A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

Domdaniel in the pit was not the only good angel who was watching over her. She moved about the stage in the pattern taught her by Richard Jago. She maintained the mental discipline — the dual consciousness of the actress, which enabled her to give herself to her part, and at the same time to stand a little aside, criticizing, prompting and controlling — which had been so carefully imparted to her by Molloy. And as well as the feat of balance which enabled her to keep all these elements in control she still found a place in her mind for the humility of the interpreter toward the creator, of which Domdaniel had spoken as they drove from Oxford. It was not to the spirit of Bach, long-dead, but to Giles, very much alive and some­where in the theatre, that she made her offering: would he be pleased?

He certainly should have been pleased, for the opera was very well received. It provided a kind of delight particularly pleasing to an Italian audience, for it gave almost unbroken opportunities for beauti­ful singing; modern enough in idiom, it was not modern in asperity and rejection of sheer vocal charm; but neither was it sentimental, a succession of musical bon-bons. It was, some of the critics who had descended upon Venice for the Festival said in their dispatches to Germany, to Rome and to Paris, a comic masterpiece — goldenly, sunnily comic, splendid in its acceptance of the ambiguity of man’s aspirations toward both wisdom and joy. Musically it was somewhat novel to Italian ears, for virtually all of its music was either for the ensemble or for the orchestra; but, as the Italian critics pointed out, firmly but kindly, this suited the English voices, which were fine instruments, governed by keen musical intelligence, but not of the highest operatic order. Amyas Palfreyman was generously praised, particularly for his musical braying in Act Two, when he was trans­formed into an ass; and Monica Gall was mentioned in all the notices as a new singer of great promise, freshness, and uncommon agility and sweetness of voice combined with a lower register which was striking in the scene where she figured as an enchantress.

But these sweets were to be enjoyed later, after the critiques had been collected. The immediate reward was the cheering at the end of the performance, when the cast appeared again and again in front of the curtains; when Sir Benedict appeared with them, and called the orchestra to its feet; when Sir Benedict led Giles Revelstoke forward for the kind of ovation which an audience chiefly Italian gives to a composer who has delighted it.

It was a great evening, marred a little by Giles’ behaviour afterward when Sir Benedict, who liked to keep up certain princely customs, invited the company to have supper with him at the Royal Danieli. The applause had affected Giles adversely, and he was in his morose mood; he would not go, and he took it ill that Monica did want to go. He thought she should have been pleased enough to return with him to their very modest hotel near the Fenice. She felt some concern for him, as he stood apart, scowling at the party as it embarked in gondolas. But when, half an hour later, she was sitting at Sir Benedict’s left hand on the terrace which overlooks the Grand Canal (the place of highest honour, on his right hand, was understandably reserved for Lalage Render, the British première danseuse étoile who danced the role of Psyche in the ballet of Cupid and Psyche which was one of the high points of the opera) she was not troubled about Giles, or about anything. She was perfectly happy, for she knew that she had done well, and (true Canadian that she was) she could enjoy her treat because she had earned it.

But the best was still to come. Sir Benedict took her back to her hotel by gondola, and although he may have found it slightly chilly, and though Monica was perpetually readjusting the scarf around her throat, it was romantic and moonlit enough. When he helped her ashore he thanked her for a delightful evening and kissed her hand. Monica started a little, and drew it away more quickly than was polite.

“What’s the matter?” said Sir Benedict.

“Nothing; nothing at all. Only — this seems all wrong. I mean, I feel very much your pupil and — I don’t know, I suppose I feel I ought to be thanking you — or something.”

“You make me feel fully a hundred and ten,” said Domdaniel, his bald head gleaming nacreously in the moonlight. “Still — good of you. I hope you’ll be my pupil for a long time. But after tonight I’m very happy to think of you as a fellow artist, as well.” And he kissed her hand again.

Monica was not at all sure how she found her way to bed.


The opera was scheduled for only eight performances in Venice, and when the first of these was successfully over, Monica was free to see something of the city, which she did in the company of Domdaniel. He was an ideal sightseer, for he knew when to stop, had friends in the city, was acquainted with the best restaurants and thoroughly understood the first principle of aesthetic appreciation, which is that it can usually be doubled by sitting down. Monica, flattered by her new status as fellow-artist, had never enjoyed herself so much. Surely such attention from the great man meant that she had finally made the grade, and was counted among the Eros-men rather than the Thanatossers? Indeed, she began to wonder if she might not be something of a sex-squaller as well, for as she travelled about the city with Domdaniel she observed young men eyeing her and pulling furiously at their ear-lobes; a few of the more daring flung out their hands, with the index-finger leading, as she passed, and Sir Benedict explained that these were gestures of admiration, comparable to the wolf-whistles which she had heard (always for other girls) at home.

Giles remained sullen, and she saw little of him. On the fourth day Domdaniel said, as they were at lunch together —

“Giles has got his way at last. He’s going to conduct tonight.”

“Oh? Will we have to rehearse with him?”

“No, no; but keep your eye on him very closely. He’s anxious to make a good job of it.”

“Of course. But I didn’t know he was scheduled to take any performances here. He never mentioned conducting to me. Are you going away?”

“No I’m not, and he isn’t. But he wants to conduct very much, and he’s persuaded me to persuade Petri that it will be all right — and I only hope it is.”

“Are you worried?”

“Well, it’s a difficult situation. You see, with my reputation, I’m rather a draw, and quite a bit of the preliminary seat-sale was based on that. People know that I do a good job with opera, and with a company which doesn’t contain any other names of international reputation — except for Render, and she’s not a singer — that’s important. But I can’t very well stuff that down Giles’ throat. After all, he’s the composer, and he’s extremely touchy. But he really isn’t a conductor.”

“He’s a marvellous accompanist.”

“My dear girl, quite a different thing. Conducting opera is a first-class juggling trick, and Giles is no juggler. He fidgets and flogs his people. He radiates dissatisfaction. You know how singers are about atmosphere. Once a sense of strain has been created the whole thing can go to bits. Still, I had to put it to Petri, when Giles was so insistent on it, and Petri wasn’t a bit easy to persuade. The trouble is, if I refuse to do this for him, he thinks I’m trying to keep him down.”

“How awful! What a tangle!”

“Oh, not really. You should see what an opera company can create in the way of hell when it tries. Still, I feel responsible to Petri, who expected me to be on the job every night.”

“Will you be there tonight?”

“Oh, I’ll probably drop in.”

Sir Benedict was there before the overture, in the back of a box, supposedly out of sight, though the singers were all aware of his presence. Signor Petri was very much in evidence, huge and imperial in evening dress, dropping into the dressing-rooms before curtain time to make trivial conversation in careful English, with very much the air of a man who is not saying what is on his mind. And Giles, taut and abrupt, visited every singer before the half-hour call, charging them to watch his beat, as there would be passages which he would take somewhat differently from Domdaniel.

And so he did, but for the first twenty minutes or so The Golden Asse went as well as usual. There was a different quality of tension on the stage, for singers were loyally determined to support their composer; but they could not rest confidently upon his conducting as they did upon that of the masterly Domdaniel. His beat was clear, and if his manner was peremptory and his face sometimes showed irritation (with what? with himself, the orchestra, or the singer? how can a tenor with his body working in one vast integrated effort to produce the best tone, allied with the suitable gesture, possibly be expected to know?) they had their own professional experience, and their own musicianship, to sustain them. But when the first of the important orchestral interludes came, it was clear that something was very wrong.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson