and shouts reverberated from the walls and ceiling, rattling the crystals hanging from the grand chandelier.
At the periphery of my vision, I saw orchestra musicians waving their instruments in perplexity, and in the pit, chaos, people running this way and that. Throughout all, my central focus remained locked on that fourth-tier box.
The tall man had taken several steps back. His cloaked silhouette made a dark pyramid against the scarlet wallcovering of the box. Near the top of the pyramid, his mask stood out as a chalk-white diamond.
The smoky light must have been playing tricks on my eyes, for the man’s malevolent stare glittered as if we faced each other across a table instead of the breadth of the theater.
My face felt hot. His burning gaze was searing my cheeks! Then he lurched clumsily from sight, stumbling as if he had been hurt in the struggle.
Dimly I realized that the stage curtain was rolling down, separating our make-believe world from the shattering violence and tumult of the real one. I jumped back just in time to avoid being caught in its heavy folds.