The one thing I’ll never miss about the opera career that brought me fame and fortune is jolting from one engagement to another in crowded mail coaches, watching the roadside vegetation unfold in brain-numbing boredom. One poplar tree is very like another, I’ve found, and the tenth field of grazing sheep is no more harmoniously pastoral than the first.
So why am I once again rattling along the roads between Venice and Milan? Why had I deserted my dear wife to listen to Augustus Rumbolt snore like a hibernating bear and Benito sigh out of ennui as deep as my own?
I’m a true child of Venice, I suppose. Life is theater, and my whirlwind city offers a stage that entertains and excites like no other. When my old director, Maestro Torani, begged my assistance with a mission of grave import for our opera house, I agreed without hesitation.
As to my companions, I never travel without my manservant, Benito. He brews my morning chocolate to perfection, always sends me out with exquisite lace at collar and cuffs, and has twice saved my life when unbridled curiosity led me into mortal danger. Benito is a castrato—as am I.
The snoring bear in the corner of the carriage invited himself along, but is most welcome nevertheless. Augustus Rumbolt— Gussie—is my English friend and my sister Annetta’s husband. He is also an artist between portrait commissions. I’d met Gussie years ago when he’d engineered his escape from a tutor-guided
Grand Tour. Unlike the type of English dandy I often saw loung- ing in coffee houses with his nose in a guidebook and eyes blind to the real Venice, Gussie had been keen to learn our language and our ways. By obstinately remaining in Venice, my friend had scandalized his family and embraced his lifelong dream of learning to paint like the Italian masters.
Sighs and snores aside, I’m cheered by my two companions and confident that each will be—in his own unique way—of great help once we reach Milan.
At Maestro Torani’s behest, we are off to snare an Angel.
# # #
My quest had actually begun several days earlier at the foot of the Rialto Bridge, where I’d met Maestro Torani to discuss the looming fall season at the Teatro San Marco. Opera, the reigning entertainment of the day, especially in our city, had raised gaiety and pleasure to a high art. For years our Senate-sponsored opera house had flourished as the crowning jewel of Venice’s carnival festivities, but that year San Marco was in trouble.
We’d been losing subscribers for well over a year, first a trickle, then a flood. Most of our wandering ticket-holders had taken boxes at the rival Teatro Grimani, a house known for mount- ing lightweight operas filled with pretty tunes and even prettier prima donnas. Something had to be done.
Pleased that Maestro Torani had sought my advice, I’d scoured Venice—the musical parts of it, anyway—and nosed out a new opera that would lure our errant audience back. My delicious spectacle would astonish Venice with something radically unexpected.
When I’d left home that day—fortified by an extra cup of early morning chocolate, a kiss from my loving Liya, and a fresh breeze blowing off the lagoon—I was absolutely certain that Maestro Torani would embrace my suggestion to replace the ponderous opera he had already scheduled to open the season.
Later I wasn’t so sure.
“A daring step, Tito.” Torani tapped his silver-headed walk- ing stick on the paving stones of the riva. He regarded me with narrowed eyes, clearly hoping I was making an awkward joke. “Is this your best proposal? Mixing comedy into Venice’s grand spectacle? Reducing our finest singers to clowns?”
“Humor is merely the seasoning, Maestro. You could liken it to just the right amount of saffron in the hands of a master chef.” I avoided Torani’s gaze as I touched the brim of my tri- corne to a passing acquaintance, then faced him squarely. “I’m not calling for buffoonery.”
“I hope not. Venice will have enough of that once Carnival starts. The Commedia players will throw up their outdoor stages, and not a minute will slip by without a stale joke or a boot in the arse.”
“You must admit that Harlequin and Pantaleone draw a crowd.”
“A crowd of raucous hyenas.” He shrugged dismissively. “People don’t come to the opera to laugh.”
“Perhaps they should.” “What?”
“At least we’d know they were paying attention.”
“Look here, Tito, are you suggesting that our productions have grown…I don’t know…tiresome?” Torani was sputtering, and the veins of his cheeks stood out fiery red.
“That’s not the precise word I had in mind.” I’d actually been thinking worn-out, overdone, or hopelessly convoluted. But how to convey this to the touchy old gentleman who’d directed them without sending him into a fatal fit of apoplexy?
