The Metropolitan Opera House, New York
My Dearest Nico,
It is strange to sit down to relate a story of great complexity knowing you may never read it. Whether writing about the events of the past few years will be a catharsis for me, or for your benefit, darling, I’m not sure, but I feel driven to do it.
So I sit here in my dressing room wondering where I should begin. Much of what I will write happened before you were born – a chain of events that began when I was younger than you are now. So maybe that is the place I should start. In Naples, the city where I was born . . .
I remember Mamma hanging out the washing on a line that reached across to the apartment on the other side of the street. Walking down the narrow alleyways of the Piedigrotta, it looked as though the residents were in a state of perpetual celebration, with the different-coloured clothes on washing lines strung high above our heads. And the noise – always the noise – that evokes those early years; even at night it was never quiet. People singing, laughing, babies crying . . . Italians, as you know, are vocal, emotional people, and families in the Piedigrotta shared their joy and sadness every day as they sat on their doorsteps, turning as brown as berries in the blazing sun. The heat was unbearable, especially in high summer, when the pavements burnt the soles of your feet and mosquitoes took full advantage of your exposed flesh to stealthily attack. I can still smell the myriad scents that wafted through my open bedroom window: the drains, which on occasion were enough to turn your stomach, but more often the enticing aroma of freshly baked pizza from Papa’s kitchen.
When I was young we were poor, but by the time I took my First Communion Papa and Mamma had made quite a success of ‘Marco’s’, their small café.
They worked night and day, serving spicy pizza slices made to Papa’s secret recipe, which over the years had become famous in the Piedigrotta. In the summer months, the café became even busier with the influx of tourists, and the cramped interior was jammed with wooden tables until it was almost impossible to walk between them.
Our family lived in a small apartment above the café. We had our own bathroom; there was food on the table and shoes on our feet. Papa was proud that he’d risen from nothing to provide for his family in such a way. I was happy too, my dreams stretching little further than the following sunset.
Then, one hot August night, when I was eleven years old, something happened that changed my life. It seems impossible to believe that a girl not yet in her teens could fall in love, but I remember so vividly the moment I first laid eyes on him . . .
Naples, Italy, August 1966
Rosanna Antonia Menici held on to the washbasin and stood on her tiptoes to look in the mirror. She had to lean a little to the left because there was a crack in it that distorted her facial features. This meant she could see only half of her right eye and cheekbone and none of her chin; she was still too short to see that, even standing on her toes.
‘Rosanna! Will you come out of the bathroom!’
Sighing, Rosanna let go of the basin, walked across the black linoleum floor and unlocked the door. The handle turned immediately, the door opened and Carlotta brushed roughly past her.
‘Why do you lock the door, you silly child! What have you to hide?’ Carlotta turned on the bath taps, then pinned her long, dark, curly hair expertly on top of her head.
Rosanna shrugged sheepishly, wishing that God had made her as lovely as her older sister. Mamma had told her that God gave everyone a different gift and Carlotta’s was her beauty. She watched humbly as Carlotta removed her bathrobe, revealing her perfect body with its lush creamy skin, full breasts and long, tapered legs. Everyone who came into the café praised Mamma and Papa’s beautiful daughter, and said how she would one day make a good match for a rich man.
Steam began to rise in the small bathroom as Carlotta turned off the taps and climbed into the water.
Rosanna perched herself on the edge of the bath. ‘Is Giulio coming tonight?’ she asked her sister.
‘Yes. He will be there.’
‘Will you marry him, do you think?’
Carlotta began to soap herself. ‘No, Rosanna, I will not marry him.’
‘But I thought you liked him?’
‘I do like him, but I don’t . . . oh, you are too young to understand.’
‘Papa likes him.’
‘Yes, I know Papa likes him. He’s from a rich family.’ Carlotta raised an eyebrow and sighed dramatically. ‘But he bores me. Papa would have me walking down the aisle with him tomorrow if he could, but I want to have some fun first, enjoy myself.’
