Stanley Moss is travel editor of Lucire. He has authored numerous books, including, recently, The Hacker.
Treadwell’s Continental Gazetteer
‘The Opera in Decline.’
I prevail upon my faithful readership to heed these words carefully, for I fear that you all suffer from an advanced case of acute operatic amnesia. Is there anyone besides myself who still remembers the quality of our ballet only one short year ago, when the prima ballerina Grazia Rosetti danced the leading roles? So precipitous is the decline, so shocking the ballet’s state that none dares to publicly recollect the beauty which once thrived in our midst. Is it possible that I am the only person left in Paris who will say openly that he regrets the departure of our beloved Fragolina?
Who will challenge me when I state that all the recent productions of the Paris Opéra are richer and poorer at the same time? While the costumes for the prima ballerina Stregova become progressively more opulent, corps de ballet grows progressively tattered. Witness the recent production of The Gypsy’s Daughter with the cast in virtual rags.
Had a resident of the Moon ventured to Paris a year ago, attended a production of The Gypsy’s Daughter, then catapulted himself back into the heavens for a celestial transit and returned only yesterday, said visitor would have hardly recognized it as the same play at all, let alone the same daughter. For the title role now features an ungainly, lead-footed goose, who, contrary to the logic of the ballet, insists on attiring herself in the most gaudy and outrageous costume
Jog your memories! Think back to the gypsy daughter only a year ago portrayed by Grazia Rosetti. Her costume: a model of utter charm and simplicity, light blouson and a dainty red peasant skirt, white apron, appropriately rustic. How La Fragolina interpreted the spirit of the role with her gesture and manner, vivacious and appropriately demure. The character flowed from her movement, charm and eloquence. The attire was mere adornment. Here before us danced none other than the gypsy’s daughter herself.
Imagine now, dear readers, the Moon Man’s dismay only to find the same role portrayed in a costume garishly embroidered in threads of gold, the simple silk skirt widened and sewn of heavy velvet, with too many petticoats, over-ornamented. The gypsy’s daughter today wears an opulent pearl necklace, diamond earrings and a tiara. You can only deduce that the gypsy’s daughter has in her spare time made many friends who actively compete to adorn her. Such jewels demand acknowledgement. It takes time to produce such a costume, and an anonymous correspondent suggests that Mlle Stregova’s extreme capriciousness has compelled her to order made and remade her own outfits numerous times. The corps de ballet have abandoned any delicacy in their own costumes. They now wear the decaying garb from former productions: used, ancient, faded, threadbare.
Mlle Stregova not only appropriated the role of chief costumer, my correspondent adds. She has promoted herself to chief choreographer, relegating to a tiny corner of stage which remains the once intricate and moving section wherein twenty gypsy maidens danced by the firelight. Now Mlle Stregova bounds across the centre with hysterical gestures. It is an absurdity, a travesty, a horror.
Dear reader, adorned in a bouffant skirt and weighted down with so many jewels, you can easily imagine how clumsily the Black Swan goes through the role, and with what exaggerated gestures she fails to convey the classic tale of doomed love. The tragedy of The Gypsy’s Daughter was once to be found in the story. Alas, dear reader, the tragedy now is the utter tastelessness and artistic death of the production. Beloved Fragolina, wherever you are, if you are reading these words, consider the plight of the ballet in Paris and return to the opera house which longs for you desperately.
The only happy expectation to report is the forthcoming ball of our esteemed patron Baron Schluysen von Holstein. I can inform my readers that the Baron has engaged six orchestras to play throughout his palace the night of the ball. It is promised that the fireworks to be displayed will be nothing short of spectacular. Several knowledgeable friends also repeat to me that many of the planned costumes to be worn by ladies of the ball will reprise La Fragolina’s greatest roles at the Paris Opéra. Mlle Stregova, take heed!
By the time Grazia reached the end of the article, her eyes opened wider yet, and her cheeks turned bright red. The embarrassment and shame at the poor opera! Her hand, which held the teacup, stopped midway between her mouth and the paper and trembled slightly as she quickly reread the words to make sure that she had indeed grasped correctly the appeal by M. Severin. She shuddered at the plight of her friends among the corps, for she knew them all. She felt for those who would find the entire situation humiliating. She had never before considered the impact of her presence. She had always believed that in the world of ballet, people came and went, and there was always someone to take one’s place. She had felt her only responsibility was to her audience, but now she saw that her fate had become inextricably linked with the fates of the corps, that her departure from the Paris Opéra had precipitated a whole confluence of events which now affected many other lives than her own.
La Fragolina saw clearly why she felt dispirited. She had denied herself the theatre, and to be deprived of it took away her energy and vitality. She knew in an instant that she must pursue theatre again. And the first thing to do was find a production to see immediately, for she would need to look once more at the stage and the costuming, the footlights and the actors, and reconnect with the part of her life which was completely absent, and had been so abruptly taken away from her.
Now she gave her attention to the second periodical, which she found to be a broadsheet describing the week’s activities in London, and she soon located the listings of the productions at Covent Garden. There were many, but one spoke loudly to her, and so she quickly completed the business at the Dorset Hotel, paid her check, and sought out the hackney. She instructed him to point Romeo immediately in the direction of the theatre.
