Saturday, January 4, 2014

Operaville, the Novel: Chapter Fifteen: Senza Mamma

Read the novel here, or by the book (Kindle or paperback) at


            My proposition met with more enthusiasm than I expected, and we are making a day of it. First stop is Sunday brunch at Buck’s Diner in Woodside, home to horsy types, Neil Young, and an arts colony founded by the inventor of the birth control pill. Buck’s is one of those places with enormous knick-knacks fixed to the wall, which would seem a terrible cliché were it not for the fact that they started doing this 40 years ago. I slide into our booth, nearly ramming my head into… well, a ram, a Bighorn. Allison sits next to a freeze-dried cobra and asks all the questions I have learned to expect from opera virgins.
            “So it’s in Italian, right?”
            “So how the hell do I know what’s going on?”
“Supertitles. They flash the translations on a screen above the stage.”
“Cool beans!”
“Sorry. I have no idea where I got that. So are we talkin’ a bunch of fat chicks in Viking helmets?”
“No Vikings. Also, there’s a new wave of singers who work out, both for physical stamina and to look more like their characters.”
The waiter comes around. I get the eggs Benedict; Allison gets the pork chops and eggs (she’s one of those high-metabolism types).
“Any action? Or do they just stand around and sing?”
“You ask good questions, young lady.”
“Thank you.”
“I saw a Trovatore last week with some ripping swordfights. There’s a production of Tosca right now where the villain receives a simulated blowjob. Quite the scandal. Generally speaking, the action got more and more realistic as the 20th century progressed. Especially with Puccini, who was very intense about matters of theatricality. He used to drive his librettists crazy.”
“The guy who writes the words. Sort of a playwright. But there are some limitations on acting. You can’t go singing a top note right into someone’s face, so a lot of the love scenes are side-by-side. Regardless, you can only achieve so much through gesture and expression. Most of the story still comes through the music.”
She sips at her coffee, and seems to be hesitant about her next question.
“I’m… I’m not going to be bored, am I?”
“I’m guessing not, and here’s why: the Trittico is composed of three one-act operas. If you don’t like one, the next one is completely different. Il Tabarro, ‘The Cloak,’ is about a frustrated wife who cheats on her husband, quite a potboiler. Suor Angelica, ‘Sister Angelica,’ is about a woman who has an illegitimate son and is sent off to the convent – more of a straightforward drama. And Gianni Schicchi is a farce about an Italian family that tries to change their uncle’s will after he dies and leaves everything to a monastery.”
“What’s a ‘Gianni Schicchi’?”
“That’s the title character. He’s a lawyer.”
Allison shifts her dark irises from side to side, a maneuver that used to drive me crazy. “Lots of sex and illicit behavior.”
“Oh, opera is all about sex. Even when it isn’t.”
“I’ll trust you on that.”

