Excerpt: Secrets of a Soprano

CHAPTER ONE

 

“O Love, give me remedy

For my pain, for my sighs!

Either return my love to me

Or let me die.”

The Marriage of Figaro, Act II

London, 1818

The plaintive notes of the aria faded, and a profound hush fell over the theater. It took a lot to silence the carousing in the pit or the gossip of the haut ton in the boxes, but the new soprano had managed it. Then the audience erupted into rapturous applause such as Max had never heard in his long career as an operagoer. But then he’d never experienced such a heart-wrenching musical performance as this rendition of Mozart’s reverie on lost love.

Over the years, as Maximilian Hawthorne, and more recently as Viscount Allerton, he had seen and heard many great singers and known them intimately, too. But Teresa Foscari reached inside his chest and squeezed the breath from his lungs. She stirred his emotions as only one other singer had done.

Foscari was not her. She couldn’t be.

The theme of the aria and the genius of the singer had evoked long-forgotten suffering at love betrayed, that was all. He pushed back a churning brew of bitterness and yearning and forced himself to judge the performer objectively.

She was good, La Foscari. Better than good. A vocal artist without peer as well as a consummate actress. And there lay the problem, immediate, practical, and nothing to do with the sorrows of his youth. He lowered his opera glasses and turned to his companion in the box at the Tavistock Theatre, London’s principal—for the present—home of the operatic arts.

“We’re ruined.” Simon Lindo, not a man given to excessive emotion, shook his lightly grizzled head in dismay. Lindo’s sentiments were aroused not by vocal virtuosity but by mundane mercenary considerations. “We’re destroyed,” he continued, lowering his forehead onto the upholstered railing of the box. “No one will come to the Regent while Foscari is here. That snake Mortimer will sell out every performance this season.”

“Careful, Simon,” Max said. “You don’t want Mortimer to see you looking desperate. You can be sure he knows we’re here.”

Lindo raised his head and composed his features lest Bartholomew Mortimer, the lessee and manager of the Tavistock Theatre, should note the consternation on the face of his former employee and present rival.

It took a lot to upset Simon, whose years in the theatrical business had given him nerves of steel and a philosophical acceptance of adversity. But circumstances tonight justified his agitation. Lindo had sunk every penny he possessed into the brand-new Regent Opera House.

Max’s anxiety was almost as great. While the loss of his own investment in the Regent would hardly leave a dent in his income, he’d poured time and energy into the venture beyond what might be expected of an aristocratic patron. Pride and ambition were at stake. His peers, many of whom swelled the packed house for Foscari’s opening night, regarded his venture into the theatrical business as an eccentricity made acceptable only by his exalted social position. He cared for their opinion—a little. A great deal more important was the achievement of his goal: bringing truly great opera to London.

He looked back at the stage where Teresa Foscari, known throughout Europe as La Divina, was taking her bow.

She was a glorious sight. Max knew heavy stage makeup and an elaborate powdered wig could disguise imperfections of face. But experience told him the sumptuous blue satin panniered gown of Mozart’s Countess contained a figure worthy of the gods. No costumier’s artifice could create that slender waist and magnificent bosom. The only drawback was that her allure shattered the verisimilitude of the opera’s plot: no one in their right mind could believe a husband would leave the bed of this stunning creature for another woman. Every male in the audience was gaping at the full breasts, revealed by her low neckline and accentuated as she bowed in regal acknowledgment of their homage.

Not all these men, opera aficionados only by reason of fashion, could appreciate the peerless artistry of her performance, the soaring perfection of her voice. But not one was unaffected by her superb presence. There was no mystery why Teresa Foscari’s fame had streaked like a comet through a dozen countries for the past ten years.

Lindo continued to bemoan their misfortune. “Look at her, Max. The men are going to be after her like flies for honey whenever she appears.” He turned to his friend, his shrewd eyes narrowing. “From the look on your face I’d say you were ready to join them. I’m worried about financial ruin and all you can do is stare at her.”

Max wrenched his eyes from the stage and tried to speak like a man with nothing but business on his mind. “The timing of her arrival in London is unfortunate. But the ladies will come to us. We have Edouard Delorme and he’s as handsome as sin.”

“You know a soprano always trumps a tenor,” Lindo retorted.

“We have a soprano. An English one.”

Lindo lifted his bushy eyebrows.

Miss Lucinda Johnston possessed a lovely voice and had achieved great success in the provinces and some in London. But her face, to put it kindly, was reminiscent of a bulldog. A refined, handsome, well-bred bulldog, Max told himself optimistically, likely to appeal to any patriotic Englishman.

