Member No.: 35
Joined: 2-May 08
Nobody who had seen The Queen of the Night off-stage could have imagined she could create such a powerful sound or have such stage presence. She was a skinny creature of well under five foot with a large amount of bright red hair. Viscount Selwyn, along with most of the rest of the audience of that performance of Die Zauberflöte in the Teatro della Pergola, admired her from afar. Unlike some of the Italians sitting around him, however, he was not vocal in his appreciation. They did not refrain from shouting out at any opportunity things that George was rather glad he did not understand, his Italian still being limited to basic phrases. It was rather annoying actually. How was one to enjoy the performance, which was very well sung and staged for a repertory company, with most of the audience talking over the singers?
At the end of the show, George decided to go back-stage and congratulate the Queen of the Night himself. He was not alone. Outside the theatre he was carried along with the crowd towards the stage door and found himself jostled terribly as they waited for the performers to emerge. It was all he could do to keep a hold of his hat at the same time as keeping a look out for pickpockets. Florence was apparently notorious and he was sure that in such a scrum he would be lucky to emerge with his purse intact.
Then the stage door opened and two women stepped out, neither of them the petite red headed Queen. Both were relatively tall and young and of that traditional Mediterranean olive complexion, one blonde and the other a dark brunette. Both were pretty, though the brunette had a more animated expression. He thought she might have played one of the three ladies, but could not quite remember.
A cheer rose up. “È la Pamina! Forza Pamina!”
George remembered that the blonde had played Pamina. He had not thought her voice so very attractive but she had done a good enough job of it. While “Pamina” dealt with her fans, the brunette looked unimpressed. She opened her arms in a gesture of mock hopelessness and happening to catch George's eye cried out, “Bah, nessuno per me? Che palle!”
George did not understand the words, but he did understand the sentiment, especially as the crowd was now demanding vocally of the two girls for “La Vale!” George consulted the piece of paper that served as a programme and saw that the Queen of the Night's name was Valentina Cecchi. Despite being as keen to meet her as the rest of the crowd, George felt too foreign and out of place to join in the chanting. He even tried to move a little to the side and was elbowed in the ribs for his trouble.
Finally, the brunette waved her hands over the crowd to quiet it. “Un po' di patienza, per piacere! La Valentina viene subito!”
“Vai a trovarla, Patrizia! Sono ore che non viene,” interrupted the blonde.
Patrizia puffed out her cheeks. “Eh, allora, va bene!” And she disappeared back inside to a cry of “Ti amo, Rizi!” from someone in the crowd.
George was feeling very uncomfortable and was considering giving up and going back to his lodgings when Patrizia returned leading the recalcitrant Valentina behind her. She gave a little curtsy. “Vi presento la Regina della Notte!” Then she stood aside.
The Queen was a great disappointment close to. She was at least forty five, her face devoid of face paint was lined and brown as a walnut and the red hair was almost certainly dyed. Moreover, while she might have had a thrillingly stratospheric singing voice, her speaking voice was somewhat cracked and low. George suspected that she drank and smoked a good deal more than was ladylike.
Valentina pushed through the crowd which moved to follow her, George could not tell where to. He lagged behind, feeling put out. He had thought she would be much younger and more beautiful. He found himself left with Patrizia and a few more women from the chorus who had just emerged from the stage door. He moved a bit closer to them until one of the women noticed him and asked him if he was also going to the trattoria. George looked away and then said that he did not know, one phrase he was very confident in using.
Immediately Patrizia clapped her hands together and took him by the arm. “Lo sapevo immediatamente- è un milord inglese! Come piace al milord il nostro spettacolo? Meglio d'Inghilterra, no?”
George blinked and rummaged around in his mind for a suitable reply. “Era molto bello,” he said finally. He was distracted by Patrizia's warm hand on his arm. Women generally did not do that to him.
The girls looked at each other and giggled. “Bello! Bravo, milord! Parla proprio l'italiano!” teased Patrizia.