‘But I thought being married was fun?’ persisted Rosanna. ‘You can wear a pretty wedding dress and get lots of presents and your own apartment and—’
‘A brood of screaming children and a thickening waistline,’ finished Carlotta, idly tracing the slender contours of her own body with the soap as she spoke. Her dark eyes flickered in Rosanna’s direction. ‘What are you staring at? Go away, Rosanna, and let me have ten minutes’ peace. Mamma needs your help downstairs. And close the door behind you!’ Without replying, Rosanna left the bathroom and walked down the steep wooden stairs. She opened the door at the bottom of the stairs and entered the café. The walls had recently been whitewashed and a painting of the Madonna hung next to a poster of Frank Sinatra over the bar at the back of the room. The dark wooden tables were polished to a sheen and candles had been placed in empty wine bottles on top of each one.
‘There you are! Where have you been? I’ve called and called you. Come and help me hang this banner.’ Antonia Menici was standing on a chair, holding one end of the brightly coloured material. The chair was wobbling precariously under her considerable weight.
‘Yes, Mamma.’ Rosanna pulled another wooden chair out from under one of the tables and dragged it across to the arch in the centre of the café.
‘Hurry up, child! God gave you legs to run, not to crawl like a snail!’
Rosanna took hold of the other end of the banner, then stood on the chair.
‘Put that loop on the nail,’ instructed Antonia.
Rosanna did so.
‘Now, come help your mamma down so we can see if we have it straight.’
Rosanna descended from her own chair, then hurried to help Antonia safely to the ground. Her mamma’s palms were wet, and Rosanna could see beads of sweat on her forehead. ‘Bene, bene.’ Antonia stared up at the banner with satisfaction.
Rosanna read the words out loud: ‘“Happy Thirtieth Anniversary – Maria and Massimo!”’
Antonia put her arms round her daughter and gave her a rare hug. ‘Oh, it will be such a surprise! They think they are coming here for supper with just your papa and me. I want to watch their faces when they see all their friends and relatives.’ Her round face beamed with pleasure. She let go of Rosanna, sat down on the chair and wiped her forehead with a handkerchief. Then she leant forward and beckoned Rosanna towards her. ‘Rosanna, I shall tell you a secret. I have written to Roberto. He’s coming to the party, all the way from Milan. He will sing for his mamma and papa, right here in Marco’s! Tomorrow, we will be the talk of the Piedigrotta!’
‘Yes, Mamma. He is a crooner, isn’t he?’
‘Crooner? What blasphemous words you speak! Roberto Rossini is not a crooner, he is a student at the scuola di musica of La Scala in Milan. One day he will be a great opera singer and perform on the stage of La Scala itself.’
Antonia clasped her hands to her bosom and looked, to Rosanna, exactly as she did when she was praying at Mass in church.
‘Now, go and help Papa and Luca in the kitchen. There’s still much to do before the party and I’m going to Signora Barezi’s to have my hair set.’
‘Will Carlotta come and help me too?’ asked Rosanna. ‘No. She’s coming to Signora Barezi’s with me. We must both look our best for this evening.’ ‘What shall I wear, Mamma?’
‘You have your pink church dress, Rosanna.’
‘But it’s too small. I’ll look silly,’ she said, pouting.
‘You will not! Vanity is a sin, Rosanna. God will come in the night and pull out all your hair if he hears your vain thoughts. You’ll wake up in the morning bald, just as Signora Verni did when she left her husband for a younger man! Now, get along with you to the kitchen.’
Rosanna nodded and walked off towards the kitchen wondering why Carlotta hadn’t yet lost all her hair. The intense heat assailed her as she opened the door. Marco, her papa, was preparing dough for the pizzas at the long wooden table. Marco was thin and wiry, the polar opposite to his wife, his bald head glistening with sweat as he worked. Luca, her tall, dark-eyed older brother, was stirring an enormous, steaming pan on top of the stove. Rosanna watched for a moment, mesmerised, as Papa expertly twirled the dough on his fingertips above his head, then slapped it down on the table in a perfectly formed circle.
‘Mamma sent me in to help.’
‘Dry those plates on the drainer and stack them on the table.’ Marco did not pause in his task as he rapped out the order.
Rosanna looked at the mountain of plates and, nodding resignedly, pulled a clean cloth out of a drawer.
‘How do I look?’
Carlotta paused dramatically by the door as the rest of her family stared at her in admiration. She was wearing a new dress made from a soft lemon satin, with a plunging bodice and a skirt which tapered tightly over her thighs, stopping just above her knees. Her thick black hair had been set, and hung in ebullient, glossy curls to her shoulders.