And most unlikely to make even the most dog-loving squire forget Teresa Foscari’s obvious charms.

“You’re right,” he said. “There’s no comparison.”

“One swallow doesn’t make a summer,” said Lindo, taking over the role of comforter since Max had relapsed into gloomy silence. “And the rest of Mortimer’s company is dreadful.”

“Before Foscari appeared the evening was a disaster,” Max agreed. “Under-rehearsed and badly sung. Foscari can’t sing every night. With adjustments of our schedule we’ll at least capture the audience when she’s resting.”

“Though Nancy Sturridge is good. I’d have hired her if Mortimer hadn’t promised her the sun and the moon.”

Lindo was right, damn it, as he always was in his judgment of talent. The young woman playing Susanna, the Countess’s maid, was excellent. Max had made overtures to her in a more personal way, until he heard she was on the brink of accepting an offer from the Marquess of Somerville.

But Sturridge, however commendable, didn’t have the magnetism to carry a company on her slender shoulders. Foscari did, the reason Italian newspapers had proclaimed her a goddess. La Divina indeed.

Max’s gaze was irresistibly drawn back to the beauty on stage. “If we had Foscari instead of Johnston our success would be assured.”

Lindo understood him at once. “La Foscari? Steal her you mean? We know Mortimer pays well. And there’s likely a clause or two in her contract that’ll make it hard to get around.”

Max shook off the objections with a casual shrug, not ready to admit any ulterior motive for approaching Teresa Foscari. “Contracts can be broken and I have a greater fortune. I’ll invite her to supper and open negotiations.”

The applause had finally died down and the scene continued. Max didn’t want to miss a single note of it.

 ***

“That was even worse than I’d feared.” Tessa collapsed onto the chaise longue and glanced with disfavor about her dingy dressing room, the best the Tavistock Theatre had to offer but far from her usual standards in either dimensions or comfort. In the auditorium the aged theater retained a semblance of its gilded splendor; backstage the rot showed.

“Thank you, Angela,” she said to her maid who had hurried over to repair her stage makeup in preparation for the third act. Tessa leaned back and closed her eyes.

“The company is bad, to be sure,” her friend and companion Sofie said, “but you were brilliant as ever. It’s going to be another triumph.” Sofie was the Austrian wife of Tessa’s répétiteur Sempronio Montelli. Sempronio’s musical coaching might be essential in the maintenance of Tessa’s vocal brilliance, but Sofie’s role as comforter and her constant, if sometimes bracing, support were just as important.

Tessa, who always judged musical performances with resolute honesty, waved a dismissive arm from her supine position. “Perhaps you’re right. But I can’t take any joy in appearing in such an inferior production. I hoped the other singers might rise to the occasion of a public performance, but they’re obviously not capable. Tonight was no better than the rehearsals.”

The door opened and Sempronio walked in. The rehearsal pianist had been watching the opera from the manager’s box.

“I’m sorry, cara,” he said, understanding better than Sofie how Tessa felt about the evening’s musical standards. “You were magnifica, of course. As for the rest—” He shook the mop of curls that enhanced his resemblance to a middle-aged angel. “Susanna is good.”

“Miss Sturridge sings Susanna well,” Tessa agreed, her genuine admiration for the other soprano mixed with distress. She’d never become accustomed to the jealousy her own gifts aroused in others. “Unfortunately she resents me. She managed to prick me with a pin when we were dressing Cherubino. And she tried to upstage me during the finale.”

“Foolish woman!” Sofie exclaimed. “Upstage La Divina indeed! As though she could! And pricking you was very unprofessional.”

“I’m beginning to think there is little that is professional about the Tavistock Theatre,” Tessa said, sitting up now Angela had completed her task. “What’s this?” She accepted some papers from Sempronio.

“The stage porter gave them to me. From your admirers.”

“Already? Let me see if there’s anything promising.”

While Sofie and Sempronio dissected the inadequacies of the other singers in the multilingual babble that was the common currency of their cosmopolitan group, she unfolded the notes, glancing at the signatures, looking for a particular name to leap from the bottom of a page. This was her first visit to England, her father’s native land. When she had agreed to come, inevitably she had thought of the ardent young Englishman who had been her first love. Perhaps her only love. She knew he had belonged to a prominent family and her first appearance in London had attracted the avid attention of the newspapers; the cream of society would attend such an important opening at the opera house. She’d imagined him coming to see her, sorry for his desertion, eager to renew their acquaintance, still in love with her.