“Sto imparando la lingua,” he continued stolidly, determined that since he had met these ladies who seemed to want to talk he might as well practise his Italian.
“Bravo!” exclaimed Patrizia again, patting his arm.
“Dai, ragazze,” complained the blonde woman whom he had heard addressed as Tessa, “andiamo alla trattoria o no?”
The group started to move. Patrizia kept hold of his arm. She looked up at him with bright, brown eyes and a mischievous smile. “You come with us to the trattoria? There is beautiful wine for your English palette!” He had never heard anyone speak English so charmingly with such fetchingly rolled 'r's. He could not help smiling at her a little.
“Va bene, signorina, se non sono un...” He couldn't remember the word for an imposition. “Una imposizione?”
A girl on Patrizia's other side nudged her. “Sorride anche! È proprio bellissimo!” She pretended to fan herself.
George felt himself flush and then he flushed more when he managed to hear Patrizia say in a low voice, “Basta, Chiara, questo è per me!” Then she turned back to him and laughed. “Never una imposizione, milord! Is not all the time that an English milord comes to our humble teatro and queues outside to see the bella Valentina.” She paused and then added wickedly, “She is not so bella in the skin, no?”
George did not like to be so easily seen through and muttered that she was a little older than he had expected.
“Troppo simpatico, questo milord!” was Patrizia's response. She clutched his arm tighter as they walked.
George really did not know what to think of this evening. On the one hand, it was surely a good idea that he should interact with some Italians socially as this would improve his command of the language and after travelling for several months quite alone he was getting lonely. On the other hand, he was not sure that a bunch of lively female opera singers could constitute suitable company. Certainly they could show him a different side to Florence but he was certain his sister would not approve if she heard about it. George sighed.
“What do you think of?” asked Patrizia.
He looked at her and felt the sense of awkwardness wash over him in a wave of almost nausea that he had felt every time he had looked at her this evening. Not wholly unpleasant nausea. It almost made him want to look at her more so that he could feel this sensation again.
“Mia sorella,” he replied truthfully.
“You think of your sister?” she replied, looking nonplussed. “She is here?”
“No, è in Londra,” he replied.
Patrizia made a face. “Allora, cosa centra? La sorella è a Londra, Lei è a Firenze.”
In a moment of reckless abandon, George decided that she was quite right. Augusta back in London really had nothing to do with what he did in Florence and had no way of finding out. Not that he intended to do anything foolish.
The trattoria was in a small square with a fountain in the centre just off the Piazza del Duomo. George had walked through it several times his nose in a guide book and not remarked it in any way. Only a small part was in a building, most of the trestle tables were outside, with long wooden benches along them. The square was already filled up with mostly young and lower class Italians. The two tables were dotted with karafes of wine, both red and white, and there were baskets of bread with saucers of olives.
George found himself squashed onto a bench between Patrizia and Tessa and opposite a couple of young men who were introduced as Benito from the chorus and Giuseppe one of the violinists from the orchestra. Giuseppe immediately rose and procured some more wine, bread and olives for the newcomers.
Patrizia introduced him as "their milord inglese” and then turned fully to him. “Ma come ti chiami, or is “milord” your proper name?”
“George Hackett,” he replied readily and held his hand out across the table for Benito to shake, while still looking at her.
“No title?” She pouted and looked disappointed. “Madonna- non ci credo, dev'essere un milord!”
George smiled faintly and added, “George Hackett, Lord Selwyn.”
Now she smiled properly. “Meglio, molto meglio.” She met his eyes and something changed in them. She looked for a moment more serious and searching and George found it hard to look away. Then she became mischievous again and her eyes sparkled. “George,” she said slowly, almost as a vocal caress. The 'r' lingered and rolled before she added the final consonant. For some reason George felt suddenly hot, even in the cool and pleasant Mediterranean autumn evening and he shifted slightly on his seat. He did not know how long they continued to look at each until she ducked her head and looked away, apparently shy apart from the smile that curved on her lips.
