A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

But it was not the physical discomforts of the journey which had made it so exhausting. Giles was in one of his hilarious moods, and insisted that she and Jago sing lewd rounds with him, for hours at a time. Giles was entranced by rounds and catches, especially those of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in which, as they were sung, simple-minded obscenities were revealed. And so, to the astonishment of their fellow-travellers (when they had any) they sped across Europe to the strains of —

Adam catch’d Eve by the furbelow,

And that’s the oldest catch I know;

Oho, did he so!

Jago, who was a mild and withdrawn young man, could never quite master the time of that one, and Giles abused him whenever they sang it. They had better luck with —

I lay with an old man all the night;

I turned to him, and he to me;

He could not do so well as he might

He tried and he tried, but it would not be.

But Giles’ favourite was the most musically intricate and poetically inane of his large repertoire. It was a true “catch”, and the words ran —

I want to dress; pray call my maid,

And let my things be quickly laid.

What does your Ladyship please to wear?

Your bombazine? ‘Tis ready here.

See here, see here, this monstrous tear.

Oh, fie! It is not fit to wear.

But when the “catch” made itself heard, he would enjoy it as heartily as any port-soaked member of an eighteenth-century catch-club, and smack Monica resoundingly on her bottom as he sang “And let your bum be seen?” — as though there were some possibility that the point might be missed.

“For God’s sake, Giles, will you stop acting the Beloved Vagabond for just half an hour? My head aches,” Jago would protest.

“You have no zest for life,” Revelstoke would reply. Or he might sulk for a time, or doze. But soon he would be at it again, insisting that they try once more to master Purcell’s —

I gave her cakes, and I gave her ale —

which they never succeeded in doing, for Jago was not up to it. Monica was heartily glad, dulled though her senses were by the nausea which the bad pears had caused her, when the train crept through some dirty suburbs and Giles announced that they were at last sniffing the undeniable stench of the Queen of the Adriatic.

Still, that was all past now. The first Venetian performance of The Golden Asse in its revised version was to take place tonight, and Monica, at half-past four, was already in her dressing-room, arranging and re-arranging her make-up materials, or lying on a sofa looking out at Venetian rooftops, so quiet under the September sunshine.

To be here, in a dressing-room all her own, in the celebrated Teatro della Fenice — was that not romance enough, without common, touristy sight-seeing? Yes, certainly it was. One must grow up some time, and would she not herself be, in a few hours, one of the sights of Venice? Yes, of course, that was the idea. And anyhow, after the first night was out of the way, Sir Benedict would take her sight­seeing.

At twenty-three, resting can be hard work. Monica was thoroughly tired of it. She ran down the broad, empty passages until she came to the large, gold-framed mirror which was fastened to the wall in the long gallery which gave the artists access to the stage and passed through the door from daylight into the darkness of the huge stage itself. Above her was the soaring, dusty mystery of the flies, hung thickly with drop-scenes; somewhere, high in the lantern above the stage, a sunbeam penetrated the murk, touching the cobweb of fly-lines in a dozen places before it came to rest at last on one of the huge canvases. Once again Monica experienced the unfamiliar feel of a raked stage, so subtle in its enticement toward the footlights, so unexpectedly resistant in its retreat toward the back-cloth — for the single basic setting which served for The Golden Asse was already in place. One setting for an opera with eighteen scenes — it still seemed strange to her, nurtured on the elaborate naturalism in The Victor Book of the Opera; yet it was wonderful how well this unit-setting worked. She yielded to the slope, and stood directly in front of the prompter’s box, looking across the orchestra pit toward the ornate music desk from which, in a few hours, she must follow Domdaniel’s nuances of direction.

Then she raised her eyes, and became conscious that in the dimness of the beautiful theatre something was happening — some work was in progress. As she became accustomed to the gloom she saw that a work-party of those little old women who seem to be inseparable from European opera houses were busy hanging garlands of fresh flowers across the front of the first tier of boxes.

For an instant she felt, stronger than ever before, the mixture of elation and dread which she was learning to recognize as part of her professional life, part of her fate. It was exquisitely delicious and terrifying.

Then, suddenly, from the wings there came a slight draught, and hastily clutching a scarf about her throat she scampered back to the protective warmth of her dressing-room.


When next she stood upon that stage and felt the gentle urging of the rake toward the footlights, she resisted it, not only because she must go nowhere that Richard Jago had not told her to go, but also because she knew by now that crowding the footlights is not the best way for a singer to make herself heard; Domdaniel had given her the valuable tip that stage centre, fifteen or twenty feet from the footlights, is the preferred place on most good operatic stages, and Monica had learned all the polite ways of getting herself to that precise area. For the Association for English Opera was a very polite organization; no shrewishness, no temperament, no bluster marred its rehearsals as sometimes happens among the operatic stars of lesser breeds without the law; nevertheless, there were well-tried English ways of estab­lishing that what was best for the individual singer was also best for the work, for the production, for the balance of the ensemble, and when the position of advantage was Monica’s by right, she had no trouble in getting it. She shared it now with Amyas Palfreyman, the tenor who sang the part of Lucius; Mr Palfreyman was a contradiction of everything that Ludwiga Kressel had said about tenors — that they were all fat, short, the possessors of too-small noses and an excess of female hormones; he was tall, lean, beaky of nose and, if not aggres­sively masculine, certainly not effeminate; furthermore, he liked Monica and gave her all the help he could without compromising his own role. Monica was very lucky to be making an important early appearance with Mr Palfreyman, and she knew it. Lucky, too, to be under the direction of the great Sir Benedict Domdaniel who, from his place in the pit, kept everything under his control, blending the ensemble of voices and orchestra with immense skill, so that the singers rested upon his conducting as gently and as confidently as gods in a Renaissance picture, resting upon a cloud. Ordinarily the Association for English Opera could not have afforded the services of Sir Benedict; he appeared in Venice, as he had done in London when the opera was first heard, at something like half his ordinary fee, because he wanted to advance the music of Giles Revelstoke.

Oh yes, Monica was very lucky, and she knew it, but during the performance she had no time or inclination to glory in her luck; she was too busy showing fortune that she was worthy of its favours. She had slaved to learn the craft of the opera singer; make-up, classes in posture, hours of toil with the demanding Molloy — she had spared herself nothing. Not only was she able, now, to sound right; she could also look right. She had learned from Giles to be naked before him and to be neither ashamed nor brazen; it was not so very different to appear before a great audience with the same candour. Not that she was naked, though the costume which the designer thought fit for the entrancing servant-enchantress Fotis was a revealing one. “Not every day you get an opera singer who peels well,” the designer had said, “so we may as well make the most of you.” And that was what he had done. The mirror in the long gallery beyond the stage told Monica a pleasing tale. It was amazing, she thought, how well a rather sturdy girl (“strong as a horse”, Sir Benedict had said) could be made to look. Oh, it was good to be as strong as a horse and yet, on a large stage, to look pleasantly fragile!

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Categories: Davies, Robertson