I cast a glance at the famous bridge spanning the Grand Canal. Over the water yet untouched by the warm September sun, beneath the bridge’s solid arch, mist had collected so thickly that the laden skiffs and gondolas appeared to sail into an other- worldly realm, never to return.
Much like my plans to reinvigorate the Teatro San Marco.
I couldn’t let that happen. Not when I’d found a brilliant work that would breathe new life into the company nearly smothered by trite tales of Olympian feuds and tedious exploits of long-dead heroes.
“I ask you, Maestro, how many times can you expect the audience to be astonished at Zeus descending from the clouds to untangle the plot and save the day with a thunderbolt?”
Torani harrumphed, waving his stick wildly. A smock-clad farmer from the mainland jumped out of its way, then shot the old man a manu fico. The maestro was oblivious to the vulgar gesture. “Look here, Tito, people cling to these traditions for a reason.
It makes them feel comfortable, like coming home to their favorite chair and a glass of warm brandy. When you’ve lived as long as I have, my boy, you’ll understand.”
I exhaled an annoyed sigh. My thirtieth name day had passed several years ago, as Torani well knew. When would he stop calling me “boy?”
As if he’d read my mind, my old mentor clasped my chin and studied my face as he turned it this way and that. For a fleeting moment, I imagined a fatherly possessiveness in his smooth touch. “No, not a boy,” he finally whispered. “Your beardless cheeks make me forget how many years we’ve been associated.” “Twelve years, Maestro. A full dozen.”
“I’m well aware of the passage of time. And of all you’ve accomplished.”
“Then will you consider my plan?”
Torani regarded me silently, lips set in a line. Beneath his cockaded tricorne, he wore a wig fresh from the perruqier, a fashionable, campaign-style wig with gray sausage curls above each ear and a long braid down the back. Along with his distinguished brow, gaunt cheeks, and proud sparrow-hawk nose, Torani’s wig gave him the appearance of a weary, weathered general inspecting troops destined to march off to battle without him.
“Tell me, Tito,” he said at last. “If humor is the seasoning, what is the meat in the dish you’d like us to serve?”
“This opera tells a story of our own time—not ages past.” I raised my voice to be heard over the growing foot traffic on the riva. People carrying all manner of things to sell at the market were flowing across the bridge, popping out of side streets, and alighting from boats tied at the quay’s tarred mooring posts. I continued, “Both the music and the poetry bubble with life and energy of a kind that Venice has never seen.”
“What’s it called, again?” “The False Duke.”
“The title itself disturbs me. Surely you must see—” The maestro snatched a wheezing breath that ended in a moist cough. Of late, Torani had displayed a surplus of fluid, which his refusal to be bled only made worse. He said, “False and Duke linked in the same title? It’s almost like accusing an aristocrat of a crime. Offensive!”
Glancing around, Torani lowered his voice a fraction. A pair of sbirri sauntered by. While the constables who patrolled Venice for pickpockets and other rogues were easy to identify by their red sashes and short swords, the confidenti, state spies on the alert for revolutionary sentiments, blended anonymously into the crowd. My companion tapped a finger on the side of his nose and finished on a whisper, “And risky, besides.”
I shook my head. “Don’t worry. The plot proceeds harmoni- ously, in a very respectful manner. The true duke realizes his heart’s desire—he voluntarily trades places with a forest huntsman.”
“Good God! How is this possible?”
“The two men share a remarkable likeness.”
Torani touched a handkerchief to his lips. “Twins,” he announced cheerily, waving the white square as if he were keeping time with some unheard tune. “Now I see. Twins separated at birth—the huntsman is also of noble blood.”
“No, Maestro.” I shuffled my feet uneasily. “The twin plot is so old, it should come wearing whiskers. This opera has something new to say, and I believe Venice is ready to hear it.”
“And what is this new premise that will stop our box office hemorrhage?”
“Simply this: the duke exchanges roles with the huntsman for love’s sake, but then he discovers the bliss of a plain life, truly lived, away from the strivings and vanities of court.”
Torani lowered his gaze to the pitted paving stones. Thinking, I hoped.