‘Ho Romeo!’ he cried, snapping the reins, and in a slightly lower voice, ‘Now we have to fight the wretched crowds for the theatre gate.’ La Fragolina sat back, breathless. The rich tea and the scandalous gossip had set her afire, and she hardly felt the cold as she tingled in anticipation of her plan: to see a new play entitled The Abduction of Persephone at the Alhambra. She knew it could not resemble the delicate and sad ballet which she had performed time and again at the Opéra, but the story had always appealed to her.
Blackpool, never far behind, snagged the journal and quickly grasped the object of her destination. As her modest hackney rounded the corner of Swan Lane, his larger carriage pursued at slightly lesser speed. When Grazia alighted in the busy plaza in front of the theatre, she immediately immersed herself in the sea of humanity. The cabbie occupied himself with beating off a small army or urchins who surrounded the hackney. Meanwhile, Blackpool shadowed her expertly. All around them, in spite of the rain, vendors hawked their wares, newsboys called out the latest headline, and gypsy children proffered pilfered oranges and nuts to passers-by.
La Fragolina purchased a ticket for the matinee performance, second balcony. She was jostled right and left by a mixed crowd of theatregoers, bundled against the chill. She climbed the dilapidated stairs to the balcony where she found an unobstructed view of the entire stage. The second balcony had only hard wood benches, though one could procure a wormy velvet cushion for a pittance. But after the sumptuous tea, she told herself she could endure slight discomfort in the name of economy. Around her, the other patrons considered their broadsides, opened flasks of drink or feasted on sticky buns. A band of six musicians was warming up in the pit, yet no one paid much heed as the first violinist bowed and signalled for the overture to begin. Even when the faded red velvet curtain rose, the spectators continued to chatter and rustle, but Grazia was soon consumed by the action on stage, a combination of Greek drama with sung choruses and exaggerated pantomime. Occasional moments of broad physical comedy roused delighted cheers from the audience.
When the actor playing Hades, himself attired completely in black with a dark red cape and sporting an enormous and preposterous black beard, heaved the beautiful Persephone over his shoulders the crowd booed loudly, energetically. It was such a pathetic production, that Grazia could barely contain her laughter at the ludicrous stage effects—a cloud of smoke, a fountain burbling blood in the underworld. But it had been so long since she had seen any play that she found herself seduced by the action.
Several rows back, hunched down, Harry Blackpool wondered how much longer this tedious farce would continue. He puzzled how Grazia Rossetti, who had been on the finest stage in the world, could tolerate such foolishness. But over the heads of the boorish crowed, he saw her leaning forward in rapt attention as Persephone launched into her penultimate soliloquy.
The actress, clad in a Grecian gown festooned with flowers, raked her hands through her abundant wig in mock despair. ‘Ah me!’ she cried, ‘Must I then return to the Dark Land, where no sun, no Mother, no song nor chirp of bird lends life to life? Where all the hours cold runs my blood and pale grow my cheeks? And must I too, play mistress to this dark and fearful Lord? Ah me! When shall I the sun again see? Where is my dear mother? Pity me, for no longer shall I sing and dance under the sun, no more shall I see or smell the fragrant rose, for here all life withers and wilts. Ah me!’ and she swooned melodramatically as the curtain fell and the orchestra struck up a discordant dirge, ending the first act.
Grazia remained frozen in her seat. She stared blindly at the red curtain, while all around her the audience stretched, and mingled. Hawkers leaped among the rows crying, ‘Sweetmeats! Hot buns!’ to a flurry of anxious hands.
Grazia paid no attention. Instead, she side-stepped her way to the aisle, thence down the little stairs, through the crowd and into the open square. She had no wish to stay for the second act, which, promised a mock Underworld Ball. What had her own life become, she asked herself, if not some muted death in the underworld called Marshmoor? Had she not sacrificed the sun, the warmth of friends, the family of theatre to become Robert’s wife? How different was that from Persephone? What joy occupied her life now? She asked herself these questions, and she found herself seized with trembling. Her driver had by then pulled the carriage beside her.
‘I hope you will excuse my not warning you about the uneven quality of this company of players,’ he offered. ‘One has the impression you plan to miss the second act, isn’t that so, Romeo?’ and went on in a softer tone, ‘And for damned good reason.’ The horse, upon hearing his name, looked balefully back at Grazia. ‘I myself also favour a less comedic Persephone,’ the driver added, and then to nobody in particular, ‘And more time with Hades if you please.’
But Grazia had not yet found the answer. What course to take? She must not go back! She understood that Robert meant to return to Scotland tomorrow night, and then it would be irrevocably Marshmoor, which would kill her more swiftly than any risk she might encounter in pursuing her own destiny. Vittorio was long dead, and the suddenness of his violent passing had once left her paralysed with fear. But so many years ago! She had only to relinquish that frightened young girl. She had made a career for herself on the stage of the Paris Opéra! Now she must return. She would seek out Bernadette. She would find Madame Monitchka. She would start over again if necessary. But she could never go back to Scotland.
‘I need to purchase a ticket for Calais,’ she blurted out.
‘For that we must get you to the docks,’ the driver reluctantly advised. He stared upwards disgustedly at the roiling cloud cover and murmured, ‘And no doubt there are to be half a dozen more bleeding stops.’
‘After which,’ Grazia announced, ‘You will return me to my lodging and wait for me while I retrieve by bags. I shall leave tonight.’
This time Blackpool did not follow. In a furious command he ordered his coach back to the auction house, and promised his driver a handsome reward to speed all the way. Here was an unexpected wrinkle which Vittorio Rosetti must know of at once.
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