How foolish she was. Max Hawthorne had certainly forgotten her in eleven years. He probably never gave her a second thought after he departed Oporto without a word, leaving her shivering in a churchyard waiting to keep their appointment.

“These are both invitations to supper tonight,” she said. “But of course it doesn’t mean these gentlemen—” She glanced at the signatures again. “—Allerton and Somerville aren’t married.” Of course it didn’t. She was well acquainted with the ways of the nobility all over Europe and had no reason to believe the habits of English lords were any different.

The door opened again, heralding the arrival of the florid figure of Bartholomew Mortimer, manager of the Tavistock Theatre and her current employer.

“Madame Foscari,” he cried, seizing her hand and kissing it with fervent lips. Tessa withdrew it gingerly from his grasp and gave it a shake to dispel the lingering dampness from his touch. She’d had her doubts about Mortimer when he’d visited her in Paris and enticed her with guarantees of badly needed money. His repellent behavior since her arrival at the Tavistock increased her doubts about accepting his offer, however desperate her financial straits.

“You were magnificent!” the manager continued, emitting a trace of spittle in his enthusiasm. “All of London will be at your feet.” He looked significantly at the correspondence in her hand. “Already the offers are coming in.”

Tessa didn’t like the implication of his statement. “I am anxious,” she said with emphasis, “to find lucrative singing engagements to supplement my performances here. Tell me what you know of Allerton and Somerville. What kind of men are they?”

Mortimer rubbed his hands together. “Ah, madame! The Marquess of Somerville. A very wealthy man.”

“Is he married? Does his wife host receptions?”

“A bachelor, very charming and a great patron of singers. An excellent association for you.”

Tessa could imagine exactly how this charming bachelor liked to patronize singers. From the look in his eye, the oily Mortimer would be delighted to act as her pander. She’d had enough of that from Domenico, her late and unlamented husband.

“And Allerton?” she asked. “Is he, too, a great patron of singers?”

Mortimer continued to smile but his gaze shifted sideways. “I would strongly advise you to favor Somerville. A much more advantageous connection.”

Sofie, who had been following the exchange in silence, chimed in. “Lord Allerton is the primary investor in the Regent Opera House and one of the richest men in England.”

“He sounds an excellent connection,” Tessa said. “Is he married?”

“Allerton’s playing at running an opera house but he doesn’t know what he is doing, for all his money bags. Let me remind you,” Mortimer continued, leaning over her with an undercurrent of threat, “that you are promised to the Tavistock for the entire season. You should read your contract carefully.”

Tessa could smell spirits on his breath and see black dots disfiguring his bulbous nose. Familiar panic clawed at her chest and she scrambled to her feet, scattering correspondence on the floor, and sidestepped the manager, eager to put some distance between them.

“We have a few minutes, my dear madame. I wish to discuss adding more performances to your schedule.”

“You must excuse me,” she said through clenched teeth, “it’s almost time for the next act and I need to prepare.” Even more, she needed to escape from Mortimer, whose proximity brought on the flash of heat through her body and the dizzy sensation in her head that made her want to scream.

“Not now,” she ground out. She stepped backward but he followed her. “When? Tonight after the performance?”

“I shall be tired.”

“I must insist.”

“If you don’t leave me alone now I shan’t be able to sing.”

Mortimer didn’t budge. She had another challenging aria coming up and needed time to recover her equilibrium. Looking around wildly, she couldn’t think of the words to drive him out, only of the discordant buzz in her head. Then Sofie, blessedly reliable Sofie, caught her eye and held out a teacup.

Grasping the lifeline, Tessa hurled it with all the strength she could muster. It whisked by Mortimer’s ear and hit the wall behind with a satisfying crash. Her head began to clear.

“Madame Foscari! That is unnecessary! I merely wish to make an appointment for a discussion of business.” She breathed deeply and reached for more ammunition. “Very well,” he said, “I bid you good evening but I insist we speak soon.”

Mortimer backed out of the room and Tessa collapsed onto the sofa. Angela brought her a glass of water, but her entourage knew better than to speak when she was like this. After five minutes or so Sempronio ventured to ask if she needed to test her voice. A couple of quick vocal exercises reassured her and she was calm enough to check her appearance in the mirror and make sure her wig was straight.

“I didn’t mean to do that,” she said with self-disgust. “I’m trying to give up melodramatic fits. Next time, Sofie, keep the china away from me.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Sofie said. “People expect it of you. They like you for it.”

