The Virtuosoby Margriet de Moor
In Margriet de Moor's prizewinning novel a strange and extraordinary love story unfolds amid the carriages, churches, and shadowed harbors of eighteenth-century Naples. For one entire opera season, Carlotta, a Neapolitan duchess, sits in her candle-lit box captive to her passion for Gasparo, the tantalizing castrato with whom she has been smitten since their/b>… See more details below
In Margriet de Moor's prizewinning novel a strange and extraordinary love story unfolds amid the carriages, churches, and shadowed harbors of eighteenth-century Naples. For one entire opera season, Carlotta, a Neapolitan duchess, sits in her candle-lit box captive to her passion for Gasparo, the tantalizing castrato with whom she has been smitten since their childhood together in a small Italian village. De Moor recreates the world of Italian music and Naples' fashionable aristocracy with a sensuality that takes the breath away.
First published in Holland, and since translated into thirteen languages, this unusual tale of song and sensuality has seduced readers around the world. A novel of sweeping gestures with delicate grace notes, The Virtuoso is a story of an exceptional place and and exceptional passion.
The New York Times Book Review
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.40(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.59(d)
- Age Range:
- 18 Years
Read an Excerpt
I'll talk to him. I'll take my glass and go up to him, and engage in the kind of polite conversation no one in their right mind can be bothered with. Not that I lack inspiration. I am a force field of inspiration. The fever, which will no doubt persist for a while, arose a few hours ago, in the San Carlo theatre, at the very moment I first heard him sing here in Naples. Sitting between my husband and my sister in a box on the second tier I listened to a male voice that transcended everything I have ever known and understood. I was overwhelmed, the world around me started to float. This is the beginning, but of what?
I stroll across the salon in his direction, avoiding trousers and skirts; I bump into a crystal table, I catch my reflection in a green-tinted mirror, a strange gleam in my eyes. When there is no more than a yard separating his body from mine I speak out, loud and clear: `Sir, your singing was truly splendid!'
He barely turns away from the people milling around him. There is no change in the faintly smiling expression as his eyes veer towards me, I stand still and look. Tall, a tall figure. Sturdy, a puff-sleeved jacket strains across his chest. Swollen, his lips are just as girlish and plump as I remember them from long ago.
Holy Virgin. God. How can I make him see the gravity of the situation?
`Your arias were infinitely more vivacious than those of la Stradina.'
Now it seems to dawn on him that I might have a great, extraordinary secret to divulge. Turning his back on his companions he smilesat me.
`La Stradina is a whining bitch,' he says.
I nod, speechless.
`And her sixteenth passages are simply gruesome.'
Gold-flecked eyes. Soft pristine cheeks. And a speaking voice as monotonous as a shower on a windless day.
`... That a shake can be pleasing in two different ways is obvious to every fool. But in one and the same passage, for goodness' sake, make up your mind: it's got to be either the goat trill or the gruppo. Personally I have nothing against the gruppo. You can alternate smoothly and rapidly with the second above and keep the other sixteenths distinct like the drops of a fountain. But the really hard work is of course the goat trill.'
I nod once more. I raise my glass to my lips and drink, my eyes never leaving his. Go on, I think. Do go on with your triumphant phrases, your technical banter. Because I can feel myself slipping into his private world.
`The goat trill, to be sure. It's an old ornament and, mark my words, there's hardly anyone left who can still deal with it. It's produced by expelling the breath very gently and rhythmically, and perhaps you can imagine the effect this creates, at least if you do it properly: the voice opens and shuts with incredible speed and the tone, which is sustained at the same pitch, lets itself go, waives all reserve and begins to shimmer.'
I would not dare to claim that I can still follow his exact words, at this late hour. Yet I am aware that they belong to what made me weep earlier this evening. They say that music, being a language that expresses the invisible, is understood by all. Did the apostles sing at Whitsun, long ago? Singing is breath, wind, Holy Ghost. Indeed I was by no means the only one this evening to sob in my box, to sigh and surrender to a drunkenness that renders the heart generous and the sex tender.
I stare pensively at his mouth.
`But that elephant ... I mean ... how in God's name did that creature get on to the stage?'
We had arrived at the theatre at about half past nine, the performance was already under way. There was a din coming from I knew not where, offensive to my ears, while Berto led me up the two flights of stairs to his tier; he shook hands, waved genially and introduced me to red frocks, black capes, blue-shaded eyelids, square wigs and a knot of youths with amazingly long arms and legs. Glancing sideways through the open doors to the boxes, I caught sight of women and men sitting together, drinking and playing cards on the brink, as it were, of a crater of fire and light.
In the distance I could hear music.
