March 17th, 2004
"Bon! Encore une fois, dès le début!" commanded Anna Quenin, director of rehearsals at the Palais Garnier.
In the sound booth, a bored custodian pressed "play," the tape started again and the disembodied voice of a soprano blared over the loudspeakers.
Alvaro D'Alvade hit his mark—as he had done for the last three rehearsals of the climax of the Scena Ultima, accompanying the woman that wasn't there. The woman who was to be Floria Tosca and the man who was to be Mario Cavaradossi had had a falling out three days earlier. D'Alvade had struck the petite blonde—right there in the foyer, in the middle of the afternoon with cast and visitors looking on in horror—after she had screamed that she'd rather starve on the streets of Paris than preform with "a fucking child-rapist!"
Anna blushed, recalling how a tall, bald man in a black suit (one of the Ambassador's aides, perhaps) had innocently asked one of the security guards at coat check to translate what the woman had said into English. A tourist snapped the photo of the red hand-print on the soprano's face, later to be splashed across the front pages of all the Parisian scandal rags. One of the younger understudies fainted. The Ambassador had turned stark white, sputtering, and could not be coaxed away from D'Alvade's side for a good ten minutes.
And so D'Alvade sang alone. Anna was still trying to find another suitable performer for the role of Tosca, but she wasn't terribly concerned; opening night was still weeks away. She'd been openly criticized in the L'Express Paris for keeping D'Alvade over the soprano, but Europe was full of talented young women aspiring to the opera—and there was only one Alvaro D'Alvade. The media did not concern her; to Anna, there was no such thing as bad publicity.
D'Alvade reached perfect pitch and timbre, effortlessly harmonizing with the stock recording from a previous performance. His chest heaved and he appeared ready to weep, as if it were opening night and the opera was packed with men and women in their finest evening ware, hanging on every note, the air tense with anticipation—and not filled with disinterested tourists milling about in t-shirts and jeans, snapping photos not because they had any interest in art or culture, but because they wished to hang how sophisticated they were over their acquaintances' heads and force them to watch slide shows and look at email attachments of how lucky and privileged they were to have been to the opera that neither party cared anything for.
There was one exception: the U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican. He sat in what was undoubtedly the best seat in the house, in the mezzanine, rehearsal after rehearsal, watching the stage with rapt, undivided attention. Rather, watching D'Alvade with a fervor that could have been described as obsessive. His applause was always the most raucous and enthusiastic after every scene, and he took every available opportunity to meet with D'Alvade before, between, and after performances. The two, it could be said, were close—a fact that had not been overlooked by those yellow journalists at L'Express Paris.
Anna had heard the rumors, of course, and, oh, how the gossip had scandalized both the U.S. Government officials who had sent Richard Delahunt to Rome and the Vatican who had received him. Always there were the whispers in Delahunt's wake, allegations of child pornography and the sex trafficking of young people all over Eastern Europe... but rumors were all they were, of course. Just attempts to slander a man that was just so dedicated to the arts, and to D'Alvade. Innocent until proven guilty, Anna thought—just like D'Alvade, who had had his fair share of accusers hell-bent on undermining his obvious brilliance.
There was a flash—one of the tourists. Anna whirled and glared. The offending man lowered his camera, as did a few others. They had been ushered in by an elderly security guard who had become the Palais Garnier's impromptu tour guide. He mouthed an apology to her, and then gestured for the party to come with him. Most of them followed him, sheep-like, back into the lobby, but a few stayed: a small group of young Japanese women who (rather brazenly, in Anna's opinion) made their way up the center aisle, and a tall, bald man in a suit who hung behind.
The man leaned against some construction scaffolding, arms crossed over his chest, the very image of nonchalant. She remembered him: he was the man who had asked the security guard to translate the ex-Tosca's tirade. Anna had assumed he was one of the Ambassador's bodyguards, as he was dressed in an immaculate suit and had an air of forbidding authority about him. But whereas the others muttered and grumbled as if attending the opera was akin to imprisonment, the bald man was watching D'Alvade's performance with what appeared to be sincere and obvious interest.
The recording of the orchestra began and Anna pushed the intrusions from her mind and again focused on the scene, brooding over the various imperfections. The performances of the other men on the stage paled in comparison to D'Alvade. The armed guards looked bored, brandishing the rifles as if they had no more significance than broomsticks. Vincent, who was supposed to be playing the grim executioner, was just standing there before the majesty of D'Alvade like a man waiting for the bus, blinking under the heavy, bright lights, his prop pistol hanging limply in one hand, a rolled and sweaty script in the other. Anna had prompted him, time and time again to be more menacing, more animated—oh, mon Dieu, the man was going to be point and center of the Scena Ultima, and all he could do was stand there, sweaty and nervous in his ill-fitted uniform.
"...Ecco!... Apprestano l'armi..."