‘Bella, bella!’ Marco held out his hand to Carlotta as he walked across the café. She took it as she stepped down onto the floor.
‘Giulio, does my daughter not look beautiful?’ asked Marco.
The young man rose from the table and smiled shyly, his boyish features seemingly at odds with his well-muscled frame.
‘Yes,’ Giulio agreed. ‘She is as lovely as Sophia Loren in Arabesque.’
Carlotta walked towards her boyfriend and planted a light kiss on his tanned cheek. ‘Thank you, Giulio.’
‘And doesn’t Rosanna look pretty too?’ said Luca, smiling at his sister.
‘Of course she does,’ said Antonia briskly.
Rosanna knew Mamma was lying. The pink dress, which had once looked so well on Carlotta, made her own skin seem sallow, and her tightly plaited hair made her ears look larger than ever.
‘We shall have a drink before the guests arrive,’ Marco said, brandishing a bottle of jewel-bright Aperol liqueur. He opened it with a flourish and poured out six small glasses.
‘Even me, Papa?’ Rosanna asked.
‘Even you.’ Marco nodded to her as he handed everyone a glass. ‘May God keep us all together, protect us from the evil eye and make this day special for our best friends, Maria and Massimo.’ Marco lifted his glass and drained it in one go.
Rosanna took a small sip and almost choked as the fiery, bitter-orange liquid hit the back of her throat.
‘Are you all right, piccolina?’ asked Luca, patting her on the back.
She smiled up at him. ‘Yes, Luca.’
Her brother took her hand in his and bent down to whisper in her ear. ‘One day, you will be far more beautiful than our sister.’
Rosanna shook her head vehemently. ‘No, Luca, I won’t.
But I don’t mind. Mamma says I have other gifts.’
‘Of course you do.’ Luca wrapped his arms round his sister’s thin body and hugged her to him.
‘Mamma mia! Here are the first guests. Marco, bring in the Prosecco. Luca, go check the food, quickly!’ Antonia straightened her dress and advanced towards the door.
Rosanna sat at a corner table and watched as the café began to fill up with friends and relatives of the guests of honour. Carlotta was smiling and tossing her hair as she stood at the centre of a group of young men. Giulio looked on jealously from a seat in the corner.
Then a hush fell over the café and every head turned towards the figure in the doorway.
He stood, towering over Antonia, then bent to kiss her on both cheeks. Rosanna stared at him. She had never thought to describe a man as beautiful before, but could summon no other word for him. He was very tall and broad-shouldered, his physical strength evident in the muscles of his forearms, which were clearly visible beneath the short sleeves of his shirt. His hair was as sleek and black as a raven’s wing, combed back from his forehead to emphasise the finely chiselled planes of his face. Rosanna could not see what colour his eyes were, but they were large and liquid and his lips were full, yet firm and masculine in contrast to his skin, which was unusually pale for a Neapolitan.
Rosanna experienced a strange sensation in the pit of her stomach, the same fluttering feeling she had before a spelling test at school. She glanced across at Carlotta. She too was staring at the figure at the door.
‘Roberto, welcome.’ Marco signalled for Carlotta to follow him as he pushed through the crowd towards the door. He kissed Roberto on both cheeks. ‘I am so happy you have honoured us by coming here tonight. This is Carlotta, my daughter. I think she has grown up since last you saw her.’
Roberto looked Carlotta up and down. ‘Yes, Carlotta, you have grown up,’ he agreed.
He spoke in a deep, musical voice that caused Rosanna’s butterflies to flutter round her stomach once again.
‘And what of Luca, and . . . er . . . ?’
‘Rosanna?’ answered Papa.
‘Of course, Rosanna. She was only a few months old when I last saw her.’
‘They’re both well and . . .’ Marco stopped as he glanced beyond Roberto to two figures making their way up the cobbled street. ‘Hush, everybody, it’s Maria and Massimo!’
The assembled company immediately became silent, and a few seconds later, the door opened. Maria and Massimo stood at the entrance to the café, staring in surprise at the sea of familiar faces in front of them.
‘Mamma! Papa!’ Roberto stepped forward and embraced his parents. ‘Happy anniversary!’
