What more royal and heartbreaking solitude than that of Philippe II in Verdi’s opera! In a dreamlike mise en abime of the grand monologue in Act IV, the novelist Stéphane Héaume creates a portrait of a wounded man and a variation on the themes of desertion and disillusion.
I am an old man now, who has been through many things, many. There is one thing, however, that I have never known; the time has come to experience it now. And all is ready. It’s for tonight.
It is not as hot as yesterday but the damp persists in this night not quite fallen on the equatorial forest. From the patio of the villa – a palace with columns reminiscent of a temple – I can make out the mauve streak of the sea below, far away over there, far beyond the last buttresses of the mountains, well beyond the frangipani trees hugging the coast. It is somewhere between Orabazza Point and Capo Rosso that it will happen, the illuminated line of the ship (we called it an ocean-going liner when I was young) will slide over the waves, slow and heavy, and it will last but an instant, a second of eternity, my eternity, the joy of an old man, my final project.
Yes, all is ready. Between the sea and myself the amphitheatre rises up – an enchanted coliseum - , its ruins offered up to the heavens, its crumbling cavea forming a semi-circle from before the world. I cross the patio to the balustrade and in the twilight I see the torches planted here and there; we shall light them later, with my boy, before the crowd enters the place. It seems to me that I can already see all those faces, all those bodies. There they are, taking their places on the white cushions that have been placed on the stone. Five thousand spectators brought here by the coach-load, delivered up to the awaiting jungle, drowning in the creepers that weave a cocoon in the guise of a roof, the imaginary dome covering an al fresco theatre. Here, palm trees, there, kapok trees, their trunks aligned like the boards of a theatre set. Nothing like it has ever been seen in Monte Iguana. I have had to imagine it all. I am an old man now. In truth, they must surely be asking: “Is he really going to sing? At his age?” I shall be an attraction, a curiosity. They won’t come so much for the production – although I’ve assembled a cast of the most worthy – as to glean the final notes of a worn-out phenomenon.
The orchestral musicians won’t be much longer. The stage awaits them, a half-moon of wooden planks surrounded by blocks of stone. So long as there’s no wind. There they are at my feet, the vaults of the Escurial, the setting for my great scene. I have rehearsed, oh, I have long prepared for this miracle. But have I not been preparing for the last forty years, ever since my hour of glory? My nights are filled with the applause of bygone days. The curtains of all theatres sweep past, one by one, before my eyes. They overlay the gauzy vegetation, the sea, down there – and I can clearly make out, quite distinctly even, the lights of the coast guards. At this altitude, lanterns provide the only light. The only house to have electricity here is mine, Villa Iguana, a palace pervaded by heat and humid breezes, palace of my dreams. Doleful retreat far from the spotlight. Far from her.
Images return – stronger this evening. She is there. Her presence is palpable. And yet, she does not love me. No, she never loved me. I gave it all up because of her. The pain destroyed a well-established career. I went away, far from the world, far from Europe, far from Venice especially. Venice. That is where she stabbed me. No, she never loved me.
Mount Iguana was my ultimate refuge. I have lost track of the passing of time, all those days contemplating the sea, the sky, the night, my night soon to be fallen with the burning out of the torches. But tonight, the hour will come, the hour of the ship, the hour of the renewing of my joy. Oh, I’m well aware that I’m confused. I’m an old man now.
Having abandoned me, she haunted me. I had to rebuild myself, I, the mad young hound, I who had elaborated a magnificent lie in order to believe in my redemption.
Did I invent a career as a tenor for myself when I was just a vagabond? I really was going to become a singer. Did drink do for me when reason would have saved me? I was on the point of giving it up. Was it Venice that sucked me into the mesh of its witchcraft? It was in South America that I would find other sensations, other escarpments to provide me with a veritable challenge – the challenge of my moral recovery. It would be my Fitzcarraldo.
How long a road it was! And she, she, always there, mesmerising me; I still see her, silently observing my blond hair, the day I joined her in her dance. Time made no difference. The outside world heightened my suffering.
