Fiction

The maestro and his women

Tenor Of Love
Mary Di Michele

Penguin Canada
$24
paper
336pp
0-14-301437-4

What is it about Canadian poets and historical novels? Michael Ondaatje started the trend in 1976 with his first novel, Coming Through Slaughter, describing the life of jazz musician Buddy Bolden. More recently, Ontario poet Helen Humphreys switched genres, writing historical feminist novels like Leaving Earth, about a pioneering female airline pilot, and After Image, which traces the work of Victorian photographer Julia Cameron. Likewise, Newfoundland poet Michael Crummery wrote the stunning first novel River Thieves, about an early Newfoundland settlement and the fate of the last living member of the Beothuk Indian tribe.

The trend has now reached Montreal. Mary di Michele, well known for her five collections of poetry, now brings us Tenor of Love, a novel featuring opera singer Enrico Caruso. Although the title alludes to the singer, the novel is not really about him. The focus is on three women in Caruso’s life. Only two of these – soprano Ada Giachetti and the singer’s American wife Dorothy Benjamin Park, who wed him three years before he died of a lung ailment in 1921 – figure in Caruso’s biographies. To these di Michele adds Rina Giachetti, younger sister of Ada.

Rina meets Caruso for the first time in 1897, when she is sixteen and he comes to board at her house in Livorno. In the opening scene, di Michele describes Rina entering the kitchen after a trip to the market and dropping an armload of artichokes on the floor at the young tenor’s feet. It is not Caruso’s looks that arrest Rina, nor even his smell – “a murky music composed of musk and wood, and yes, also some kitchen smells … the odour of cooking oil and of Sicilian olives spiced with garlic and chiles … a smell of eating in bed, not the invalid’s, but the lover’s.” What arrests Rina, unsurprisingly, is Caruso’s voice. For when he speaks, his voice resonates for Rina as if she is “being called to worship by a golden bell.” Rina falls in love, but unfortunately her older sister, already married and the mother of a young child, strides onto the scene like the female lead in an opera and steals the tenor’s heart.

The historical Ada Giachetti was indeed dramatic. An opera singer in her own right, she became Caruso’s mistress, abandoning her husband and eventually bearing Caruso illegitimate sons. As Caruso’s musical career waxed, Ada’s waned. Not one to stand in the wings for long, she jumped back to centre stage by eloping with the family chauffeur.

With the two sisters, di Michele sets up a fascinating love triange and lets shy, virginal Rina narrate. Ada is seen only from the outside, coming across as a brash, ambitious creature, not entirely worthy of Caruso’s love. Through her, however, di Michele can explore the theme of women (especially those with spouses and children) struggling to be artists.

is point, Caruso has crossed the ocean. He’s at the height of his fame, singing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and making recordings with RCA Victor. The shift to Dorothy and the United States weakens the novel; Dorothy is so similar to Rina in voice and personality that it’s difficult to distinguish the two. Furthermore, the reader has been deeply engaged with Rina Giachetti for close to two hundred pages and it’s jarring to be pulled away and given nothing else about her until the final scene.

Happily, di Michele’s poetic attention to language and detail do much to offset this structural flaw. Her account of Enrico Caruso and the women orbiting him is beautifully rendered – as passionate as any opera. mRb

Claire Holden Rothman is a Montreal novelist and translator.

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