‘Roberto!’ Maria’s eyes brimmed with tears as she hugged her son to her. ‘I cannot believe it, I cannot believe it,’ she repeated over and over.
‘More Prosecco for everyone!’ said Marco, grinning from ear to ear at the coup they had managed to pull off.
Rosanna helped Luca and Carlotta pass round the sparkling wine until everyone had a glass.
‘A little quiet, please.’ Marco clapped his hands. ‘Roberto wishes to speak.’
Roberto climbed onto a chair and smiled down at the guests. ‘Today is a very special occasion. My beloved mamma and papa are celebrating their thirtieth wedding anniversary. As everyone knows, they have lived here in the Piedigrotta all their lives, making a success of their bakery and amassing a multitude of good friends. They’re known as much for their kindness as they are for their wonderful bread. Anyone with a problem knows they will always find a sympathetic ear and sound advice behind the counter of Massimo’s. They’ve been the most loving parents I could have wished for . . .’ Roberto’s own eyes were moist as he watched his mamma wipe away a further tear. ‘They sacrificed much to send me away to the best music school in Milan so I could train to become an opera singer. Well, my dream is beginning to come true. I hope it won’t be long before I am singing at La Scala itself. And it’s all thanks to them. Let us toast to their continued happiness and good health.’ Roberto raised his glass. ‘To Mamma and Papa – Maria and Massimo.’
‘To Maria and Massimo!’ chorused the guests.
Roberto stepped down from the chair and fell into his mother’s arms amid much cheering.
‘Rosanna, come. We must help Papa serve the food,’ Antonia said, and ushered Rosanna out of the room and towards the kitchen.
Later, Rosanna watched Roberto as he talked to Carlotta, and then, when Marco had put records on the gramophone brought downstairs from their apartment, she saw how Roberto’s arms slipped naturally around Carlotta’s narrow waist as they danced together.
‘They make a handsome pair,’ whispered Luca, echoing Rosanna’s thoughts. ‘Giulio doesn’t look pleased, does he?’
Rosanna followed her brother’s gaze and saw Giulio still sitting in the corner, watching morosely as his girlfriend laughed happily in Roberto’s arms. ‘No, he doesn’t,’ she agreed.
‘You would like to dance, piccolina?’ Luca asked.
Rosanna shook her head, ‘No, thank you. I can’t dance.’ ‘Of course you can.’ Luca pulled her from her chair and into the crowd of guests who were dancing too.
‘Sing for me, Roberto, please,’ Rosanna heard Maria ask her son when the record stopped.
‘Yes, sing for us, sing for us,’ chanted the guests.
Roberto wiped his brow and shrugged his shoulders. ‘I will do my best, but it’s hard without accompaniment. I shall sing “Nessun dorma”.’
Silence descended as he began to sing.
Rosanna stood spellbound and listened to the magical sound of Roberto’s voice. As it ascended towards the climax and he stretched out his hands, he looked as if he were reaching towards her.
And that was the moment she knew she loved him.
There was thunderous applause, but Rosanna could not clap. She was too busy searching for her handkerchief to wipe away the involuntary tears that had trickled down her face.
‘Encore! Encore!’ everyone cried.
Roberto shrugged his shoulders and smiled. ‘Forgive me, ladies and gentlemen, but I must save my voice.’ There was a murmur of disappointment in the room as he resumed his place by Carlotta’s side.
‘Then Rosanna shall sing “Ave Maria”,’ said Luca. ‘Come, piccolina.’
Rosanna shook her head violently and remained rooted to the spot, a look of horror on her face.
‘Yes!’ Maria clapped her hands. ‘Rosanna has such a sweet voice, and it would mean much to me to hear her sing my favourite prayer.’
‘No, please, I . . .’ But Rosanna was swept up in Luca’s arms and placed on a chair.
‘Sing as you always do for me,’ whispered Luca gently to her.
Rosanna looked at the sea of faces smiling indulgently up at her. She took a deep breath and automatically opened her mouth. At first, her voice was small, barely more than a whisper; but as she began to forget her nervousness and lose herself in the music, her voice grew stronger.
