DELITTI ALLA SCALA (Murders at “La Scala”)
published by Fazi, 2003
Translated in German by ROWOHLT
The Scala had a perfectly running mechanism resembling the one from a Swiss watch.
Everything was foreseen, except the possibility for a murder.
A thriller based on the world of the opera, an enthralling tale, captivating from the very first pages.
Milan, “La Scala Theatre”, the opening of the opera season is marked by the first show of “La Traviata”. Just two hours before the doors open to the public, the Art Director, Mr Luca Gentile Modotti, falls down from the theatre balcony and dies.
Ruggero Solara, an attorney from Rome, who only recently moved to Milan, is in charge of the investigation. He knows very little of Milan and its motions, but most of all he knows very little of the La Scala theatre and decides to congeal the crime scene, thus canceling the show.
It is the very first time in the history of the most prestigious opera theatre of the world, nothing similar has ever happened and the echo is sensational. But that is not going to be the only murder.
When the opera is finally performed the soprano is killed on stage. Then it is the turn of an unaware Japanese onlooker. There is a general feeling of dismay and panic, the entire life of the city seems to be paralyzed. It is now finally clear that the real target of the murderer is the theatre.
Why? What is the reason for so much hate? The investigation will bring the attorney Ruggero Solara to discover a surprising and fascinating Milan, a city rich of history and culture but where rivalry and resentment lay beneath the surface.
Most of all he will be involved in the magic of the La Scala, the real protagonist of the novel together with the music. The trap set forth by the Attorney and the Orchestra director will turn this investigation thriller, permeated by slight glooms and strong sentiments, into a psychological thriller, full of action. However in the end the murderer will be granted a merciful glance.
That was his rite. A personal,
secret rite. A mixture of counter-spell, emotion and renewed marvel. No one knew
about it and he would certainly have denied it, hiding behind the ironic look in
his intelligent eyes. By denying it, though, he would have felt a pang in his
heart and, hiding his fingers in the pocket of his jacket, he would have crossed
them against evil spirits. He smiled about himself. What a contradictory man he
was! He had a degree in engineering, and yet he had submerged himself in the
theatre. He had been trained to have a scientific mentality, and yet he was as
superstitious as a fisherman. His reason led him to acute perceptiveness, yet he
always yielded to emotions. He was sincerely in love with his wife, and yet he
could not prevent himself from continually betraying her…
Unlike most men, he took pleasure in analysing the several aspects of his character and in trying to understand their origins and motivations. He studied his actions and feelings as if they belonged to someone else, he judged them and classified them. Then, invariably, he justified them all, with quiet magnanimity. To ponder about himself gave him pleasure, but this was really not the right moment for thoughts.
The premičre at the Teatro alla Scala was only two hours away, he had to hurry. In few minutes, with his elegant pace, springy up to the last step of the five flights of stairs, he got to the gallery: the place consecrated to his rite.
From up there, the view of the theatre was magnificent and after nine years of daily attendance, he was still conquered by it. He leaned his elbows on the brass handrail over the low balustrade covered in red velvet; he rested his chin on his long entwined hands and lazily cast his glance around.
The light of the large sconces all along the boxes was vividly reflected on the golden stuccoes, but it turned into a soft, almost mellow gleam, to brighten the scarlet velvet of the seats in the stalls.
In the half-light, the florists moved confidently, rapidly sorting out infinite decorations of red and white roses, followed by the cleaners. Wearing their austere uniforms, the ushers were carrying out their last tour of inspection, talking in a low voice. Everywhere, in the large horseshoe-shaped house, along the corridors, all along the seats, in the boxes, among the innumerable Murano glass globes of the huge chandelier, a tingle of excitement and of expectation was perceived. It was in the air, you could almost breath it. Even the heavy ruby and golden curtain seemed anxious to burst up to the great music.
Luca Gentile Modotti, who had been artistic director of the Teatro alla Scala for nine years, was about to propitiate the opening of the season for the ninth time. His rite was simple and childish, and for this reason unavowable.
As soon as appointed to that job, for some reason he had found himself in the gallery, while the last arrangements for the premičre were being made. He tried to calm down by rapidly counting, mumbling, the six hundred and ninety-eight seats of the stalls. Had he counted up to the six hundred ninety-eighth seat without making any mistake, he had said to himself, the season would have been a success. He had not gone wrong and the season had been wonderful.
As a consequence, every 7th of December, at around four, four fifteen, he had gone back there, with the tension, the humility and the sense of mystery of whoever has made a vow, to count them again. Ridiculous? He had wondered. An absolute necessity, he had answered himself. He was in love - theatre for him was true love - so the very idea of ridicule was inexistent.
