On top of the world, the young artists party at the Viennese opera.
(And you thought the teen girls with the cell phones behind you at the multi-plex were a pain in the ass...)
Inside the theater, the crush was tremendous. The ladies created near impassable conditions as they stood, pannier to pannier, in the open parterre. The smell of sweat and perfume assaulted our nostrils.
People stood in clusters, bowing and chatting. The men cordially offered each other snuff and then caught the resulting sneezes in their handkerchiefs.
The opera tonight was Signor Salieri’s. Not only was his mistress, Madame Cavalieri, singing, but also the much envied Madamoiselle Storace. The only ornament lacking was the Emperor.
Although the windows were open, it was growing hotter by the minute. When we reached Lange’s box at last, we opened another bottle of wine and nibbled from a tin of biscuits. Joseph’s valet set a basket of pears where we could reach them. The men tossed a few of these down to some acquaintances who saluted us from below.
After drinking so much, we were silly, but it didn’t matter. In the Emperor’s absence, the house was in turmoil. People were roaming around and chatting, even during the overture. Most everyone had already heard this opera quite a few times.
The gentry in the adjoining box had supper brought in. The smell of their platter of grilled chops made us terribly hungry, so Lange sent his valet out to fetch something for us.
As soon as the show started, Mozart started to make fun of it. He loved to pun. When wit failed, filth sufficed. By the end of the first act, he’d reduced the plot to rubble. Every time a character opened his mouth, a clever aside occurred to him. By the time Lange’s servant returned with a basket of food, rolls and chops, we were in stitches.
Eating became a kind of agony, difficult to chew or swallow around Wolfgang’s relentless clowning. As soon as we had calmed down from one joke, he thought of another. I held my handkerchief in front of my face, gasping. Even Lange, so proud of his self-control, was having a hard time maintaining his composure.
Then several musikers who usually worked in the orchestra entered our box. Mozart was typically on good terms with these fellows and greeted them by name. In no time the men were equitably offering each other snuff and wine and discussing the scene below.
“As old as this thing is, the miserable Italian bastard has gone on laying out money for applause,” Lange noted, pointing at the claquers who were clustered near the front.
“That’s because it stinks as if it’s been dead for a week,” replied one of the musicians. He’d lost his place in the orchestra to one of Salieri’s friends and both his honor and his purse were suffering.
Mozart leaned over the edge of the box and studied the claque. “Our Bonbonierre has spent at least as much for his cheers tonight as he did last summer when he tried to ruin my "Abduction.”
The aristocrats beside us finished dinner, and the old Papa proceeded to fall asleep; his great curly wig slipping, his mouth open. His snores were irregularly audible during the recitatives. The others, a son, perhaps, and his wife, leaned on the edge of their box and visited with friends on the far side. To them, this was nothing special, simply another social evening. They might pay attention during the big arias, but that would depend upon how many times they had already heard the piece.
The box to our right was not so casual in its attendance. It held four well-dressed ladies who fluttered their fans disapprovingly in our direction, clearly most unhappy with our behavior.
Meanwhile, those trouble-making musikers kept encouraging Mozart, laughing uproariously at everything he said. I wished they’d stop. Couldn’t the critique wait until we were at home? Privately I thought the music was rather nice, not half as bad as Wolfi was making out. Signor Salieri aside, I thought, he shouldn’t antagonize the singers.
“Wolfi, please calm down,” I pleaded.
Ignoring me, Mozart started in on how long it was taking the tenor to die and on how unnatural it was for a man to sing such a long, tedious aria while lying on his back.
“Some young prince he is.” Wolfgang giggled, pointing at the tenor. “Even stretched out, his gut stands higher than his chest.”
Soon, we were all laughing helplessly again.
“Let’s at least have an appropriate finale,” Mozart whispered. Beckoning to the two musikers to accompany him, he jumped up and dashed away in the direction of the stairs.
I didn’t know what they were going to do, but Aloysia did.
“No! Stop, you lunatic!” Suddenly pale, she gripped Lange’s arm. “Joseph, make him stop.”
“Why?” Lange demurred. “It should be amusing, probably the most entertaining part of the evening.”
No matter what she said, he wouldn’t budge.
Below, the music swelled. Next to us, the ladies took out their handkerchiefs and dabbed their eyes.
A frantic clapping began at the back of the house. After a short hesitation, the audience generally took it up. It was wrong though, just a hair too early. To bring the whole house along, the burst of clapping must not only sound spontaneous, but start at precisely the correct beat.
The claque at the front turned in dismay. They began their own applause, but the mischief had been done. What should have been one gathering wave, one thundering crescendo, had broken in two. Clapping at the front and back of the house clashed. Then, rhythm lost, it died away.
“Perfect timing,” Aloysia said, a tone of grim approval in her voice. “Thank God the Emperor isn’t here.”
A chorus of hissing arose. It wasn’t clear whether it came from disgruntled patrons or from the claque who had had their final orchestration of the applause disrupted. Below us a sea of white-wigged heads bobbed restlessly as the chorus entered for the finale.
“Your husband must have found a whole horde of disgruntled Germans downstairs,” Lange murmured in my ear.
When the curtain fell, there were a few strained “Bravos” from the claque, but the applause was scattered. Cavalieri, Storace, and the tenor, all clearly in a temper, never reappeared to take their bows.
After struggling through the mob on the stairs, we found Mozart waiting at the bottom, his face wreathed in a cherubic smile. His musiker friends, their revenge complete, had melted into the crowd.
Entering the throng in the parterre, we saw Signor Salieri and two other Kapellmeisters, Umlauf and von Dittersdorf, standing together. They were praising Salieri’s opera and decrying the uproar at the end. A small black boy wearing a turban was offering Salieri a box of elaborate confections, doubtless to sweeten his temper.
As I watched, the great First Kapellmeister reached in and took, not one, but two pieces, and crammed them both into his mouth.
Straightaway, Wolfgang tugged me in the direction of his victim. In a few minutes I was curtsying at my husband’s side, greeting the injured and powerful Salieri.
Using Italian, perfect in both word and gesture, Mozart offered fulsome praise.
Signor Salieri drew his lips into an uncertain smile, revealing an expensive set of ivory dentures. His black eyes darted from side to side, but he was civil. He probably wasn’t yet sure who had so expertly conducted the rival claque. The whole time I prayed that Mozart had been at least minimally discreet.
A thin hope, indeed. Was discretion possible from a little dandy who was drunk on the finest champagne and dressed in a new rose and sky-blue suit?
When we were outside and seated in the carriage, Lange slapped Mozart on the back.
“Some stones you’ve got, Salzburger! You certainly acted your heart out, but I don’t know if the Great Bonbonierre was deceived.”
Aloysia was fretful. “Damn you, Wolfi. I have enough trouble getting parts from those bastards as it is.”
“I know. I know. I went too far.” Mozart sighed. “But Monsieur Bonbonniere should learn that spreading his money around can’t always buy him success.”