I give Bill a wave and guide Allison into the press room. Like Maddie, she’s one of those women who understands the old-school choreography, walking ahead and to my right, my hand at her back. It’s a pleasure to be seen with a beautiful woman; I can feel the room perk up as we enter. Delores greets me with the usual affability, but her eyes carry question marks. Clearly, she doesn’t want her little celebrity romance to die out.
“Allison, this is Delores, queen of the PR department. It is rumored that Allison and I used to be married.”
“Ah,” says Delores.
Allison gives her the supermodel smile. “Thanks for the free show.”
“Allison’s a virgin,” I report. “Opera-wise.”
Delores deals my ticket envelope from the bottom of her stack. “Another potential convert.”
“I predict great things,” I say.
“Especially with the Trittico,” Delores agrees.
We venture downstairs for his-and-her bathroom breaks. I’m dawdling next to Tebaldi’s portrait when I see Allison approaching. She wears black pants with white curlicued stripes down either side, and a black bustier beneath a see-through blouse with sleeves that tie up at her wrists. I am forever baffled at the fine specimens of womanhood who have fallen into my web. We wander upstairs, find our seats and turn off our cell phones, then join the applause for the unseen conductor, who pops his head over the pit railing.
Maddalena is attempting something somewhat insane. Puccini’s Trittico is rarely performed intact; rarer still is the soprano who sings all three roles at a sitting. My Internet search revealed Renata Scotto, 20 years ago, Barbara Divis, three years ago, and a planned attempt by Patricia Racette at The Met. Reason being, the three one-acts demand three different voices: an edgy dramatic for Tabarro, a standard Puccinian lyric for Angelica, and a light Rossinian lyric for Schicchi. The cruelest joke is putting Tabarro first, which is like expecting a pitcher to heave 98-mph fastballs without warming up. (And yes, there is a baseball analogy for everything.)
Maddie enters the foreboding Paris dockside in a tight flowered dress that offers up her breasts like puff pastries. She plays the bargeman’s wife with pure desperation, applying a tone that’s almost ragged, canine. When hubby introduces the subject of their fallout (“Why don’t you love me anymore?”), he refers to their dead child, and the empty cradle. I have utterly forgotten this detail; I steal a glance at Allison to find her attentive but unaffected. I shouldn’t be surprised. A few minutes later, the husband unfolds his cloak to reveal the body of her lover. Maddie screams and falls to her knees before her slain tenor, the curtain drops, and the audience expresses a bloodthirsty approval. With the sudden violence of its ending, it seems that Puccini was determined to out-verismo Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana.
Allison sips pink lemonade in the press room. “Hitchcock does opera. Who knew?”
(Delores, eavesdropping, cracks up.)
I have seen Tabarro and Schicchi before, both of them paired with Pagliacci. Angelica is a vague entity. Maddalena has gone quickly from trampy Giorgetta to well-scrubbed nun, working in a ‘50s-era children’s hospital equipped with green-tiled walls and fluorescent lights. It’s comforting to hear her back in her lyric element. The opera’s spare orchestration and all-female cast give it a shimmering charm reminiscent of Bohème’s first act. But Maddalena has added something new and remarkable. In her first brief solo – a meditation on the wishes of the dead – she makes a sudden diminuendo, disappearing the sound to a tone like a single thread of silk. But she maintains it, builds it back so smoothly it’s almost an illusion, and proceeds far beyond the point where the average singer would steal a breath. The effect on the listener is a double-barrel of desperation: a leaning forward to hang on to that bare pianissimo, and then a breathless waiting as our pearl-diver soprano keeps singing and singing.
It’s a brilliant foreshadow, and a brutally theatrical setup. Suddenly we have the Princess, a contralto with a quirky, harsh presence who confirms the sisterly gossip: Angelica is a noblewoman, sent to the convent after delivering an illegitimate son. After seven years of no contact with her family, the Princess, her aunt, has arrived to ask her to sign away her inheritance. Angelica’s sister is to be married to a man who “can overlook the shame you have brought upon the family.”
For this last comment, Angelica calls her aunt “relentless,” but seems amenable to signing the papers. She vows that she will never forget her beloved child, whereupon the Princess informs her that the child has died of a fever. Maddie collapses into sobs – I can feel it like a punch to the gut.
She signs the papers, the Princess departs, and we hear the opening organ chords of “Senza mamma bimbo tu sei morto” (“Without your mother, child, you died”). For me, this is a sweet agony, since I know and love this piece but have never heard it in context. The structure is lovely and meandering; just when you expect the first section to continue its passionate flight into something like Tosca’s “Vissi d’arte” or Butterfly’s “Un bel di,” it settles into a reflective calm spangled by pizzicatos. Maddie begins one of those down-to-nothing diminuendos again and I am crying like a forlorn child, hypnotized by a soprano who is, like her character, in danger of disappearing. The haunting swells of the strings, the chant-like repetitions of the final vocal line – the high A that appears unaccompanied, sounding off-key until the harp flies in like an angel to catch it. The cutoff leaves one of those electric slices of silence, smashed apart by an applause peppered with bravas. Minutes later, Angelica drinks a poisonous brew mixed from her own herb garden, falls to the ground in agony and reaches toward a child who has appeared at the window, thinking she is seeing her dead son.
I wander into the lobby like a zombie, forgetting all about Allison until she’s standing before me, dabbing at my cheeks with a Kleenex.
“For God’s sake, honey, you’re leaking like my bathroom sink. Don’t you know to wipe your tears?”
I laugh, despite myself. “When a pitcher hits you with a beanball, you’re not supposed to rub the spot.”
“You’ve got a baseball analogy for everything.”
“I do.”
I search her face for any sign of tears, or anguish, or concern. Nothing. An opera house virtually filled up with dead babies, and nothing.
“Well. Never fear. We are due for some comic relief.”

