She knew what she shouldn’t do. But the harpsichord’s graceful frame wasn’t the only one within reach.
“I told you, don’t lean on anything!”
She was forgiving and forgiven, but mostly frustrated with her voice that felt trapped in her head.
“Like the wind worked into a gale.” Alessandro stood up and took her in his arms, his fingers climbing her spine.
Surprise disguised shame as she didn’t resist him.
“Most singers won’t wear corsetti. Haven’t you noticed the size of their waists?”
She wondered how he might make fun of her.
“No frowning. Sing and weep. Never frown.” He lifted her arms. “Sigh. For me.”
She had to admit he was making it easier and easier to do so.
“Keep your arms up.” His hands pushed against her diaphragm. “Make it a sliding note, higher, higher,” he dropped them from the inflation of her breasts, “with body and voice until you can’t feel any difference,” to her waist. “Reach from your toes.”
She held on to pleasing him and not just as he wanted her to sing. She was learning, positioned to rise above the inexperience of her voice and fall for the consequence of his instruction, forgetting herself and willing to defy anyone or anything that might prevent her going further. He clapped and returned to the harpsichord, propping a knee on its seat, his fingers leading on the keyboard, his eyes directed toward the lyrics in front of him.
She added them to the tune she wasn’t familiar with, either, faltering, like a baby beginning to talk or her father attempting Italian. Alessandro realized he was playing too fast, not patient but willing to accompany her until she could handle it the other way around. She appreciated his tolerance and did her best to show him, slowly putting the words together into melody and meaning, phrases rolling, his encouragement exaggerating her ability.
He conducted with the sway of his head. “Entice! Enjoy! They’re not just notes, but many avventure, one giving way for the next.”
Her breath and soprano’s range were reaching their limit.
“Don’t struggle. Think of a kiss. Soften your mouth. Open it, lift your tongue.”
She understood how he got himself in trouble but also made the best singers.
“No. Birds. Think of how they hold their bodies and announce their throats before they make a sound. They believe they’re made for singing. They don’t try, don’t strain, and don’t hang on. They know they have to do it.” He gave his hand and heart to the music, remembering a stage warmed by candles and great passions. “Like flying. Or mating. Or dying.”
She was silent.
“You’re giving up?”
“I need a lower key.”
“But … you said … the high note isn’t all.”
“Sometimes I say things I don’t mean.” He rose to adjust her posture, gentler maneuvering her head, gliding around her. “But always, the range of a voice is like the heart for amore.” Her neck was alert to his next move. “According to the available singers or lovers.”
Donatella continued to imagine someone walking in, whether a suspicious relation or just reliable and unreliable servant bringing limonata or, now it was almost December, mulled wine. A lady would know how to pretend she wasn’t compromised by anything than what was supposed and a gentleman would let her have her innocence.
“Oh, I must hear Stradella.” Master Purcell swung out his arms as though into an embrace.
“Let me choose.” Mama was irresistibly devious, lifting page after page.
“Something lighthearted and melodious, if you please.” the young composer’s arms dropped. “As I feel sure he would have wished to entertain us.”
“It is here.”
“No, Mama.” Donatella realized her mother’s discovery and an ache in her stomach.
Master Purcell was soon performing the selected music with his eyes and a delicate finger in the air. “Will you sing it, Mistress?”
“Yes, yes. With my daughter, Donata, as she is shy. It’s her specialty.”
“Really?” Master Purcell screwed his mouth, skeptical but interested.
“In fact, Maestro Stradella might’ve written it for her.”
“Oh, no, Mama. In Rome, before—”
“You knew him?” Master Purcell motioned for Lonati who had been listening without comprehending what should have provoked him into having his say. “I would like to hear this, Carlo. I don’t see a bass viol, but Reggio can improvise. The ladies will sing. There’s only one score.”
“I know it by heart.” Donatella blindly stepped back into her mother’s arms.
“Of course you do, darling,” Mama’s soft voice blew into her ear.
“Ah.” Purcell was watching them closely, and then turned back to Lonati, who was explaining the music to Reggio.
There was the appropriate silence before Lonati was as elegant and amiable with bow and violin as no other activity afforded him. With every stroke, nod and faraway expression, he was an echo of Alessandro, exacting the very best from the composition and the late composer’s nature, generous with his talent, uninhibited with his playing, making the music his own only as he adored it. His reminiscent virtuosity swept Donatella onto the waves of Le donne più bella like a ship with a steady breeze in its sails, Reggio’s archlute-continuo encouraging the rolling sensation. Her mother’s grasp of her arm and escorting vocal weakened, soon leaving Donatella alone with each poetic turn of phrase and melodic ornamentation.
Donatella listened, the sound of her singing always a surprise. She grew more and more trusting as she interpreted the aria with good legato, shading and tone, her jaw relaxed and her tongue in the proper position, her chest lifted but not too proud. Lonati flourished in-between her dreamy declarations, Reggio constant until the end that softened and lingered in harmony with her final passage.
She kept her eyes closed, the silence longer than before the performance, as though her singing had not only used up her breath but everyone else’s, too.
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