“I like your name!” she said and George could think of nothing to reply, because he had not thought his name particularly interesting, once he had discovered that it meant “farmer” in Greek.
“Grazie,” he said quietly and tried to catch her eye again, but she had turned completely away, one dark curl of hair brushing his cheek as she did so, and was answering Giuseppe's question of “red or white?” with much laughter and enjoyment.
He watched her feeling irrationally annoyed until Tessa tapped him on the shoulder and offered him the bread basket with a roll of her eyes at Patrizia and Giuseppe. George thanked her and forcing himself to turn away from Patrizia he entered into a desultory conversation in Italian with Tessa about how long she had been in the opera company. He had barely been talking for a moment before Patrizia had turned back to him. She put an arm round his neck and invited him to sip the red wine in her glass. She smelled of face paint and strong coffee and something musky and woody that he could not quite identify. Drinking the wine from her glass seemed a silly thing to do when there were plenty of free glasses, but she muttered, “Dai, George...” in his ear, her hair again falling against his face, and he was powerless to resist.
Later, he got his own glass of red wine and drank at least two glasses. Somehow Patrizia's arm never left him and somehow he did not mind her invading his personal space and smiling up with a kind of daring and knowing intelligence every now and then, before her head fell back onto his shoulder. Even when she was talking to someone on the other side of him, she kept one bronzed and long fingered hand in his or on his arm. George said little, for tiredness and wine were impairing his ability to speak coherent Italian though every now and then into his restrained and English thought process, the odd vibrant phrase would burst unexpectedly- “Santo cielo!” “Dunque vediamo...” “Allora...”
“Tardi,” he said eventually, long after the Campanile had announced one in the morning. He still sat straight backed on his wooden bench but one hand had found itself way into Patrizia's long, curly black hair, which like many of the women of her race and class she wore loose with only a ribbon to control it. Tessa had gone home an hour or so ago, but Benito, Giuseppe, Chiara and much of the opera company were still there. They worked in the evening only except on days they had matinées so could sleep as late as they liked. George who had nothing to do and nowhere to go never even considered their working lives. He had watched Patrizia and thought what a gift it was to be able to talk with such ease and vivacity to so many people, of whatever rank they were or whether they were friends or strangers. It was not a talent he possessed or had ever envied before that moment.
Benito looked at him with some worry in his face and asked where he lived.
George waved his arm regally. “Inghilterra. Aparte. Là.”
Patrizia stood up and climbed over the bench. She then put her arms round George's neck from behind. In the course of the evening he had become accustomed to the warmth of them and the closeness and he reached up to squeeze her hand.
“L'accompagnerò a casa,” she said to Benito and then turned George's face up to hers. “I see you to home, yes?” Her tone was lightly teasing and at the back of his head he was aware that there was something unusual about this arrangement. He was not sure what it was.
“Sei molto gentile,” he replied with incongruous formality and stood up, almost falling over the bench as he did so. Patrizia helped him. When they were both upright, Patrizia kissed all her friends goodbye on each cheek and George found himself kissing them all too, though he had not spoken to all of them. He fuzzily thought that this was a rather nice tradition before he found his arm taken by Patrizia and they left the group.
It was colder now, especially away from the human heat of the trattoria. The side streets of Florence were silent apart from their footsteps on the cobbles. George put his arm round Patrizia's shoulders and she put hers round his waist and he revelled in private triumph over the thrill of an action that only a few hours ago he would have shirked from even entertaining. He walked automatically in what he thought was the direction of his lodgings and they remained in silence, until suddenly Patrizia stopped walking.
She turned to face him suddenly and her face had lost none of its native liveliness and alertness, but her expression was sober and unexpectedly sweet. She reached up and touched his cheek briefly, even if he could feel it after her hand dropped back down. “I can go, if you prefer, George? You tell me to leave and I go.”
The candlelight from a window whose shutters had remained open reflected gold in her eyes and flickered warmly. George reached to squeeze her hand. “No. Stay.”
Italian glossary coming in the next post!