These last years could be summed up by two newspaper articles. Two items of news that devastated me. The first, that of her death – a magnificent photo of her above an inaccurate obituary -, seven years after my arrival here. The tight-lipped expression of my boy surges up in my memory; his shocked demeanour, newspaper in hand. For he knew: I had told him everything (whom else could I confide in?): Venice, La Fenice, the Excelsior, our nights together, our age difference, her youthful silhouette, despite her seventy years of age, and her legs, my god, her legs! The Countess di Posa Alba. That was the caption printed beneath that cruel photo. Cruel photo, cruel hour, cruel memories.
The wind has risen. It’s more of a breeze and will drop. At present, the villa is plunged into almost total darkness. We will have to light the lanterns. In three hours, the invisible curtain will rise, it will be time, time for my great aria. Philippe’s aria. Philippe II, king of Spain! I shall sing it for myself, for them, of course, but above all, for her! She whose youthful double will sail along the coast, this evening, somewhere between Orabazza Point and Capo Rosso. There again, it was through the newspapers, two months ago, that I found out. Elisabeth di Posa Alba, the granddaughter of the countess, is embarking on her world tour. South America will be her first destination. She will perform notably during a cruise from Montevideo to Valparaiso. The photo of Elisabeth struck me like a gentle explosion. It wasn’t the young opera singer who appeared before me but the countess herself. Sublime reflection. Oh, how the news tortured me, that face risen from the dead. Bitter repetition of history, and the irony of her talent: her granddaughter a singer, was it really possible? My heart shrivelled up, a crisis, a crisis, I was in a state of collapse. O fatal gift! I am an old man now; I am awaiting the last dawn.
I searched out the dates. I calculated the hour of the ship’s passage. I called the shipping company to make sure she was on board. Only yesterday, I checked that the boat had left its previous port of call. And then, I had this mysterious message delivered to her:
Rendez-vous on deck at seventeen minutes past ten, on the landward side.
I got confirmation that she had received it. Seventeen minutes past ten. I perform my great aria.
“She does not love me! No! Her heart is closed to me. She has never loved me!”
It is on deck that she will hear the truth, the ancient truth of Venice, she will hear the truth about her grandmother, and I shall write to her afterwards, I will tell her what happened; but tonight, I shall sing for the one and for the other. I shall sing for them both.
What the audience does not know is that I have had loudspeakers installed all over the mountain, from the amphitheatre to the beach. Membranes turned towards the sea, towards the night of the slow, heavy liner that will slip between Orabazza Point and Capo Rosso, in a few hours, at seventeen minutes past ten. Elisabeth will hear Monte Iguana sing. She will hear the song of my unmitigated sorrow, my unchanging love.
Where am I? In the distance, the watchmen’s lamp flickers. The wind has risen. I am anxious. In the forest, the torches are burning and cast pools of reddish light against the stone. The spectators will soon arrive. They will soon invade the forest, soon listen, admire, applaud, listen to me, admire me, yes, applaud me in the heat and humidity of the jungle. All is ready. At this hour, the ship must be passing the glimmering villages of the Costa Verde; soon she will be here, she will hear me from the deck. Her granddaughter. Elisabeth!
I am going to dress. My costume is hanging in the wardrobe in that vast bedroom where I have spent so many nights, where I have long awaited the ultimate hour. Yes, now I must conceal myself in my royal mantle. They are coming and I must honour them.
On the wall there is a large mirror that reflects my face. I am well made up and yet I am to offer my voice without artifice.
Is it already time? So soon?
…What is happening? What is that noise? The shrieks of startled birds? Animals hidden in the obscurest depths of the jungle? Something piercing, smashing somewhere, something liquid. It’s raining! … Is it possible? The great white drapes billow and entangle themselves. It’s raining! The wind! It’s the wind! For pity’s sake! Ah! The horizon is obscured, the palm trees are twisting, it’s a storm, yes, a storm is coming. Catastrophe… The sea has withdrawn, buried beneath the deluge, the tropical chaos – the watchmen have disappeared: no more light, no more flames, no more torches. Everything swirls up and flies away in the night, white cushions and all. The stones are drowned in water, Elisabeth, Elisabeth – and the ship? Venice drag yourself to me through the crumpled forest. Venice and her last kiss. No, she does not love me, she never loved me!The festivities are ruined. The fatal hour has rung. Here am I. I advance alone on the patio in my ravaged night.
Your reading: L’Ora Fatale