We are in Naples in 1926 and the great Italian tenor, Rocco Campobello is recovering from an illness that nearly killed him. In fact, there was one moment, in the depths of his emergency operation, in which he did momentarily cross over to the other side, and in this moment he experienced a revelation that was also a brokering of a spiritual deal. He would survive, and when his life was restored to him, he would settle his account on earth, he would ‘put his house in order’. The story of The Maestro’s Voice by Roland Vernon is about the afterlife of ambition, about what happens when the delusions of fame and fortune are revealed as insubstantial and damaging to the genuine joy of living. But this is far from being a philosophical novel. It’s much more of a thriller, as Rocco Campobello must fight for his right not to sing, when so many people are determined that he should make a magnificent comeback.
Rocco Campobello has become a legend. Mostly this is due to his marvelous voice and his talent for dramatization, but he’s also been in the right place at the right time, able to take advantage of the earliest recording techniques to become a household name. He has changed the sound of opera and become a prototype to be followed for decades to come. But such success has inevitably been costly in other ways. In a series of flashbacks, the narrative shows us the route Campobello has taken from his early days in the backstreets of Naples when he and his friend, Gabriele Tomassini, dreamed of being taken into the one good choir in their area. Both are fine singers, but it’s Rocco who is ambitious and who will do anything to leave behind poverty and the blacksmith’s job for which he is destined. Gradually we learn about the early betrayals that Rocco commits in order to further his career, and which haunt him now. And we gain a picture of a man who has sacrificed everything that is gentle, loving and ordinary to the cultivation of his precious and extraordinary Voice until it has become a monster of demands, adored and fêted by the public, cosseted and spoiled by Rocco himself, an entity in its own right that is repeatedly represented as the symbol and the site of a Faustian pact.
In fact, Faustian pacts abound in this narrative, as Rocco has made any number of them to gain his monumental career. Now that he is aware he was doing business with the devil, how can he break the agreement in a way that saves him and spares those he loves? His biggest difficulty lies with his allegiance to the mob, and to the elderly but still powerful Don Graziani, who controls every element of his life. But Graziani has his own problems, notably the rise of Fascism, with its a new breed of men determined to wrest control of Italy away from the old networks, and a son, Bruno, who has recently come running back from New York, where he has left a trail of heinous crimes behind him. Bruno lacks his father’s subtleties and his good sense and has only inherited his taste for violent means of manipulation. He has seized on the idea of Rocco’s comeback as a vehicle for his own ambitions in theatre management, and of course there is a great deal of money at stake. Rocco’s resistance to the whole idea of resuming his career is an obstacle he refuses to acknowledge.
So it’s Rocco versus the mafia, with the secondary characters of the narrative lining up their loyalties on either side of the divide. The Grazianis have two doctors on their pocket, who are ready to falsify the medical reports and lie to Rocco about the state of his health. But Rocco has some devoted members of his household, notably his secretary Pietro Boldoni and his accompanist, Wallace Pickering, although these are men with secrets to hide. Then there’s Rocco’s disenchanted wife, Molly, who is only interested in making sure her life of luxury continues. And finally, Rocco traces the son of his old friend Gabriele Tomassini, who turns out to be a highly promising opera singer himself. The plot twists and turns as each character fights for nothing less than their survival.
Reading this book was exactly like watching one of those lavish drama productions that the BBC occasionally puts on. There isn’t much psychological depth, but this is more than compensated by the vividness of the landscape in which the story takes place. The writing is lush and sensuous and highly evocative. The characters are richly created, despite being essentially goodies and baddies, and the plot brings them cleverly into conflict. Naples in the early years of the twentieth century is brought beautifully to life, its slums, its underground passages, its glamorous villas and its scintillating scrum of rich and poor. Vernon writes about opera with authority that clearly comes from experience and passion. Altogether it’s a bouillabaisse of a book, a thick Mediterranean stew in which all kinds of disparate ingredients come together in satisfying harmony. I do have a few quibbles: sometimes the sheer weight of exposition kills the pace of the book (although the descriptions are uniformly good), the initially intriguing character of Molly becomes a bit incoherent, her development somewhat sidelined in the plot, and a very promising inquiry into the links between religion and celebrity is only ever hinted at when I would have liked to have seen it pursued. But these are minor concerns and didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the narrative. This is a good intelligent holiday book, one to swallow you up in the experience of a different world and to dazzle you with some vibrant prose.