Friday, April 01, 2011
The Story Behind a Newly Discovered Puccini Opera
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Opposite a large park, he saw a shop, a light in its front window.
"Kind of late to be open," he said to himself. "Who'd be shopping at this time of night?" Cautiously, he went over to check, thinking "if I were back home, this could be a break-in!"
But instead of burglars, there was a well-dressed man leaning against the counter, drinking a cup of coffee and smoking a cigarette while paging through a newspaper. Rogers Kent-Clarke could recognize this man anywhere. The name ornately painted on the glass was unnecessary. "Welcome to Puccini's Haberdasheria."
He was aware, finally, there were other people on the street, walking in the park - he was not alone, after all. Looking around like Scrooge on Christmas morning, it occurred to him, "if it's July 24th, why isn't it as hot here as it was in Collierville?" Feeling definitely under-dressed, what better place to be than a clothing store?
But the man at the counter saw him standing there and motioned for him to go away. "We're closed," he mouthed and went back to reading his paper. Kent-Clarke continued waving until the man eventually relented.
Puccini figured the man must be having a fashion emergency. Given his condition, checking him up and down with a practiced eye, while any store-clerk in a discount retailer could probably help, the man would certainly benefit from an expert's advice. Besides, Puccini figured, he wasn't doing anything else, so he opened the door to let the man in.
"Welcome to Puccini's," he said graciously with a slight bow.
Kent-Clarke wondered if he'd be able to afford the prices, here, but maybe he could find a light jacket or sports coat in his price-range. That way, he might engage him in more personal conversation. A blazer would be a wonderful souvenir, but that wasn't why he was here.
He started to explain how he'd just arrived but his luggage hadn't.
"Ah, a tourist," Puccini said, mentally measuring his arms and legs for a new suit. The man was dressed for warm weather, inappropriate for Harmonia-IV. "What part of Parallelia are you from?"
"Paralellia? I've just dropped in from Pennsylvania."
"Pennsylvania? Never heard of it – sounds very quaint, no? And what would the signor be interested in, today?"
"Do you take Visa?" Kent-Clarke checked his wallet.
"Your passport is immaterial to me, signor." But Puccini saw there were many bills in the wallet, American dollars, worth far more on the Harmonian black market than any other currency.
Puccini started humming "Musetta's Waltz" as they began with a blazer, something light bluish-gray, accenting the man's eyes. Meanwhile, Kent-Clarke kept up the small-talk.
Recognizing the tune, he began humming along.
"Ah, you know the music?" Puccini beamed at the recognition.
"Yes, actually – I've conducted 'La Boheme' many times. It's always been one of my favorites." He didn't feel he was lying – maybe gushing too much, but not lying.
Puccini debated whether he should lower the price of the blazer or double it.
The customer said he'd come back for a suit in a day or two – at this point, it was obvious he was lying – but all the same, Puccini offered him some coffee and a biscotti. So they sat, watching the handful of people walking past the shop windows, occasionally glancing in.
And they talked. The visitor was very curious.
Puccini, carefully hiding his wariness, assumed this must be one of those Trespassers he'd heard about. It was flattering to be considered one of the Great Composers worth "killing off," but should he call the police?
He explained he gave up composing – the rat-race was an eternity, now that he was dead – but for any unpublished stuff lying around somewhere, Kent-Clarke should check with his publisher, Ricordi. They'd found many things he had lost and a few things he wished they hadn't. No, there was no full-scale opera, finished or otherwise, waiting to be unearthed.
There was a long silence while both sipped their coffee. Puccini debated telling him about this before deciding it could be fun: what could the man do about it, anyway?
"There was one opera I wrote since I arrived here in Harmonia-IV, after I finished writing 'Turandot.'"
"You finished 'Turandot'?" Kent-Clarke's jaw nearly hit the floor with a thud.
"Well, of course: just because I died didn't mean the opera had to be dead-on-arrival. Besides, all good intentions not withstanding, Alfano rather botched it as far as I was concerned." He left the topic dangling tantalizingly.
The new one, "La Vendetta di Sposa" was based on a story from his own life. There was this young girl, Doria, working as a maid at his villa. Elvira – his wife – became jealous of her, began tried forcing her into admitting having an affair with the composer.
"Elvira even dressed in my clothes, hoping to trap her in the garden. She spread nasty rumors in the village until Doria's family shunned her and her boyfriend denounced her. Eventually the poor maid committed suicide. At the autopsy, it was discovered she was still a virgin."
Now that he was dead, Puccini figured he could tell that story, how the girl's family sued his wife and won. Elvira eventually opted to live in a different parallel universe and never bother him again, but he'd recently heard the Makropolous Opera Company was taking "La Vendetta di Sposa" on tour, there.
He chuckled into his coffee cup.
Kent-Clarke began salivating at the idea of taking "La Vendetta" back to the States. He hoped the part of Doria was suitable for Rosa Budd [the untalented wife of SHMRG's CEO, N. Ron Steele] – with Steele's backing, people might just take notice of him, now.
His stock would surely soar, even if Rosa fell flat on her face. He could take it to other companies, have real sopranos take it on. Yes, his success would be assured.
For a moment, he'd forgotten he still needed to get his hands on the score. How likely was it Puccini would just hand him a copy?
Unfortunately, Puccini continued, wondering about his customer's silence, posthumous scores were not allowed to be taken back to the Other Side. After they're registered with the library, they're kept locked in a vault.
"There is a place where many composers also keep copies of their scores – it’s like a black market music shop but very difficult to get to."
Needless to say, Kent-Clarke was all ears.
Puccini explained it was in an old abandoned mine north of the city, beyond the Bois de Bologna, a fashionable park where many people liked to hang out on a summer day. At the extreme northern edge of the woods, where the paths all came to a stop and respectable people no longer continued, there was an old rusty gate leading to another path.
"About a mile beyond that, you'll find the entrance to the mine – can't miss it. Tell them 'Schicchi' sent you – that's my code-name, there."
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excerpt from The Doomsday Symphony (Chapter 34) by Dick Strawser
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While Harmonia-IV (part of a string of parallel universes), a place where many composers have gone after they've died (and where they continue to compose) may be, in short, fictional, the incident which inspired Puccini's posthumous opera, "La vendetta di sposa," is a true story which happened between him and his wife over what she assumed was an affair the composer was having with one of their young maids. It certainly would have made a good verismo opera subject.
Another work described in "The Doomsday Symphony" is Beethoven's latest (likewise posthumous) symphony, described here at its first rehearsal.
Watch for a future post about Mahler's most recent symphonic work which gives the novel its title.
- Dick Strawser