Actually, Gianni Schicchi isn’t much relief at all. All that laughing has us worn out. It’s time for sustenance in Sausalito. At the bottleneck leading onto the Golden Gate Bridge, I switch on the tape player. I’m still curious about Maddie’s interpretation of “Senza mamma,” and I want to see how Kiri te Kanawa handled it. The organ sets the path, and Kiri begins the first lines. Allison, who has been strangely silent since we got into the car, taps her nails on the armrest. As we approach the first tower, I steal an upward glance – I am a bit in love with those art deco silhouettes. Kiri’s reading is much more straightforward; Maddie must have finagled a lot of liberty from her conductor to accommodate those diminuendos. Allison is rubbing her temples, her eyes squeezed shut, and squirming in her seat. Kiri takes the third section up to that gorgeous top note.
“Stop! Stop it!”
“What? Stop what?”
“The music! Stop!” She flails at the stereo.
A car brakes in front of me and I screech the tires. “What the fuck are you doing?”
She punches me in the shoulder. “Pull over!”
“We’re on a bridge, for Christ’s sake! Cut it out! I’m trying to drive!”
She curls against the door, like she’s considering jumping out. I hit the power switch on the stereo and finally we make the vista point at the end of the bridge. I pull into a handicapped spot. Allison bursts through the door before we’ve entirely stopped, trips and falls to a knee, then scrambles up and runs to a wall near the quarter telescopes. When I catch up, she’s pacing back and forth, cussing and muttering, hands held to her eyes like blinders. I come behind her and put a hand on her shoulder. She spins and slaps me so hard I fall backward, skinning my elbow. I’m sitting there rubbing my jaw when she dives on me, throwing punches and kicks and fingernails. I start grabbing – a hand here, a leg there. When I complete the collection I wrap her up. She squirms against me like a frightened wildcat. A minute later, the energy seeps away and she begins to tremble.
“You killed them all!” she wails. “You killed them all.”
In my fetal posture, I can see through a gap in the stone wall. It’s the City, lit up in an orange sunset, the TransAmerica Pyramid, the Embarcadero, Coit Tower. All in all, a hell of a nice place to conduct a shit-fit.

An hour later, we’re seated on a waterside terrace in Sausalito, the City lit up across the Bay like half a horizontal Christmas tree. We order expensive meals – lobster for me, swordfish for Allison – and receive our cocktails. She has spoken perhaps a dozen words since the event.
“So I hate to be pushy, but are you going to tell me what that was?”
Were it anybody else, I’d say that the look Allison gives me is one of fear.
“My God. Did that happen?”
I give my jaw a rub. “I think so.”
“It was… it was that tape. What was that?”
“That was the aria from Suor Angelica. Right after she found out about her son.”
Allison stares into her margarita. “God. That poor woman. It was like… She could handle being shunned and sent to the convent, and separated from her family, as long as she could picture her son, out there in the world, being a boy. Then that…Princess shows up, takes her money, and kills her son, right there in front of her. Because for her, that kid that she pictured in her mind died right there, as if the old bag had pulled out a knife and cut his throat.”
“Wait a minute. When you were on the ground, you were yelling something. You said that I ‘killed them all.’”
“Oh, Mickey. I didn’t…”
“Allison. We have to talk about the Seven.”
She shakes her head and holds up a hand. “No, no. Please.”
“For me, they died one at a time. I grieved each one. But for you, they didn’t die until I told you I wanted to stop trying. Then they all died at once. As if I killed them, right in front of you.”
She turns to stare at the City, and I know that I have hit the nail on the head. She sings it back to me. “You killed them all.”

It takes dinner, and two slices of marionberry pie, and two glasses of dessert wine, but eventually we return to our vicious repartee.
“How does a lowly trench-digger afford a meal like this? Have you been doing some horny housewife on the side?”
“In my dreams! But just think about all that money you’re always shelling out on that house of yours.”
“Ha! Did I mention my thousand-dollar bathroom leak?”
“Precisely. We’ve had a busy month, taking money from rich bitches like yourself. But it’s nice, once in a while, to give just a little bit back.”
Allison is staring at her food. “Thanks for not slapping me.”
“You got one hell of a right cross.”
“Was that an… apology?”
“Accepted. And I’m sorry for accusing you of texting illicit photos.”
“And I’m sorry that bitch thought of it before I did.”
“Which bitch?”
“Booty-call bitch. Kristy? Karly?”
“Katie. How did you know?”
“She had all the motives: anger, desperation – and a bridge just waiting to be burned. And the combination to your gate. I was saving you for future fucking. Besides, I had my shot. I tried to kill you. You offed my kids, just like the Princess. I stole all your money, just like Gianni Schicchi. But you wouldn’t stay buried, damn you. You decided to go and reincarnate yourself. To which I say, Fuck you, pal.”
I take a sip from my wine and let the little sugar cells meander all over my mouth.
“The way I look at it, if it weren’t for you, you despicable slut…”
“Oh beat me, big boy.”
“…I never would have discovered opera.”
She gives me the killer smile. “You’re welcome.”
You are what my big sister would call a ‘fate hinge.’”
“I’m sure she calls me lots of things.”
Oh yeah.”
She surprises me by sidling up and sticking her tongue into my mouth.
“Let’s finish the Trittico. Let’s go to your cabin, commit large quantities of adultery, and wait for my husband to kill you and hide your body in his tabarro."
“Sorry. Can’t.”
She sits back and folds her arms. “What’s the diff? She wrote you off, right?”
“Yes. Madam Maddalena does not offer second chances.”
“I can’t.”
Allison grows the blinding smile in the same slow fashion that Maddie reverses her diminuendos.
“Mickey’s in love.
She taps a finger against the side of her glass.
“I can’t say that I blame you.”

Photo by MJV

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