Whispers of Vivaldi by Beverle Graves Myers
Whispers of Vivaldi by Beverle Graves Myers (Poisoned Pen Press, 2014) is a delightful historical mystery, the sixth and final in the series featuring the castrato Tito Amato — I seem to specialise in finding good things just as they are ending. This is playing in the same sandpit as Dave Duncan whose trilogy features a fictionalised nephew of Nostradamus and his savvy apprentice (it starts with The Alchemist’s Apprentice) and is also set in Venice, albeit about one-hundred-and-fifty years before this novel. It also matches the alternate history fantasy novel, The Black Opera by Mary Gentle, by focusing on the problems of getting the production of an opera underway.
The political situation in Venice has always been fascinating and is nicely explored here. Given that the local theatres depend on patronage to be able to mount their extravagant stage productions, there’s an important intersection between the arts and the powerful nobility. By subsidizing these productions, the wealthy buy the support of the pit audience who live for opera. Equally, they give themselves a platform from which to be seen and acknowledged by the people, all having private boxes at the theatres from which they can bow and accept the applause of the common man. It’s also worth commenting on the longevity of the Italian rules preventing women from appearing on stage. To get the right vocal range for singing purposes, this not only requires men to dress as women but also be castrated. In Rome, priests act as enforcement officers who inspect singers to ensure they began life as males. In the provinces, there’s no tradition of physical inspection which can lead to speculation if a singer bulges in the wrong places.
Our sleuth showed vocal talent as a boy so went through the process of castration and training to become a star of the opera. However, he loses his voice in an earlier episode and now spends his time assisting Maestro Torani, the director of Teatro San Marco in Venice. Their relationship is as close to father and son as it’s possible to get and, all other things being equal., the old man would like to see his protégé take over the running of the opera house. This is largely accepted by most who work in the Teatro although, for different reasons, there’s some animosity and not a little jealousy. Opera prima donnas are, by definition, emotional and aggressive in pursuit of their ambitions. At the beginning of this book, Amato is approached by Niccolo Rocatti with a politically controversial opera score called The False Duke. Deciding the beauty of the music will seduce the audience into overlooking the problematic libretto, Amato first sells the idea of the score to the Maestro and then to Signor Arcangelo Passoni who’s the Teatro’s primary patron. Approval is given, but conditional on two inconvenient factors. A spectacular stage effect is to be introduced into this pastoral setting, and the lead is to be sung by the young castrato, Angeletto. Because he’s convinced the opera will be a financial success, Amato manages to talk the stage designer into creating a shipwreck, and he recruits Angeletto even though being forced to pay more than the usual rate for someone relatively untested.
This sets us off on the initial preparations, rehearsing the cast and getting the musicians familiar with the score. Unfortunately, when a reception is held at the Passoni residence to introduce Angeletto to Venetian society, Amato finds himself required to defend the honour of a lady and, some fifteen minutes later, to receive the news the Maestro has been murdered. He’s immediately suspected by many of the influential people present who assume he would kill the Maestro to replace him. Fortunately, the senior law enforcement officer is soon able to confirm Amato’s account of events and, within the circles that matter, he’s no longer a suspect. This leaves him free to pursue his own investigation to identify the one responsible for the death of his “father”.
There are one or two mechanical problems with the plot which enable the murderer to be in the right place at the right time but, if we look past these details, the core of the mystery is multilayered with three major strands all bound together in a pretty package for us to consider. First, there’s a problem with the provenance of The False Duke. Then we have the question of whether Angeletto is a castrato or a woman breaking all the rules. And finally there’s the rivalry between the opera companies which may have gone beyond the usual skullduggery into murder. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to tie either of the first two strands to a likely motive. Even the third is problematic because, if Amato is not guilty, he’s likely to be a more formidable competitor if he takes over the running of Teatro San Marco. Killing the old man would therefore seem counterproductive. So perhaps there’s another motive involved. The answers are rather pleasing. Overall, this leaves me recommending Whispers of Vivaldi. It has a good sense of this period of Venetian history and the mystery is very satisfying.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.