Tessa didn’t like herself for such behavior. What had started long ago as a means of gaining attention for a young singer, had become a habit and more recently a necessity. She wanted to stop—stop throwing things and most of all stop suffering the attacks that were soothed by the smashing of breakable objects. She’d failed at the first test.

“I’d prefer to be known for something other than throwing china.”

Sofie gave her a chiding look and Tessa laughed briefly at the absurdity of the exaggeration. Still, not a single newspaper account of Teresa Foscari’s extraordinary career failed to mention the flying crockery that had become part of her legend.

“Holy St. George! What a dreadful man Mortimer is.” She shuddered, sinking back onto the chaise, skirts puffing out around her in a cloud of satin brocade. “Did you hear how he tried to pimp me?”

Sofie looked at her thoughtfully. “The Marquis of Somerville is said to be handsome as well as rich,” she said.

“Really? How did you come about that scrap of knowledge?”

“Nancy Sturridge hopes to come under his protection.” Trust Sofie, a genius at picking up backstage rumors, to know.

Tessa sighed. “Even if I were interested, which I am not, I don’t need any more difficulties with Sturridge.”

“She wanted to sing the Countess tonight,” Sofie said. “The stage manager told me.”

Why couldn’t people be content with what they had? Nancy Sturridge was a natural soubrette, with the light voice and flirtatious personality that such roles required. And musically Susanna was an adorable part. Tessa had been sorry when she gave it up to graduate to the heavier role of the Countess.

“Sturridge can keep Lord Somerville and I wish her joy of him. Allerton merits further investigation.”

Allerton’s motives in inviting her to supper could be amorous or professional, or both. In any case, it wouldn’t hurt to make him wait. “I’ll tell them both I am too tired to go out tonight. Better still, you write the letters. La Divina doesn’t write to just anyone, even if they are wealthy and titled. Have a footman deliver them during the fourth act. We’ll keep them wondering till then.”

 #

Max had no reason to linger after the performance, but he found himself ordering his coachman to wait. Slipping around to the side of the theater, he joined the small crowd at the stage door, not his usual haunt. The men thronging the entrance were of a poorer class than the denizens of the green room where he was accustomed to meeting singers with whom he was involved. Regretting his impulse, he almost walked away, but curiosity held him.

Ever since he’d first heard of Teresa Foscari, and through all the reports of her genius and her exploits, he’d wondered. There was the name, but Teresa wasn’t an uncommon one, in either France or Italy. The age was about right and the height. The hair color and features had been unidentifiable on stage. As for the voice, it would have matured in eleven years. A sense of familiarity had tugged at his senses throughout the performance, but he couldn’t be certain.

A dozen times, since the end of war on the continent, he’d considered making the journey to one of the European opera houses to find out, but had resisted. He really didn’t want to see her again. The heartbreak and betrayal suffered by his nineteen-year-old self were behind him. He was a grown man, for God’s sake.

But suddenly he had to be sure. So he stood in the shadows of a mean alley near Covent Garden, waiting to see La Divina Foscari in the flesh.

A murmur ran through the crowd as the door opened and a woman emerged on the arm of a gentleman. An indefinable air of magic surrounded her, an aura that sent a rustle of excitement through the ranks of the waiting gallants. She wore a black velvet cloak embroidered with gold thread and trimmed with sable, more of the luxuriant fur swathing her neck to protect the golden throat from the April night air.

He couldn’t see her face beyond an intriguing hint of a straight nose, but he had no trouble identifying the gentleman whose arm guided her: it was the Marquess of Somerville. While the diva settled into the waiting carriage, the marquess looked around, caught Max’s eye, and winked.

Max had lost women to Somerville before. His own fortune was the greater, but the mercenary ladies of the demimonde weren’t immune to the lure of high rank. And Max didn’t fool himself that his dark complexion and harsh features could compete with the depraved-angel charm of Somerville’s countenance.

Max was never sure if Somerville meant to torment him. If so, for the most part he failed. What Max sought in his operatic mistresses was different from the other man’s uncomplicated requirements. Somerville would have no use for the combination of vocal brilliance and indefinable inner beauty that Max had found just once in his life. Whenever Somerville came out the winner in their unacknowledged contest Max moved on. There was always another opera singer willing to accept his attentions and his money.

But he’d promised Simon Lindo that he would speak to La Foscari, so he’d call on her the next day. Strictly for business reasons.