When we entered our box, a young woman with copper-coloured hair disengaged herself from the arms of a man a prelate, I assumed, for he wore purple. It was Angelica Margherita.
She embraced me. `Little sister,' she said. Her throat was warm. `Little sister. Do sit down at once. The primo uomo will be coming on any moment now, and just guess what he's called!'
`Gasparino! You needn't look so surprised. He was born in the same village as you.'
`We call him Gasparino here ...'
In a glow of candles and mirrors I sank to my seat.
I think I will not easily forget this evening, the evening when I was separated from him by a nameless throng shouting, `Hey, look at that!' and then, `Shut up!' before falling silent in earnest concentration.
I looked. The setting was a palace garden, convincing enough but the shades and dimensions were so out of the ordinary that I could not but imagine myself in the Indies, the Indies or Egypt.
I listened. The orchestra in the pit, consisting of two rows of strings, two harpsichords and a small wind section, was accompanying an aria by the second or third sopranist, a male singer who was giving quite a tolerable performance in the role of despairing princess. But all eyes and ears, and the sudden gesture of one of the harpsichord players, were focused not on him because God Almighty! the first singer was making his entrance, there, at the vanishing point between palm trees and rocks, emerged the primo uomo, on horseback, no less. For an instant horse and singer were of mythic proportions. Then the animal cantered forward, sweeping past extras and ballet dancers and coming so close to the second or third sopranist that the boy, pouring forth his final series of trills, barely had time to leap out of the way. There was a burst of applause. Gasparo, still in the saddle, bowed and raised his arm commanding silence. He dismounted and then, calm and smiling, took a step forward, he wore the apparel of a king.
`He's so beautiful', I heard Angelica Margherita sigh next to me. `So very beautiful.'
Well, it was true. At first I too, with the eye of a connoisseur, observed the soprano in his costume of woven silver. His black-rimmed eyes darted to and fro as he strode along the edge of the stage. He brushed aside his fellow singers. He greeted his friends in the stage-boxes and pulled a mocking face towards the wings where, as everyone knew, la Stradina was waiting for the love duet that was to follow. Then my attention shifted. The foreplay was over. Now for the voice.
The Creation is too vast for humans, they say, too vast and too obscure, and that man invented language for that very reason. Language, words, and all the way at the end of those words, music. God's Creation dissolved into a man-made brew. Gasparo started his aria on a high note. Soft, long-sustained and ever-swelling, it was a high F-sharp at the very least. I listened without thinking of anything in particular. Gasparo was singing a text that everyone knew. Alessandro departs with his army to the Indies. He vanquishes the most noble Poro. Poro's desperate lover tries to soften Alessandro's heart. She has the most wonderful conversations with him. In the end Poro regains his land, his lover and his liberty.
Can we weep over this intrigue?
That is up to the singer. We want the sound of passion to be high, high and of extreme virtuosity. We want artfully elaborated ecstasy. Then we can weep, not on account of the story, but on account of ourselves. Then we will be filled with joy. May virtue and love assail us from on high!
He was coming to the end of his aria. The orchestra fell silent. The singer embarked on his final cadence. Without apparent effort, without the slightest flutter in the lungs, with that Indian garden behind him and that red sky overhead, he emitted a flow of tempestuous triads and then launched into a string of hammered-out triplets so prodigious that the audience, bursting with pent-up love, went wild ... Shouts rang out even before his feat had been accomplished.
`Gasparino! We love you! We love your throat and your mouth!'
Flowers and hand-written sonnets flew through the air and landed on the stage.
Where was I? I looked sideways out of the corner of my eye. I saw Berto wrapped up in his own bliss, Angelica Margherita half swooning in her seat, and the thin-lipped prelate mumbling `What the devil!'
A fresh coloratura. And a portamento more ethereal than air. Then, in a fraction of a second, the singer had taken sufficient breath to sing a final, inescapable line, a spear of joy and pain that you felt in your gut.
It was over. Gone the enchantment. Loud cheering. Quizzically, the musicians tucked their violins Under their chins once more.
I have lost my head yet my eyes were wide open.
* * *
The night wore on and everything continued as before. The unspeakably spoilt audience versed itself in the art of dreaming. At first it puzzled me to feel like an outsider. Wasn't everyone here immersed in the same reality? The reality of gods in satin breeches and long curly wigs? Of devils coming down from the sky in a cart? There was a hero in a small blood-red mantle raining blows on a dragon, all the while improvising elaborately up and down the chromatic scale ... And there were the boyish women and effeminate men and the question of sex that confuses us all.