Forcing myself to remain silent, I watched a boy unloading wicker baskets from a skiff bobbing on the canal. His cargo comprised beige and brown mushrooms, perhaps the first of the season, their velvety caps still furred with dirt from the forest floor.
The boy had transferred several baskets to a flat, two-wheeled cart by the time Torani looked up and said, “I suppose the plot might work, Tito. Who hasn’t longed to escape the crush of responsibility at one time or another?”
I nodded as he continued, “To live without strife or guilt… to find true contentment.” He sighed deeply, then shook himself like a man who has fallen asleep unawares. “Where do matters of the heart come into the story?”
“The duke finds true love with a milkmaid.” The maestro’s eyebrows shot up.
“Who does happen to be a noble lady in disguise,” I hastened to assure him.
Torani pushed his tricorne back. He dug a finger under his wig and scratched. “I don’t know. This gamboling in the countryside, blending the orders of society. It smacks of liberal philosophy. No matter how inoffensive you claim it to be, the Savio—not to mention the entire Senate—might find it hard to swallow.”
The Savio alla Cultura was the patrician official charged with collecting a portion of the theater’s revenue for the Republic’s coffers. Before the summer hiatus, that worthy gentleman had often left Torani’s office with a slender purse and a worrisome frown. The Savio was also our official advocate in the Senate—where he could be our most solicitous protector or our harshest critic. I hoped the Savio would be so delighted with The False Duke’s potential stream of ducats that the shaky politics of the libretto would pale to nothing. After all, every Venetian aristocrat wore a merchant’s tough hide under his silk and velvets.
I said as much to Torani, but the maestro was still concerned. So much was riding on his decision. All of Italy loved its opera. But understand—Venetian opera surpassed any other. Our theaters, open to the public rather than confined to a royal court, were a reflection of the city itself, the meeting place of society high and low. An aura of nearly sacred proportion surrounded every person and thing that had the slightest connection with the opera. Even the fellow who emptied the singers’ chamber pots had something to brag about.
Torani took my arm and leaned on it as we started toward the market on the Campo San Giacomo. “You haven’t told me who’s responsible for this masterpiece.” His voice held an undertone of accusation.
“Signor Rocatti, the young violin maestro at the Pieta. Vivaldi’s successor, in fact.”
“The very same.” I stumbled over a loose brick, momentarily distracted by a red-cheeked brunette hawking pastries from a tray hung about her neck. Their yeasty, sugary aroma was delightful, and so were her shapely shoulders. Torani dropped my arm, apparently preferring to trust his stick.
“Tito, I’ve attended many a concert at the Pieta, and found Signor Rocatti’s pieces disappointing. They certainly can’t com- pare with Maestro Vivaldi’s genius.” He touched his forehead and proceeded to cross himself in memory of Venice’s greatest composer.
“But,” I quickly countered, “The False Duke was composed for seasoned professional singers. The girls of the Pieta are young amateurs. Most of them will end up using their musical skills merely for their own pleasure. This score, on the other hand, is brimming with novel melodies, glorious harmonies. And Rocatti has outdone himself in buoyant arias for the duke—all composed in the style of Maestro Vivaldi.”
“When my old friend was still at his best?”
I nodded. “Rocatti patterned his score after Vivaldi’s full flowering.”
We regarded each other sadly. Several years ago, the fickle winds of musical fashion had blown Maestro Vivaldi away from his beloved Venice. The exemplary and prolific composer they called “The Red Priest” for his carrot-colored hair and his early induction into the church’s minor orders had headed north to stage operas for the Hapsburg court in Vienna. Unable to navigate the politics of that intrigue-ridden court, Vivaldi died there in disgrace. An ignominious end for a great man.
I said, “Maestro, you know I’m difficult to impress, but if you don’t believe me, see for yourself. I’ve left a copy of Rocatti’s score at the theater.”
He gave a tired sigh. “Let me think on this a moment.” Slowly, not speaking, we turned into the Campo San Giacomo. Though it was early yet, this central marketplace hummed with merchants calling from stalls and women gossiping over garlands of yellow onions and pyramids of purple cabbage. In another hour the uproar would be intolerable, and you’d hardly be able to move a foot without asking someone’s pardon. With droning pleas, ragged beggars would extend bowls. Soldiers, all gold braid, brass buttons, and hangers swinging from leather straps, would march past. Young bootblacks would twitch at your sleeve, and perhaps an enterprising whore decked out in paste jewels and tattered lace, hoping for some early business. But just now the campo in the shadow of its ancient, red-ochre church was as lovely a place as you’d find in our crumbling city, and the crowd was sparse enough to allow easy passage.
