A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

“I’m sure Mother would have been greatly surprised to know that she had partly financed the production of a new opera,” said Solly, and the others could only agree.

And such an opera! The criticisms which Monica had enclosed were all agreed that it was an extraordinary work, containing flashes of genius, but freakish in the extreme. That the principal tenor should have been transmuted into an ass, by sorcery, was part of the story. But that he should bray — musically, of course, but still undoubtedly braying — for the whole of the middle act, was certainly hard to swallow. Part of the audience had refused to take it seriously as a musical work, and had been tempted to boo. But Stanhope Aspinwall, in two long articles which he wrote about the new opera, rebuked them sharply. Here, he said, was the most original musical talent to emerge for many years, asserting itself — pulling the public’s leg, perhaps, but that was the privilege of genius. His analysis of the work contained many criticisms which, he said, he had been obliged to bring against Giles Revelstoke’s work on several occasions — lyricism at the expense of dramatic movement, conventional passages of orchestration which seemed to have been thrown together in a hurry and never revised, a sacrifice of musical to literary values in some sections — but judged as a whole, a work of splendid qualities.

All of the critics agreed that in Monica Gall, the Canadian soprano who played the small but important role of Fotis, the serving-maid turned sorceress, the world of chamber opera had gained the most gifted singer of many years. She could not act particularly well, but that could be mended. It was good news indeed that the British Opera Association had chosen this work to perform in Venice, in September, at the Festival. There was even a kindly mention of the fact that some of the money for the excellently-mounted production had been supplied by a Canadian trust fund, founded for the furtherance of the arts; thus, the British critics agreed, the dominions were returning some of the loving care and cultural dower which had been lavished upon them in their early days by the Motherland. It was to be hoped that more might follow.

“Without knowing it, we seem to have covered ourselves with glory,” said the Dean, laughing.

But Miss Pottinger and Mr Snelgrove agreed in all seriousness.

“Certainly we made no mistake when we chose Monica Gall for the first beneficiary. I wonder if we shall have to choose another. May I say that I hope not?”

They all looked at Solly. They knew that since late April, Veronica had been pregnant.

“You cannot possibly hope that as fervently as I do, Mr Dean,” said Solly, with a laugh which took some of the bite out of the remark.

It was at about that same time that Chuck Proby (as Mr Gall could not be persuaded to do it) went to the cemetery vault, where the body of Mrs Gall was identified by him, and buried in the grave which the now soft ground permitted to be dug. The law demanded it, and someone has to do these things.


Monica had been five full days in Venice, and so far she had seen no more of it than could be glimpsed in flittings from her hotel to the theatre, and thence to Giles’ favourite restaurant. True, she had been several times in a gondola, which might have been romantic if she had not always been accompanied by her portable typewriter, or the very heavy suitcase which contained the orchestra parts for The Golden Asse, or Giles himself in his anti-Venetian mood. The city was a tourist-trap, he told her, and its romance was spurious; the Venetians were all scoundrels; had they not launched income tax, the science of statistics, and state censorship of books upon the world? He laughed away her meek proposals that, when the long days of work were done, they might see some of the sights; he had seen the sights, years ago, and they were not worth having. They had not come to Venice to be tourists, but to work.

Monica, who had not seen the sights, would not in the least have minded being a tourist. Giles laughed still more, and said that she was provincial. Apparently this was a very dreadful thing to be, and she timidly asked Domdaniel about it.

“Giles is playing the man of the world,” said he. “You mustn’t mind. Everybody’s provincial if you put ’em in the right spot to show it, and nobody more so than the man who won’t be impressed, on principle. When we get this mess straightened out I’ll show you the town; I know some very pleasant people here.”

The mess to which he referred was The Golden Asse, which had been undergoing revision ever since its appearance in London in May. The work had revealed weaknesses in performance, and when Revelstoke had been convinced that the weaknesses were real, and had tried to correct them, the opera had seemed to collapse; its individual parts were still good, but they could not be made to stick together satisfac­torily. Domdaniel had been reassuring; the commonest thing in the world, said he; always happened when a big work wanted revision; all that was needed was patience. But patience had worn thin, for The Golden Asse was to appear as part of the current Music Festival in Venice, and revisions had gone on, minutely but tiresomely, until yesterday. Most of the tinkering had been done on the orchestral interludes which linked the many scenes of the opera; Monica had copied, and re-copied, and copied again, principally because it was convenient for her to do so, being so close at hand, but also to save the money of the Association for English Opera — money which she had herself provided in substantial but insufficient amount. There is no such thing as enough money for opera, she had discovered.

The pattern of work was surprisingly regular. Domdaniel would find fault with a passage, and suggest how it might be re-cast: Revelstoke, after argument, would re-write the passage in his own way: Domdaniel, having first said that the new version would do splendidly, was likely to find in a few hours that it was — well, not quite right, and suggest further revision, usually along the lines he had originally proposed. Revelstoke would again re-write, pro­ducing something manifestly inferior to what he had done before. Domdaniel would then suggest that the earlier revision be used — with a few changes which he could easily make himself, to spare Giles trouble. But Giles did not want to be spared trouble; he wanted the music as he had written it in the beginning. There were shocking rows.

The parts which would shortly be distributed to the music desks in the orchestra were a muddle even for musicians, who are used to muddled parts. Over the neat script of the professional copyist were gummed countless bits of paper upon which were corrections in Monica’s script, almost as neat. But over these might be further corrections, in Giles’ beautiful but minute script, or in the bold hand of Domdaniel. Further revision appeared, in Domdaniel’s hand, in red pencil. Yet, somehow, at orchestra rehearsals the players made sense of it all. Philosophical and usually patient men, they interpreted the muddle under their eyes, and brought forth beauty.

That was what made it all worth while. The Golden Asse was a thing of beauty. Giles’ libretto followed faithfully the second-century story of the unfortunate Lucius, whose meddling in magic caused him to be transformed into an ass, from which unhappy metamorphosis he was delivered only after he had achieved new wisdom. But the character of the music emphasized the tale as allegory — humorous, poignant, humane allegory — disclosing the metamorphosis of life itself, in which man moves from confident inexperience through the bitter­ness of experience, toward the rueful wisdom of self-knowledge. Where the music came from, not even Giles’ most intimate associates — and this now meant Monica and Domdaniel — could guess, for as the work had progressed he had grown increasingly freakish, his moods alternating between one of morose incivility and another of noisy hilarity. There was nothing of the serene wisdom of his music to be discerned in himself.

The journey to Venice had been, for Monica, a misery. She had travelled with Giles and the stage director, Richard Jago. Giles had insisted that wagon-lits were an extravagance, so they had slept in their seats; nor would he hear of meals in the restaurant-car — they must picnic, it would be so much cheaper and jollier. So they had eaten innumerable hard rolls into which lumps of bitter chocolate were stuffed, fruit-cake, and cheese, with occasional swigs at a flask of brandy. Monica had not liked this stodgy diet, and had bought a few pears for herself; they had made her ill, as Giles, who had an English mistrust of fruit, had predicted, and after their arrival in Venice Domdaniel had had to dose her for a couple of days with Fernet Branca.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson