“Sometimes it takes another fool to show you the error of your ways.”
I was alone in my dressing room at the Teatro San Marco, addressing my image in the oval mirror flanked by unlit oil lamps. Morning sunlight streamed in a high window, glinting off the gold-threaded costume hanging on the wardrobe door behind me. To celebrate the upcoming marriage of the Doge’s eldest daughter, the Savio alla Cultura had commissioned an opera filled to the brim with pomp and pageantry. Our director, Maestro Rinaldo Torani, had chosen to rework the score of a minor composer who had long since disappeared into obscurity in one of the more unpronounceable German states. The subject of the nuptial opera was the great Roman general Julius Caesar’s adventures with Cleopatra Queen of Egypt. Torani was planning to dazzle Venice, and her foreign visitors, with an unprecedented display of vocal fireworks and spectacular stage effects.
We’d been deep in rehearsal for Cesare in Egitto for the past week. Those seven days had passed at the cadence of a funeral march. My funeral, it seemed. I had been cast as a nefarious Egyptian prince, the brother of Cleopatra. Not an insignificant part, but not the primo uomo role of the title. That honor had gone to Francesco Florio—the vain, arrogant, impertinent fool who was goading me to take a serious look at my own sorry behavior. Florio and I belonged to a class of men who inspired ecstasy in the audiences of the day. We were castrati—male sopranos—the rulers of the opera stage. I had made my professional debut in Venice three years earlier. Since then, I had sung the plum roles at the San Marco, Venice’s state theater, and been in demand for civic festivals and court entertainments all over the north of Italy.
I admit that I’d let the sweet wine of success go to my head. I had squandered too many hours of valuable practice time in dining with patricians who only wanted to parade Venice’s latest rage before their guests. Their fawning had only escalated my conceit. Eventually my tailor saw more of me than my family, and I noticed that old friends were avoiding me. I knew I was behaving like a fool, but I couldn’t seem to stop. The adulation enticed me like a drug. I shook my head at the mirror. A pale face with smooth, boyish cheeks shook back. The shadowed eyes that had seen too many late nights forced me to be brutally honest. Maestro Torani’s casting decision was just. My voice had suffered from my dissipations; it no longer merited top billing.
I dropped my chin to fiddle with the grease paints littering the dressing table. Trying to evaluate my demotion in a calm fashion, I instead found my hands snapping a stick of bisque pink clean in two. Why Florio, for God’s sake? I could have stood losing my position to almost anyone but him. And why had Maestro Torani not warned me?
The first week of that wet, windy May of 1734, returning from giving a concert in Florence, I had been shocked to find Venice in a state of great excitement over Florio’s upcoming appearance in the wedding opera. Born Francesco Florio in a village near Bologna, the vocal wonder had acquired legions of admirers who had taken to calling him Il Florino. If I was scaling the lower slopes of fame in my native Venice, Il Florino stood on the heady, international heights. His luscious soprano and never-ending notes had conquered London, Vienna, Dresden, and every noteworthy opera house in between. We had clashed from the moment he’d set his beautifully shod foot on the San Marco stage.
“Maestro Torani, you must excuse my late arrival,” he had said that first day, striding onstage, waving a plump, bejeweled hand at the musical director. “My worthless servant failed to scent my bath water. By the time the fellow ransacked my trunks for the proper oil, the water had cooled and he was obliged to start all over again. So tiresome.”
The statuesque singer unhooked the clasp on his cloak and stood in an attitude of anticipation. Lace ruffles poured down his chest, and a watch chain loaded with charms and medals spanned his considerable mid-section. Torani opened and shut his mouth several times, then motioned for a pair of theater lackeys to remove the garment of crimson silk. Tenor Niccolo Galiani and flamboyant contralto Rosa Tiretta led the pack of secondary singers watching Florio with intense interest. Niccolo’s gaze was worshipful, Rosa’s frankly appraising.
Emma Albani, our veteran prima donna, came forward bob- bing her head in the suggestion of a curtsy. “You probably don’t remember, Signor Florio, but we sang together in Dresden years ago.”
“But I do recall, Signora. We shared several ensembles.” Florio brought her hand to the vicinity of his mouth, kissed the air, then said so loudly the stagehands on the catwalks above the stage could hear, “For pity’s sake, do try to keep up to tempo this time.”
The soprano snatched her hand back, and a flush crept over her doughy, powdered cheeks. Our Emma prided herself on her cordial disposition. Other leading ladies might renege on contracts, refuse to sing arias which failed to suit, or come burdened with spendthrift husbands or meddlesome mommas, but not the lady who had been dubbed “the sweet angel of song” by her fellow Venetians. Of course, that appellation had been given more than a few years ago. The angel’s voice had lately developed a wobble in the high register, but Emma contrived to keep herself in work by being supremely agreeable. Besides amusing us with clever jokes, she never argued with fellow singers and never said no to theater management. I had always enjoyed working with her. When Florio’s needlessly cruel remark erased Emma’s pleasant smile and replaced it with a look of embarrassed confusion, the visiting castrato slipped yet another notch in my estimation.