The audience's attention was fickle, after all, they had come here also to drink and to gamble and now and then to doze. No one at all listened to the bass and the tenor. Of the three female voices only la Stradina's was considered passable. Upon hearing that Gasparino had come on again, we abandoned the roast pigeons filled with thick red conserve and hurried out of the dining-room. Leaning on the parapet in front of me I scanned the stage and yes, there he stood, the castrato in the radiant circle of his beauty, peeling an orange and looking bored. Only when la Stradina had come to the end of her song did he step forward.
... The voice, and then there was that body. The loveliest and lightest of God's gifts allied to the strong body of a man over six foot tall. I find such paradoxes appealing and in that respect I was no different from the six or seven friends and brand-new acquaintances who were transfixed with joy in their seats behind me. We are fond of equivocation, enigma, and we are especially fond of rapture. Your body is what you are and all knowledge begins with desire. For what if not for rapture?
Then suddenly I raised my hand to my forehead, the keenest of all my recollections had flashed across my mind, and that was what was causing my isolation from everyone else in the opera house: the boy singer standing in a circle of light against the background of a wall in a church. I had heard this singer before. Of all those present I was the only one to have experienced that instant, to have preserved it, prevented it from trickling away, and thus able to reinsert it into the world with the utmost ease. What was the difference between then and now? Everything around me said: it is infinitesimal. No more than a breath, a sound, the leap of an octave whose doubled vibrations are barely perceptible ...
I groped behind me, somewhat light in the head, to feel my chair. For, heaven help me, that single interval encapsulated all I knew about love, and yes, also his journey in a carriage to a medical clinic in Norcia. Your body is what you are, I thought, and I kept thinking that thought for the rest of the night, with unremitting passion, even when war broke out on stage and hundreds of cavalry, proper militiamen and not just mercenary scum, drove the horses from the royal stables on to the stage, aligned themselves in battle formation and, in a growing cacophony of trumpets and drums, started hacking at each other.
How can I let you know that I am here, hidden away, divided from you by a blinding foreground?
`I am dying,' I said to Angelica Margherita when it was all over.
We joined the crowd descending the staircase. She took my hand, squeezed my fingers gently and gave me a sidelong look.
`I must speak to him at once.'
She laughed, knowingly. `This very night?'
`Tonight at the latest.'
`Come,' she said. `You can breathe again. I know where to find him.'
Stepping outside we were met by a gusty November wind. We drew our capes around us, Berto's driver and servants were waiting, but Angelica Margherita looked eagerly into the darkness.
`It's only a little way. The two of us will walk,' she decided, and only agreed to be escorted by one of the servants after he had promised not to light his lantern.
`It's only a few minutes, really,' she said, sounding very pleased with herself as she steered me round a corner. `I happen to know who's invited him and I also know he will be there.'
I think we lost our bearings from the start. We turned left, then right, and went on doing so. My sister's steps were light and quick and I found it easy to adjust my pace to hers, which was surprising because the alleys were unpaved and very dark. There was no light apart from the small red lanterns at the feet of the statues of smiling Madonnas with upturned eyes on every street corner. Each time we passed one I would pause to give a greeting, and I did not feel in the least unsafe as we walked through the maze of shadows. The natural state of the night is darkness, as everyone in the street seemed to agree, for we came across no one whether alone or in a group, whether shuffling warily or striding past bearing a light. And the one time a perfidious glow did loom towards us from the shadows of a small square, Angelica Margherita drew me aside in a purely instinctive reaction and shouted to make herself heard over the wind: `Put out your lamp!', whereupon she was immediately obeyed.
But eyes grow accustomed to darkness. Open them wide and you can soon distinguish the subtle contours and half-tones of your surroundings. It was the usual scene of loving embraces, business transactions, soliciting, gambling, robbery, blackmail and various kinds of sleep. Most of the huddled shapes we saw would wake, in daylight, to recount their dreams, but one figure, with a dagger sunk up to the hilt into his gold-embroidered mantle, would not.
I had of course long since noticed that our escort had vanished.
`All the better,' said Angelica Margherita. `What's the point anyway? I've wandered here often enough, and have never had cause to summon a bodyguard. This is a light-hearted city, its guardians are women. Primo, we have the Madonna, and secondo ...'
She paused. She looked around her and it seemed to me that she was straining to hear something. We were standing on the corner of a street which led to a rundown square. I could make out the contours of sheds and warehouses. I could hear sails flapping, a cow lowed in the distance, a sea breeze was blowing. But then I was flabbergasted: above the sound of the wind I caught snatches of what was unmistakably a woman singing.
`... secondo, we have the Siren. Whenever the wind blows in from the sea she roams the city streets to bewail her lost love to every stone, every roof.'
Of course I knew the story.