Roberto, whose eyes had been preoccupied with Carlotta’s ample cleavage, heard the voice and looked up in disbelief. Surely such a pure, perfect sound could not be coming from the skinny little girl in the dreadful pink dress? But as he watched Rosanna, he no longer saw her sallow skin, or the way she seemed to be all arms and legs. Instead, he saw her huge, expressive brown eyes and noticed a hint of colour appear in her cheeks as her exquisite voice soared to a crescendo.
Roberto knew he was not listening to a schoolgirl perform her party piece. The ease with which she assailed the notes, her natural control and her obvious musicality were gifts that couldn’t be taught.
‘Excuse me,’ he whispered to Carlotta, as applause rang round the room. He crossed the café to Rosanna, who had just emerged from Maria’s enthusiastic embrace.
‘Rosanna, come and sit over here with me. I wish to talk to you.’ He led her to a chair, then sat down opposite her and took her small hands in his.
‘Bravissima, little one. You sang that beautiful prayer perfectly. Are you taking lessons?’
Too overwhelmed to look at him, Rosanna stared at the floor and shook her head.
‘Then you should be. It’s never too early to start. Why, if I had begun earlier, then . . .’ Roberto shrugged. ‘I shall talk to your papa. There’s a teacher here in Naples who used to give me singing lessons. He is one of the best. You must go to him immediately.’
Rosanna raised her eyes sharply and met his gaze for the first time. She saw now that his eyes were a deep, dark blue and full of warmth. ‘You think I have a good voice?’ she whispered incredulously.
‘Yes, little one, better than good. And with lessons, your gift can be encouraged and nurtured. Then one day I can say proudly it was Roberto Rossini who discovered you.’ He smiled at her, then kissed her hand.
Rosanna felt as if she might faint with pleasure.
‘Her voice is so sweet, is it not, Roberto?’ said Maria, appearing behind Rosanna and placing her hand on her shoulder.
‘It’s more than sweet, Mamma, it . . .’ Roberto waved his hands expressively. ‘It is a gift from God, like my own.’
‘Thank you, Signor Rossini,’ was all Rosanna could manage.
‘Now,’ said Roberto, ‘I shall go and find your papa.’
Rosanna glanced up and saw that several guests were looking at her with the same warmth and admiration usually reserved for Carlotta.
A glow spread through her body. It was the first time in her life that anyone had told her she was special.
At half past ten, the party was still in full swing.
‘Rosanna, it’s time you went to your bed.’ Her mother appeared by her side. ‘Go say goodnight to Maria and Massimo.’
‘Yes, Mamma.’ Rosanna weaved her way carefully through the dancers. ‘Goodnight, Maria.’ Rosanna kissed her on both cheeks.
‘Thank you for singing for me, Rosanna. Roberto is still talking about your voice.’
‘Indeed I am.’ Roberto appeared behind Rosanna. ‘I’ve given the name and address of the singing teacher to both your papa and Luca. Luigi Vincenzi used to coach at La Scala and a few years ago he retired here to Naples. He’s one of the best teachers in Italy and still takes talented pupils. When you see him, say that I sent you.’
‘Thank you, Roberto.’ Rosanna blushed under his gaze.
‘You have a very special gift, Rosanna. You must take care to cherish it. Ciao, little one.’ Roberto took her hand to his mouth and kissed it. ‘We will meet again one day, I am sure of it.’
Upstairs in the bedroom she shared with Carlotta, Rosanna pulled her nightgown over her head, then reached under her mattress and pulled out her diary. Finding the pencil she kept in her underwear drawer, she climbed onto the bed and, brow furrowed in concentration, began to write.
‘16th August. Massimo and Maria’s party . . .’
Rosanna chewed the end of her pencil as she tried to remember the exact words Roberto had spoken to her. After carefully writing them down, she smiled in pleasure and closed the diary. Then she lay back on her pillow, listening to the sounds of music and laughter from downstairs.
A few minutes later, unable to sleep, she sat up. And, reopening her diary, picked up her pencil and added another sentence.
‘One day, I will marry Roberto Rossini.’
Excerpted from The Italian Girl by Lucinda Riley. Copyright © Lucinda Edmonds 1996. Revised edition copyright Lucinda Riley 2014.
First published as Aria 1996 by Simon & Schuster. This revised and updated edition published 2014 by Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world http://www.panmacmillan.com.
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