By Gayle Carline
Celina frantically looked about her as the executioner placed the noose around her neck and pulled it tight. Where is Paulo? My God, where is he?
“Loosen the knot, Gregory,” she hissed under her breath.
The young man in tights blushed and fumbled with the noose as the chorus around them swelled.
“Kill her!” they sang, “Kill her! Kill the witch of the Moors!”
The blended voices rose to a crescendo, to be cut off by the entrance of the hero, Panini. This was supposed to be Paulo’s entrance - Paulo Pestaccio, the famous tenor. The voices soared, wavered, cracked, and rose again, waiting for him to sing out, “Alto!”
When at last they had reached the end of their musical tether, a plump figure slid out from offstage, tripping on the curtain’s tail as he pulled his sword out of its scabbard.
“Halt-O,” he shouted as his sword flew from his hands, across the stage. Paulo planted his small, slippered feet, and wobbled to a stop, his belly taking a few more spins before it came to rest.
“Magda,” he crooned. “Madamina, il catalogo è questo.”
Celina rolled her eyes. Oh, my God, he’s drunk, singing Don Giovanni. She looked around at the chorus. Their faces were alternately pale and flushed, depending upon whether they were mortified or merely embarrassed. They looked at her, their eyes so large she could almost see their optic nerves.
“Panini,” she sang, interrupting the drunken tenor. “Panini, you must not risk your life to save mine.”
Paulo stopped singing and stared at his heroine. He was silent for a moment, before launching into another line, “Osservate, leggete con me. In Italia seicento e quaranta–”
“Again, I say,” Celina ad-libbed, her high soprano vibrating in her throat. “Panini! You must stop this foolishness!”
She looked desperately at the chorus. One man, a bass, decided to help her out. Turning to the crowd, he sang, “He must stop this foolishness.”
“Stop this foolishness,” the chorus echoed.
Paulo regarded the faces on the stage, dazed and confused. “In Alemagna duecento e trentuna?”
“No, Panini, no,” Celina sang as she elbowed Gregory upstage. “Your battle will be for naught.” Leaning her head toward her executioner, she snapped, “Do something!”
The chorus, hearing a reprieve of their previous song from the orchestra, began singing, “Kill her.” Once again, they arrived at the spot where Panini would interrupt. As they turned to Paulo to sing the last note, several members of the cast took an extra breath.
The great tenor was too busy searching for his sword amidst the scenery upstage. Celina and Gregory looked at each other. Gregory shrugged, and sang out, “Alto!”
The chorus turned and stared at him.
“I love her,” he sang. “I love her and she shall not die.” Emboldened by his improvisation, he continued, to a full-bodied finale, “The Witch of the Moors shall not die!”
Ripping the noose from the diva’s neck, he grabbed her by the waist and sailed offstage, as the curtain fell. The audience applauded, tentatively at first, then politely at last. Celina grabbed Paulo and shoved him into the wings, then ran out for the perfunctory curtain call. No encores were requested, so the men and women of the chorus scampered back to their dressing areas, leaving the Celina and Gregory to deal with the drunken man, who had passed out, his green velvet coat flipped forward, exposing his spandex-stretching rump.
“What the hell are we going to do with him now?” Gregory asked the director. “We’ve got two more weeks of this opera to do, and he can’t even stay sober through opening night!”
The director, a small, spectacled man with a nervous twitch, patted Gregory’s shoulder. “Now, now, my boy, don’t worry, we’ll take care of him, somehow. He just needs to be handled. It’ll be fine.”
“It won’t be fine,” Celina said as she stomped across the stage. “You can’t control him, and I won’t have him ruining our little play.” She paused at the rotund Italian, snoring in the corner. Bending over, the robust beauty took his ear in her delicately manicured fingers and twisted it.
He howled and rose to his feet, a victim of her persuasion.
“Come with me, Paulo,” she said, and led him off to her dressing room. Once inside, she opened a box of vials, and took out a bowl.
“Eye of newt and wart of frog,” she hummed, closing the door. Smiling, the witch held the tenor’s mouth open and poured in a green liquid.
“I always wanted a little dog.” A small cackle escaped her.
The official report was that Paulo Pestaccio had caught the first jet back to Roma, after artistic differences with the director. Gregory’s lilting tenor gave him the role of Panini, and Celina never went anywhere without her new pet, a fat little pug named Porcellino.