After Emma had retreated to the dark sanctuary of the wings, Torani cleared his throat and pressed me forward with a nudge to the small of my back. “Signor Florio, allow me to present Venice’s finest castrato and favorite son, Tito Amato.”
To my surprise, Florio bowed, declared himself enchanted to make my acquaintance, and made theatrical small talk while Torani got the delayed rehearsal underway. Throughout Emma’s opening recitative and aria, Florio kept a smile pasted on his broad, flat face. He nodded indulgently as he waved a finger to keep time with her music. Something about that haughty smile nettled my pride. My stomach churned as it had when I’d first heard that Florio would be singing the lead, and an unfortunate compulsion gradually took possession of my mind. By the time it was my turn to sing, I was burning to prove my worth and show Florio how hard he would have to work to captivate the audience for his own.
From the moment my lips parted I ignored Maestro Torani’s direction from the harpsichord and went my own way. Though the operatic conventions of the day called for singers to decorate the written melody with their own improvisations, the judicious performer showed his artistry with a discreet application of musical ornamentation. In my zeal, I dumped discretion and good taste out the window like a fishwife hurling slops into the canal. I packed the lilting measures with an excess of fioritura and trilled where I should have paused for breath. Torani was shaking his head, slicing the air with an increasingly agitated hand. I ignored him and ended with a sustained cadenza that was wonderfully extravagant, but totally out of character for the piece. Emma stood in the wings, alternately chewing her thumbnail and throwing me sympathetic glances.
During Torani’s ensuing rant, Florio could barely contain his chuckles. “So,” he muttered, as he strolled to center stage to take his turn, “that is what passes for vocalizing in Venice these days.”
Thoroughly disgraced, I crept into the wings to join Emma and the other singers. Torani played the instrumental interlude that led to Florio’s first aria. The singer struck a graceful posture with one hand curved on his hip and the other holding a sheet of music at chin level. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, Florio began to puff himself up with majesty. The man seemed to be growing before our eyes. He sounded the first note with amazing delicacy, a perfectly formed crystal tone that somehow filled the vast, empty theater. Then Torani struck a chord and they were off. Florio’s penetrating soprano flew through Caesar’s triumphant aria, his pace challenging the director at the harpsichord to keep up with him. Yet, the singer’s intonation remained pure, his trills brilliant, and his improvisation elegant. Even had I not been neglecting my vocal exercises, I knew I had met my master. Florio demonstrated what the voice maestro at my Naples conservatorio used to tell us before every class: “Any singer can sing, a castrato must astonish.”
The latch on my dressing room door clicked and pulled me away from my musings. From down the corridor, an indistinct uproar met my ears. Over a medley of sobbing and whining, a man’s harsh voice scolded and a woman defended herself in strident tones. My manservant, Benito, squeezed through the door carrying a large box which he laid reverently on the sofa. With quick, deft motions he untied the cord, lifted the lid, and unwrapped layers of silvery-gray tissue. He gave me an excited grin as he placed an elaborately constructed headdress on a china stand.
“What do you think, Master?” he asked, his delicate hands fluffing the plumes that had been flattened by the tissue.
“I think they are terribly loud. There couldn’t be more of a rumpus if someone had been murdered.”
“That’s just Signor Carpani taking the seamstresses to task over a missing bolt of cloth. I’m asking you about the helmet. Isn’t it a beauty? This is what you will wear with your battle armor. Do you like it?”
I fingered the gold trim on the nosepiece and ran one of the soft ostrich plumes through my hand. If the ancients had actually worn something like this into battle, the bright trims would have made exceedingly fine targets. “It will do, Benito.”
“Do?” My manservant’s carefully plucked eyebrows shot up. “It’s a masterpiece, every bit as nice as the one made for Signor Florio. I saw to that. I stopped by the Jews’ shop every day to make sure they didn’t stint you.”
“You need not have worried. The Del’Vecchio clan does beautiful work. They have always provided quality headdresses for the theater.”
“Still, it doesn’t hurt to make sure.” Benito frowned. My manservant was a small man, a castrato like myself. But while I possessed a eunuch’s typically long arms and legs and had to constantly curb my appetite for fear of developing a paunch like Florio’s, Benito remained as delicate as a sparrow no matter how many generous dinners he consumed. In his younger years he had played the female characters in the opera houses of Rome, where papal decree banned women from the stage. When his youthful looks abandoned him and singing engagements became few and far between, the clever castrato offered his services elsewhere. Benito had long possessed a knack for discovering people’s needs and finding ways to fulfill them.