Torani and I came to a halt in a quiet enclave behind Il Gobbo, the statue of the crouching, naked hunchback who presided over the marketplace. The director was still frowning. Frustration welled up within me. Why wouldn’t Torani give me an answer?
“What is worrying you, Maestro?”
“Balbi—our good Giuseppe.” Torani spoke tentatively, almost sorrowfully. “He’s already drilling the singers for Prometheus. And such attention to detail. Just yesterday he was poring over sketches for the set design and making suggestions.”
Torani was speaking of Giuseppe Balbi, the composer whose opera was scheduled to open the fall season. Balbi also happened to be the San Marco’s lead violinist—he’d been with the theater even longer than I had. Yes, Balbi was a good man. A talented accompanist. Kind and patient with the orchestra musicians under his supervision. Loyal to the theater.
Unfortunately, as a composer, Balbi was a hack ruled by outmoded convention. If Torani had forgotten, I needed to remind him.
“Maestro, the San Marco isn’t declining because of our fine singers or the excellent direction you’ve provided. The fault is in the librettos and music the singers are given. Prometheus is a prime example—again a mythological hero. And also again, Act One ends with his bravura aria—vehement exit stage right. Act Two begins with a pastorale, another old chestnut. I can already hear the audience yawning—”
Torani interrupted with a slice of his hand. “I can’t argue with that. It’s just…”
“It’s just what, Maestro?”
The tight lines on the director’s face seem to signify some mental turbulence beyond the theater’s money woes, an underly- ing despair that had more to do with the inner man than with his very public position. Torani glanced around the campo.… toward the church portico where the money changers were doing a brisk business. Farther up, at the soaring tower with its ornate clock divided into the twenty-four slices of the day. And still farther up, at a sky of pure, undiluted blue.
Gradually, his expression softened, rather like a wallflower opening to the sun. He rubbed the back of his neck and asked, “You realize that The False Duke would be a gamble?”
“I do, but it seems like good odds. You know how much Venetians love novelty. Isn’t that why you asked me to come up with something new? Aren’t you itching to take a risk?”
A quizzical smile pulled his mouth to one side. “I thought you hated gaming, Tito.”
Well I should, given that my father had sacrificed our family honor and so much more at the Ridotto’s faro tables. But the future of the Teatro San Marco was at stake. Fortune demanded a bold move, and Venice deserved it.
“Maestro, I have faith in Rocatti’s opera. Let’s go to the theater, review the score. We can discuss the casting I have in mind—” But Torani was no longer listening. His gaze sizzled on a sedan chair entering the campo from the direction of the fish market. Two bearers rigged out with shoulder straps hauled the gilded, top-heavy box between the stalls. As it passed, a merchant selling bright green melons employed his produce to sketch a comically lewd pose. The thin crowd reluctantly made way. “Who is it, Maestro?”
A snort. “Don’t you recognize the chair, Tito?”
I shook my head. Many wealthy men and women moved about the city by sedan chair, both for show and for cleanliness. “Observe the livery on its bearers, boy. And commit their colors to memory. It’s a wise man who knows his enemy.”
I gave an irritated sigh—there was that “boy” again. But I stretched tall to see over the folded headdress of a peasant woman bearing a yoke with jugs of milk packed in straw at each end. Dodging as she swung around, I caught sight of a man in a heavy-bottomed wig behind the glass windows of the chair.
Ah! Lorenzo Caprioli. Even at a mere glimpse, his fat, greasy face was unmistakable.
Caprioli saw us, too. He tapped on the glass and pointed.
The chair changed course.
Torani whipped his head right, then left, seeking an escape route. His gondola waited among the produce boats back at the bridge, but the old man moved so slowly, we’d never make it out of the campo and back to the riva before Caprioli’s powerful bearers overtook us.
There was no way around it. Maestro Torani would be forced to come face to face with his hated rival, the manager of the Teatro Grimani, the opera house that had stolen most of our lost subscribers.