The lights were turned off. Total darkness. Then they were all lit up, to their peak. The three hundred sixty-five bulbs of the huge chandelier glowed and then were dimmed down to darkness, while the ones of the sconces settled on a light gleam.
The light test was finally over. Now, he could start counting. He straightened up, resting his hands on the cold brass of the handrail. He inhaled, exhaled and then inhaled again. He was ready.
“One two three four five six seven eight nine ten eleven”. He had got to one hundred and seventeen, when he was gripped by the ankles, his legs were pulled up high and he was thrown forwards and into the void. Instinctively, he had seized the handrail, his hands contracted with terror. Two short and hard blows on his fingers had made him let go of the hold.
He pitched down, screaming. He crashed on a sconce, tilted on himself and collapsed headlong on the scarlet carpeting; to be accurate, between seats 1-X and 1-V on the left side.
He was anxious and did not know why. Actually, he was anxious and did not want to wonder why.
“When something upsets us, we always know what it is, but we prefer to hide it to ourselves”. The sentence, typical of Marta’s way of passing judgement, echoed in his mind. He cancelled it with difficulty. Whatever concerned Marta was difficult to cancel, for better or for worse. And, in the end, that was the reason why Ruggero Solara was there now, in that office, in Milan.
He took his glasses off and massaged the bridge of his nose; he stared at the shapes that all of a sudden had become indefinite and had started floating all around him. He realized that his anxiety had been with him since that morning, to be accurate, since he had awoken abruptly, at six, with a headache and a nasty taste in his mouth, in the deep shadow of his room. Ok, too much whisky drunk, all alone, the previous night caused the headache and the nasty taste in his mouth. But what had awoken him so early? He remembered he had started listening. The residential hotel was immersed in silence. A sound from outside, maybe? To understand what it had been, he had gone to the window, had pulled the shutters up and had passed a hand on the glass, misted with humidity, to look outside.
The yellow, intermittent light of the garbage truck that had woken him up with its clang was being dimmed against the grey fog that surrounded it, slowly effacing it. He had suddenly remembered about when he was a child and had had fun rinsing his mother’s paint brushes. Looking into the jar, he was always amazed at how a hint of black colour could turn the clear water into a strange opaque grey liquid, against which the rest of the lively colours, furred on the sides, fought for a few instants before disappearing.
That was when he had been caught by anxiety. Sure, because something inside him had associated the vagueness of that image with the vagueness of his future, suddenly so different from what he had thought for years he would have had in store.
No, no introspection. That was Marta’s specialty and Marta could not be allowed to strike again. Not right then. He had work to do. He put his glasses back on and, immediately, the attorney’s office retrieved its definite outlines..
White walls, a calendar, a black-and-white picture of horse-drawn carriages strolling in front of the Duomo, a clear grey wood desk, a mouse-grey file, anthracite grey outside the window. Had he not been an attorney who had just been transferred, thought Solara, he would have placed something coloured on his desk. A plant, a stone, a picture, a ream of yellow paper, something that could raise his morale, in short, something that was not grey-depression. But he told himself it was better not to, at least for the moment. Better not to be immediately labelled as an oddball and quickly adapt to the environment.
It was the penalty that had to be paid when one changed seat, and he was glad to pay for it, even the more so because he fully realized it had worked out very well for him. His name was at the top of the list because of his CV, certainly, but also because luck was on his side. The bulletins with the vacant seats had been issued in a period in which he had been overflowing with impotent rage, so he had signed for all the available seats, from Milan southwards, he could not even remember which. He could have been appointed to Nuoro, or Enna, as far as he knew.
It had so happened that to run away from Marta, he had also run away from Rome. He had no regrets, he had done the right thing, he was truly convinced of this. In a short time he would have adjusted. He would have enjoyed Milan.
He grabbed the file on top of the heap and plunged into work. He had all the time he wanted and the utmost tranquillity. His colleagues had all disappeared for a long weekend and nobody would have knocked at his door during that afternoon, on S. Ambrogio’s day.
“Solara”, he answered resentfully, focussing on the stocky figure of the usher who, without knocking, had appeared at the door of his office, breathless.
“I’m sorry, Sir, but it’s written wrong here…”
He was nervously waving a sheet, presumably listing the duty schedule of the day, impatient to say what he had to say.
“You’re the magistrate on duty, right?”.
“Yes, it’s me. What’s going on?”.
“The police called… there is a dead man!”.
“A dead man?”.
He examined him, wondering if the usher was as upset each time the attorney’s office was contacted for a removal order.
“Yes, a dead man, and on this very day, at the Scala!” squirmed even more the usher, “what a terrible thing to happen!”.