I had first encountered Benito during the disastrous weeks that surrounded my Venice debut and had not expected to continue the acquaintance once those sad events had reached their startling conclusion. Yet our paths seemed destined to cross. The little castrato had soon popped up to assist me in another matter, and when he offered his services on a permanent basis, I found myself surprisingly keen. Benito had been my servant for several years now, and tended to pout if his efforts weren’t appreciated.
I turned to face him over the back of my chair. “Grazie, Benito. The helmet is splendid. It’s just that, at this moment, I am more concerned with matching Signor Florio’s vocal skills than competing with his wardrobe.”
My manservant shrugged and took up my hairbrush. Tending to avoid wigs whenever possible, I’d left the house with my hair loose about my shoulders. Why a man with a perfectly good head of hair should borrow another’s mane and wear it on his head like a piece of sod was a mystery to me. Benito disapproved of my informality. More in tune with the reigning style than I, my manservant strove to dress my locks at the height of fashion. He reached for a stand that held a trim bag wig the color of my own dark hair. “Will you wear this for the rehearsal, Master?”
“No. Just arrange my own hair. Simply.” I ignored his exaggerated sigh and settled back before my mirror to enjoy the gentle pull of the brush through my locks. “And tell me what the argument in the hall was about.”
“Signor Carpani accused Madame Dumas of purloining a bolt of figured velvet meant for one of Signor Florio’s costumes. She denied it, but can’t produce the fabric.”
“Madame Dumas is an unlikely thief. She must have served this theater since before I was born. She left Paris in the last days of the old King Louis and has been the costumer here ever since.”
“Well, she’s argued herself hoarse and her girls are in an uproar. Carpani is threatening to have them all tossed out on their pretty behinds.”
I shook my head. “That’s ridiculous. The bolt must have been mislaid.”
Benito gave me a dubious glance in the mirror. “Have you not lifted your eyes from your songbooks this long week? Signor Carpani has stuck his nose in every closet and cupboard of this theater. I’ll wager he has the location and value of every paper of pins written down in that big notebook he carries under his arm. If the missing fabric were in the theater, he would have found it.”
I grunted as Benito worked at a tangle with the brush. “That clerk has been worrying Maestro Torani to death.”
“Why have we been saddled with this cretino of a penny pincher all of a sudden?” my manservant asked in his irreverent way. I had never tried to tame my servant’s mouth. In some matters I had set fast limits, but Benito knew he was free to say what he liked.
I answered, “One compelling reason—profit. Since the Republic appropriated the San Marco for its state opera house, the Senate has been pouring ducats into the theater with only meager rewards. Maestro Torani is more interested in making beautiful music than making sure the account books add up. And he has let the scene designers run wild with their spectacular effects.”
“The public love it. The last opera that brought the horses and chariots onto the stage packed the pit and the boxes every night.”
“Yes.” I grimaced, recalling the backstage stink and mess. “But the box office can’t bear the cost of such stunts. With the considerable sum paid to engage Il Florino, the Senate has called a halt. Thrift has suddenly come into vogue.”
“Hence Signor Carpani.”
“And Signor Morelli,” I murmured, closing my eyes as Benito began to curl my hair with a wand he had warmed on his little alcohol stove.
The Savio had appointed Leonardo Morelli, a dour patrician, to oversee theater expenditures and curtail waste. The Morelli family had once wielded considerable influence in government circles, but had been knocked down a peg or two when a profligate Morelli lost the family’s Rialto warehouses at the faro table. The new Ministro del Teatro might be short a few ducats, but as a gentleman of standing, he could not be expected to tally the accounts himself. For that, Signor Morelli had recruited an exacting clerk who seemed to revel in figures and ledgers. It took only a few days for Signor Carpani and his notebook to become as much a part of the San Marco as the painted curtain that separated the everyday Venice with all her charms and foibles from the idealized pageants we played out on the theater’s stage.
Benito passed me a hand mirror, and I turned my head to admire his work. Rehearsal would soon begin. From neighboring dressing rooms, Rosa’s dusky contralto moved up and down the scales, echoed by Niccolo’s mellow tenor. I made a silent vow to my newly coifed reflection as Benito whisked a clothing brush over my shoulders. If any difficulties threatened the upcoming opera, they would not be caused by me. I would imitate Emma Albani and become the soul of congeniality. I would turn a deaf ear to Florio’s pompous pronouncements, reapply myself to my music, and try to regain the confidence of Maestro Torani and my fellow musicians. The great occasion that Cesare in Egitto would celebrate demanded no less.