Whispers of Vivaldi is Beverle Graves Myers’ fourth Tito Amato mystery (and the first I’ve read). She set herself an interesting challenge: to write convincingly from the point of view of an 18th century Italian castrato. A castrato, of course, is “a male singer castrated in boyhood so as to retain a soprano or alto voice.” In earlier books, Tito has apparently been a star of Italian opera but is now no longer able to sing. (One of the many things Myers does well is weave in enough of Tito’s history from, I assume, the earlier books without disrupting the flow of this one. You don’t have to read the first three Tito Amato mysteries to enjoy Whispers of Vivaldi.)
It is 1745, Venice in the last years of La Serenissima, a city mad about opera, and Tito is the assistant director of Teatro San Marco, the Senate-sponsored opera house. Unfortunately, the San Marco has been losing subscribers to Teatro Grimani, “a house known for mounting lightweight operas filled with pretty tunes and even prettier prima donnas.” Tito convinces his friend and mentor and the San Marco’s director they should mount something new and different, The False Duke, a score by an young violinist who teaches the young woman at the same “foundling” hospital at which Vivaldi had taught twenty years earlier.
To mount the opera, of course, Tito has to obtain permission from the Savio alla Cultura, “the patrician official charged with collecting a portion of the theater’s revenue for the Republic’s coffers.” And to ensure success, Tito, his English brother-in-law, and his manservant, travel to Milan to engage a young castrato who sings so beautifully, gossips in Venice claim he’s actually a girl.
So we have a fascinating narrator in Tito. A convincing picture of Venice in the mid-1700s with theater rivals willing to sabotage a production, competing castrati, a powerful and intelligent police chief (“Messer Grande” who is mentioned in the memoirs of Casanova), masked balls, faro tables, Carnavale, and, of course, murder.
You don’t have to have been to Venice or to love opera (or Vivaldi) to enjoy Whispers of Vivaldi. But if you have been to or do love opera (and don’t want to plow through the six volumes of Casanova’s History of My Life) this is a skillful, engaging, convincing story from the time.