“What do you mean, “on this very day”? What’s so special today?”.
“Today is the 7th of December, Sir!” almost yelled the usher, forgetting his poise as Milanese public employee.
“Today is the opening day at the Scala!”.
Solara eyed him. He did not like to label people, but it was instinctive. The usher was chunky, he had large hands and feet and an attitude of deference that seemed ancestral. He was surely the son of poor people who had suffered much hardship to make sure he got his junior high school degree, many years before. Why was he so upset for the premičre of a theatre he had probably never set his foot in?
The fog is said to disappear, to lift. On the contrary, the fog of that day seemed trodden on the asphalt and against the walls by a sky that was slowly turning into lead. It was as if the fog had consolidated, covering everything with its humid and opaque patina. Even the people that were hurrying along the sidewalks or that were crossing the opening in front of the attorney’s office, careful not to place their feet in the slippery slits of the rails, seemed covered with the same patina. Everything had slightly blurred outlines. As it had become, edgeless, the world seemed unnaturally compliant.
The attorney checked the lenses of his glasses to make sure they were not dirty, then he pulled up his coat lapel and walked down to the foot of the stairs to wait for the service car.
Before being transferred, he had been to Milan three or four times, as a tourist or incidentally, and he had seen the Duomo, the Gallery, the Cenacolo, but he had never got a chance to get an idea of that city as a whole. Therefore, once he knew he had been appointed there, he had found a map and he had perseveringly studied the topography of the city, not to feel too uneasy. He had scrupulously learnt the position of all the districts, the names of the junctions and of the stations of the subway, the position of all the most important buildings and the streets to be used to move from one place to the other. By car, he would have had some difficulty, because of the no-entry and the one-way streets, but on foot, he felt he could go anywhere.
For example, he would have gladly gone to the Scala on foot, both to smell the strange air of that day, and to stretch a little. He did not remember he had ever passed in front of it, but he knew it was not very far.
Largo Augusto, via Cavallotti, piazza Beccaria… it would have taken him at least fifteen, twenty minutes, walking with a good stride. Therefore, he would have neither arrived with the promptness he deemed due to a death, nor with the decency requested by his position, providing the attorney’s office car was decent.
As a matter of fact, the car, a blue Fiat Marea, was decent but, when he arrived in front of the theatre, nobody took notice of it.
Even Ruggero Solara had occasionally skimmed over the columns on the premičre of the Scala, giving in to the curiosity for those inserts, interviews, articles which filled newspapers and magazines at the beginning of December, with high praises for such and such a director, a tenor, an opera or a soprano. Yet, they had never given him any idea of the animation he happened to find when he got there. Only in some American films, the ones about the splendour of the rise of a star, had he seen so many cars, so many taxis, so many cameras and so many people crowded in front of the doors of a theatre.
There were beautiful women, as well as women who pretended to be beautiful, and men somewhat pompous and with a complacent attitude. All men wore a dinner jacket, a black coat and a white silk scarf. Women displayed glamorous and incredible styles and colours, involving everything, from hairdos to furs and dresses, as a proof of the obstinacy with which they had been after a handful of original ideas and of the naturalness with which they had signed checks to secure them for themselves.
They smiled, they greeted one another, they shook hands and smacked little kisses in the air, while approaching the doors of the theatre, trying to identify, out of the corner of their eyes, the most favourable camera, or the one of the most “prestigious” TV news.
There was an aura of excitement and sumptuousness, which seemed to clash with the strange sobriety of the theatre, all coated in a soft mist, which softened the light of the four cast-iron street lamps placed over the façade balcony, and the one slightly more sparkling of the three spherical chandeliers in the entrance hall.
There was no impressive stairway leading to the entrance, nor pompous decorations, in short, nothing majestic; only that entrance hall, running along a stretch of the façade, opening in three simple arches in correspondence with the three green entrance doors. Probably, it had been built mainly for practical reasons, so that the ladies could get off the carriages, sheltered from the rain. Over the entrance hall, there was a balcony, all in all quite modest, decorated with flowering vases, with French windows, surmounted by small gables. Between one French window and the other, there were couples of half columns with capitals that /could have been Corinthian, if the attorney remembered correctly the notions of history of art learnt at high school. Above everything, a large triangular gable.
All considered, the famous Teatro alla Scala of the city of Milan, in the splendour of the day of its vaunted premičre, did not impress him that much. He leapt out of the car, he forced his way through swarms of furs and clouds of perfumes and identified some policemen, who eyed the crowd with the puzzled expression of a person who is trying to recognize someone he has never met before. He introduced himself and went back to forcing his way through the crowd and finally got to the theatre auditorium.