The recording of the woman reached a crescendo. Vincent sprang into action at last, aiming the prop gun at D'Alvade's/Cavaradossi's heart.
"...Com'è bello il mio Mario! Là! Muori!"
The crescendo—the drums—Anna held her breath. Her and the bald man both.
A gunshot, louder than the recording, louder than Anna had ever remembered it being, Vincent as the executioner staggering back as if the gun had actually recoiled, actually forced his arm up, and D'Alvade as Mario Cavaradossi flinched as if physically hit—and he stared down at his chest, the shear, utter shock in his eyes—the betrayal—
"Ecco un artista!" the woman on the recording finished with flair.
D'Alvade gaped at the executioner, wide-eyed, mouth working as if he were trying to speak, but all he could manage was a brief, astonished groan. And then his eyes fluttered and Cavaradossi slumped against his bonds, dead.
"Magnifique," Anna found herself whispering, stunned by the realism of the performance.
The orchestra playback ended and Anna was on her feet, clapping wildly, prompting the bemused and impressed group of tourists near the front do the same.
"Excellent! Excellent! Jusqu'ici, c'est ta meilleure interprétation D'Alvade!"
D'Alvade continued staring at the plywood floor and said nothing, the opera house silent but for the clicks of the tourists' cameras and the relentless hammering of the renovators below the stage.
Wait, the stain on his uniform—she'd given strict orders that there were to be no special effects until opening night, and yet a dark liquid bloomed across his chest, staining the costume, seeped with far more volume and viscosity than any stage-blood pack she'd ever seen used—
"Monsieur D'Alvade?" she called.
When D'Alvade didn't respond, Anna called for him again, louder. No response.
One of the Japanese tourists near the front giggled involuntarily, nervously, behind her hand, and then a shocked, blood-curdling scream escaped her when the loosely tied restraints gave way and D'Alvade spilled bodily to the floor, face first—and there was a snap of cartilage, his nose breaking as he hit the stage. But he did not cry out. D'Alvade did not make a sound. He laid there, unresisting, unmoving, making no attempt to right himself.
Vincent stared, wide-eyed, at the gun in his trembling hand. Later, he would say to the police that he had been so nervous, so eager to get the timing right, that he hadn't noticed the added heft to the gun. That he had no idea that the authentic Wehrmacht Mauser pistol—the master of props had insisted that Vincent had been handed a replica—had held authentic .32 ACP ammunition and not the blanks that had been used for every other rehearsal.
"Il est mort!" cried Vincent, and he staggered back, nearly lost his balance and fled from the platform.
"Mon Dieu! Mort! C'est certain?"
"Médecin! Est-ce qu'il y a un médecin?"
"Alvaro! ALVARO!" this last from the Ambassador Delahunt, who had dashed down from his box—just as he had done three days ago, when an electrical cord misplaced by a stagehand had caused D'Alvade to trip. Only this time, when Delahunt stormed the floor, eyes wild—there were security guards trailing him, terrifying matte-black machine guns in their hands, such horrible things that one would see in some awful new action movie but had no place in the Palais Garnier. When the Ambassador tripped and fell in the aisle, one of them tried to grab him by the arm, tried to haul him back from the scene of the tragedy, but he would have none of it. Ambassador Delahunt broke free, still shouting, "Alvaro! My love—my friend! No!"
"Drop the guns! Drop 'em now, assholes!" commanded one of the Ambassador's guards. Only one of the three actors could speak English conversationally, but at the sight of four machine-gun brandishing men rushing the stage, the performers got the hint, and weapons—two fake, one real—were dropped to the plywood, three sets of hands up in the air, international sign language for: "We're unarmed, don't shoot!"
Richard Delahunt scrambled into the orchestra pit and then to the stage itself, still yelling, the perfect acoustics making his wild voice reverberate into every eave. "Alvaro, my darling, are you alright? Oh my God, get up! Get up, Alvaro!" He mounted the executioner's platform, knelt at D'Alvade's side, shoving at the dead singer, pushing the limp, unprotesting body onto it's back, revealing a face and torso covered with blood—God, Anna had never seen so much blood—
Inside the bald man's pocket, a button was clicked.
There was a crash—something very much like an explosion—and a screech of twisted metal and flashes as overheated glass shattered and suddenly something was falling, racing to the stage from above, the lights on their risers—they must have weighed hundreds of kilos, all those lights—and the Ambassador had only enough time to scream before he was crushed beneath them.
There was a surge for the exit—tourists, actors and laborers alike making for the doors, crying and screaming and shouting, an echoing cacophony of discordant voices. The bald man ran with them. He had spent an entire five minutes in front of the mirror in the men's room at the Palais Garnier practicing looking horrified. When the mob stampeded past the doors, up the grand staircase, past the ornate glass doors and exited to the streets of Paris, he melted into the crowd.