The Siren's name is Parthenope. She sits beside her sister on a rocky outcrop high above the sea and for a moment you might deem the situation idyllic, for the sky is blue and green the grass under the girlish buttocks. But then the eye is drawn to the heap of bones buzzing with flies against which the sisters recline in a pose of youthful indifference: the remains of sailors lured by the Sirens' voices. It is Parthenope who first notices the black ship on the waves down below. She nudges her sister, whereupon the twosome launch into song, pure, high-pitched, and with a crescendo of maddening intensity. When the ship draws near enough to distinguish the men Parthenope is lost. For in the midst of the oarsmen, grim-faced and staunchly rowing the vessel as fast as they can, stands the man of her life, tied to the mast. And her love is requited! Handsome, fair-haired, with lightning eyes the young man listens to the luring voice telling him that knowledge equals bliss. It takes a quarter of an hour for the ship to slide past, twenty minutes at the most, and that is the full extent of Parthenope's love-life. Scarlet flushes rise on her throat. Her voice breaks. When even the dot on the horizon has dissolved into the void, she hurls herself into the sea.
And her singing voice? And her erotic desires? Can such things simply vanish without a trace?
On the coast, where her body washed ashore, there rose in the course of time a city which was named after her, but which, for reasons of fashion, was later renamed Naples.
`In a few hours there will be a market here.' It was my sister's voice beside me, and at that very moment something changed in the atmosphere. My curiosity was aroused, and I turned round. For through the narrow streets a rush of noise came towards us, which left no room at all for lyrical whispering: this was the bleating of goats.
`Come now, let's walk on,' I said, taken aback.
Divided in two, a stampeding herd charged past us on either side, still at headlong speed after being driven down from the hills by sturdy farm girls on mules anxious for a last opportunity to milk the animals before they were sold. There were also some pigs in the mêlèe. And horses. And an ox with gigantic horns which slipped and fell at our feet, and scrambled upright again with a muffled bellow. I was forgetting where I had come from and where I was going.
Beaten earth pattered by satin slippers. A sleeping swine drew in its feet as we passed. A smell of excrement and fetid mud wafted towards us from the hovels as we crossed the length of the square and came upon a church. The doors were open and we could see, in the glowing depths, several shadows moving about. I caught a glimpse of gleaming eyes, an arm, a red sleeve, a bottle, a knife, and then we were swallowed up by the total gloom of an alley.
`They're escaped convicts. There are about ten or twelve of them living in the church, and they have done quite well for themselves. Because not only are they supplied with food but also, at night, carriages come to deliver their occasional boys, their girlfriends.'
`What are their crimes?'
`Everything under the sun. Robbery, embezzlement, but especially murder. An acquaintance of mine is here because he refused to take Holy Communion at Easter. The priest had him arrested at his home, but he escaped. He belongs to the Genovesi family, a likeable youth. I visit him now and then to discuss geometry.'
She paused to find her bearings. I was almost surprised to find she remembered the object of our journey. `The Palazzo Penna, that's where Gasparino has gone. We are almost there. First we turn left, then right.'
Suddenly I became impatient, and I was evidently not the only one. Ahead of me I could hear the thump of galloping hooves and the crunch of carriage wheels rolling over the sand at full tilt. The streets widened, the gables became taller and more elaborate. At one point we had to jump out of the way and were treated to the sight of two link-boys in bright blue livery racing to a crossroads from opposite directions, their torches blazing the way for the four-in-hand stagecoaches at their heels. Neither of the gleaming vehicles ceded an inch, it seemed to me, yet each rounded the corner and disappeared from view in one fell curve. Vehicles and speed. I was soon to notice that Neapolitans are not pedestrians. They travel on horseback and in carriages they even have themselves carried bodily and do their utmost never to slacken their pace. I have seen how they jostle and shove, how they cut in front of each other, overtake left and right without carrying lights, and career four abreast down the via Toledo to Capo di Monte like unassailable devils.
But we had arrived. And sure enough, such a commotion all of a sudden, and so many candles at the windows of the palaces and so many torches held aloft by the coachmen. Our own manservant, too, had turned up again, and flooded the ground before our feet with light.
We reached the gate at the very same moment as Berto's carriage.
`Here already?' he cried, stepping down from his carriage, followed by his friends. He took my elbow and led me into the courtyard, then he let go in order to relieve himself among the potted pomegranate trees. Angelica Margherita, too, sank briefly to the ground.
I went ahead to the vestibule and, peering around me, climbed the stairs to the first floor. Half in a trance yet as tense as a whippet I registered the tinkling in the kitchens, the aroma of roast lamb and, guided by the sound of mandoline and guitar, I found the salon where Gasparo stood, imposing, gently rounded shoulders, surrounded by people but in fact wrapped up in his own universe, his own air, his beauty, the extravagance of his voice.
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