A corpse, especially if it is such due to a violent death, does not raise straightaway the pity which is due to it. It raises, instead, a combination of contradictory feelings – the awe for the sudden presence of death, the attention for the victim, the curiosity for the murderer’s identity, the mental image of the dynamics of the event, the repugnance for the bloody and dishevelled conditions in which often the corpse is found, the unfailing thought of one’s own death, the consequent dismay, which often dissolves into tears… And even the trouble and concern for the discomfort that such a sudden death implies, as well as the intolerance or indifference with which some get ready for their nth routine job.
All these feelings, in various degrees of emotion, were stamped on the faces of the small group of people gathered around the remains of Luca Gentile Modotti.
“Mr Attorney, finally!”
The man in dinner jacket, who had interrupted his extremely nervous tos and fros from the end of the auditorium to the stage and back to plant himself in front of Solara, seemed to be in the grip of a violent feverish attack. His black and darting eyes were shiny and his face incredibly pale. His hands were slightly trembling and words almost overlapped in his mouth.
“The public is already at the entrance, you saw it. The doors should be open already. Please, give your consent to the removal or whatever it’s called, so that the poor Modotti can be taken away. It is a terrible misfortune, I am awfully sorry, believe me, but shortly there is going to be the premičre, and we are already late. The show…”
Solara, already annoyed, stared at him.
“Excuse me, who are you?”
The man slightly flinched and stood up in all his considerable height.
“He is Giandomenico Berri, the superintendent of the theatre, Mr Attorney” calmly butted in a sturdy forty-year-old who seemed extremely scruffy, even though dressed normally. “And I am commissioner Guidetti, of the Milan Central Police Station. My men were already on site and called me immediately. I arrived a few minutes after the event”.
The superintendent was about to say something, but the attorney interrupted him with a sudden gesture and focussed his attention on the commissioner.
“How come your men were already here?”
“The theatre is under our jurisdiction and in evenings such as this one, with many celebrities, even our Head of State, we also coordinate the security service. I am ready to deliver you a report”.
“At four forty-seven”, started relating the commissioner, “Luca Gentile Modotti”, the artistic director of the theatre, crashed down in the auditorium. Maybe from a box, maybe further up, from one of the two galleries. Nobody knows why he was there. Anyhow, the florists, the cleaners, the ushers and a few people in charge of the security were still in the auditorium. All of them were stopped, but nobody has seen anything. They only heard a scream, then the crash. Naturally, we didn’t have the time to carry out the formal questioning yet. The doctor on duty, who intervened immediately…”
“Is there also a doctor on duty?”
“Yes, there are five or six, here at the Scala. There is always someone, including an otolaryngologist. You know, for the singers… So, I was saying that the doctor on duty immediately confirmed his death. Everybody thought it had been an accident, they thought that he had fainted. The balustrade of the galleries is not that high…”.
“And what then?”.
“It is better if she tells you directly”.
The attorney followed the commissioner’s eyes and met the golden eyes of a woman seated with crossed legs on the armrest of one of the seats. Her legs were considerable, but her eyes attracted all his attention. They were big, steady and the colour of honey. Solara knew only too well that Marta had made him deaf and blind to all the other women, nevertheless he was surprised he had not noticed her before.
Federica Navarro stood up and, with a slight movement of her head, she shook the crop of her red hair - her fair complexion speckled with freckles warranted the colour was natural. She stood up, but did not move from where she was. Always used to tributes from men, it was natural for her to wait for them, attorneys and commissioners included, to move towards her.
“It is neither an accident, nor a suicide, Mr Attorney” she started, going straight to the point, “Come, I’ll show you”.
The body of the artistic director had been covered with a brilliant green brocade drape embroidered with gold, that a compassionate usher had quickly gone to fetch at the dressmaking department. Maybe it was meant to shine on stage, as the jacket of a Duke of Mantova or the cloak of a Turandot. On the contrary, it clashed on the dark red moquette. Furthermore, its rich weave could not dissimulate the disarticulated disarray of the corpse.
The doctor pulled up an edge of the brocade and Solara was suddenly staring at two wide blue eyes. They seemed to be contemplating the puddle of black blood, spreading out around it as a halo of death.
“Instant death. The skull smashed on impact with the ground and the neck-bone broke”.
She carefully covered the face, but left the hands out.
“Now look” she went on, “some of the bones in his fingers are broken. You see the haematoma? It is like a continuous line on the fingers, as if they had been hit sideways. It’s impossible he broke them like that when falling, otherwise his wrists and his arms would have been broken as well as the bones of his fingers… so he must have broken them before pitching down. Since it is impossible for someone to walk around the theatre with his fingers broken in that way, instead of rushing to the infirmary…”
“…it can be deduced that while falling” went on Solara “he tried to hang on to something and that he was hit to force him into releasing the grip”.
“You should be a police doctor”.
It was a compliment and Federica Navarro accepted it as such, but could not refrain from grimacing.
“Not me. I detest the dead. I prefer by far to deal with live men”.
And she smiled.
“Mr Attorney, the show!”. Paler and more nervous than ever, the superintendent approached in with long strides. “Not long now to curtain up. Can you have the corp… I mean, the body of poor Modotti removed immediately?”.
“It’s impossible. Not immediately, in any case. It’s a homicide”. “Homicide?! Here? At the Scala?” cried out Berri devastated.
Solara spread his arms out. He had witnessed homicides everywhere. Even in a Zen meditation retreat once.
The superintendent darted another flustered glance at his watch.
“Whatever it is, homicide or disgrace, can you manage to remove it, let’s say, in twenty minutes? At the most, believe me. The premičre has to begin at six p.m. on the dot. It is the tradition”.
It did not happen often, but sometimes his blood rushed in his veins, it made his neck swell, it started throbbing in his temples and his vision blurred. In short, his blood rushed to his head. Afterwards, he thought about it and he could never decide whether he should have controlled and restrained himself, as a civilized person, or whether he had done the right thing in unleashing his temper, at least enough to get things back into place and release tension with a good fit of anger, giving free rein to his nature.
Whatever, when his blood rushed to his head, Ruggero Solara did give free rein to his nature..
“The premičre will start when I say so!” he shouted “That’s not going to happen before the pathologist and the forensic team have carried out their job and not before this theatre has been turned upside down from top to bottom!”.
Giandomenico Berri was totally speechless. Nobody had shouted at him since, when he was six, he had scratched the burgundy Bentley of his uncle Alvise with a nail. It was incredible. And whatever that lunatic was saying was even more incredible. Within dozens of minutes the President of the Republic, the Minister of Culture and maybe even the Prime Minister would arrive. And then other ministers, an array of under-secretaries, celebrated actors and actresses, high finance magnates, chairmen of the most prestigious companies… extremely important people he could certainly not leave outside the theatre, to crowd outside the doors… He made an effort and roused himself from dismay. His voice came out as a wheeze.
“Mr Attorney, I don’t know how to explain this to you. Never, in the whole history of the Scala, has a premičre been cancelled…”.
“There is always a first time”, interrupted him Solara, turning his back to the superintendent to address the commissioner. “Send everybody out. Have them wait somewhere around for the questioning. Then call the forensic team and the pathologist…”.
“It’s very unfair!” exploded the superintendent, “an abuse! It’s inconceivable! I’ll call the chief prosecutor, I’ll call the minister!”.
“Call whomever you want, but now get out! Everybody out!”.
He plumped himself down on a seat, took his glasses off and stayed there for a long time. He gazed into the void, as he always did without even realizing it, when he needed to sum up his thoughts.
From the closed doors, he could hear, muffled, the lively buzz of the public getting ready to enjoy the show and, why not? to be a protagonist in it. Then, the voices lowered, to burst out abruptly into thousands of incredulous exclamations, into excited cries, into isolated shouts. Finally, little by little, the din diminished, until it vanished.
That was when he put his glasses back on and, for the first time, he looked around carefully. So that was the temple of music, the most famous theatre in the world, the boards on which the greatest artists boasted they had appeared.
Four levels of cream-colour boxes departed from an impressive central box and embraced the red auditorium, stretching towards the closed drapes of the velvet grand curtain. A huge chandelier hung from the arched ceiling, entirely decorated with clear panels. Its glass globes seemed supported only by hairline chains of faceted crystals.
Everything was motionless, there was total silence.
It lasted a moment: Solara had the impression he had been catapulted into a place outside time and space, where one could feel the presence, the emotions and the feelings of whoever had trod those boards, had played in the orchestra pit, had sat in that auditorium, had crowded those boxes and galleries…whoever had loved that theatre.
An odd sensation, never felt before, that was cut short by the arrival of the six members of the forensic team, followed hot on their heels by the police doctor, by Commissioner Guidetti and by a tall forty-year-old gentleman, dressed with refined elegance. He had luxuriant hair, cut very short and prematurely grey. The profuse wrinkles he had at the corner of his eyes were a proof he often smiled, even though right then he had neither a reason nor the will to.
He formally introduced himself as Demetrio Boldini, assistant supervisor of the theatre press office, who placed himself at Solara’s disposal.