The soprano playing Tosca threw out her arm and showed the knife she'd been hiding in the folds of her skirt. The blade glittered wickedly in the stage lights, the music reached a crescendo, then, unexpectedly, she jammed the pearl-handled knife she'd been holding into her own chest.
"No, no, no!" she shouted in heavily accented English. "I would rather kill myself than submit!"
She gripped the villain Scarpia's jacket as she struggled in a death throe. The baritone's massive body lurched forward as she sank to her knees. A tremor passed through her body, her grip lost its power, and she fell backward onto the ornate Persian carpet, dead.
Everyone watching gasped. Tosca wasn't supposed to kill herself; she was supposed to stab the evil Scarpia, who had just demanded sex in return for her lover's safety.
The Manhattan Opera House was filled with invited guests and press who'd come to watch the final dress rehearsal. They buzzed as they scrambled for their libretti. The opera was new to many, perhaps they'd missed something.
In the wings the cast and crew edged forward. Everything had been proceeding smoothly and the production was sure to be a huge success; now this ...
"Hey, Franco," a stagehand high above in the flies called to his friend. "She's at it again!"
The men were preparing the flats and backdrops for the next scene, the battlements of the Castle Sant'Angelo.
"The Times reporter's out front too!" Franco said, shaking his head as he gazed down on the prone soprano. "What the hell's wrong now?"
"It's the knife. It's too small. Besides, she hates that baritone, Bonzinni. Hammerstein should have sacked him months ago. His tempo's always off. Mark my words, she won't go on until they give in."
"How are they going to get out of this? Tosca's dead!"
"Ya got me."
They watched in grim amusement as everyone checked his libretto.
"Yes," everyone whispered, poking a finger, "it's right here!"
At this point in the music, Tosca was supposed to have turned, flashed the knife for all to see, and stabbed Scarpia in the chest. "This is the kiss of Tosca!" she was supposed to have cried as she thrust the knife. They read on. Mortally wounded, Scarpia was supposed to have fallen to his knees ... unable to call for help as the blood rose in his throat ... Tosca was supposed to stand over him, goading him to die ... until finally he choked to death on his own blood! Wonderfully dramatic Puccini, but this ... what was this all about?
The baritone playing Scarpia was as startled as everyone else. He'd never, in the many times he'd played the rapacious villain, had a Tosca turn the knife on herself and commit suicide. Not even that terrible performance in Palermo when he'd been so foully out of tune the audience had hissed, thrown fruit, and finally howled, "If she doesn't kill you, we will!"
He stood over her, clutching the safe-conduct papers he'd just pretended to sign, his mind as congealed as cold pasta. He was the one who should have been dead on the floor. The last forty minutes of the opera belonged to Tosca and Cavaradossi. What was he to do? He looked to the conductor for help, but the conductor was glaring at Tosca.
He repeated his line and his acting gesture, hoping somehow to dispel this moment and bring Tosca back to life. When nothing happened, he clutched his chest melodramatically, staggered back and forth, then dropped to the floor next to Tosca, dead. He didn't care what they did; at least he was out of the dilemma.
Open-mouthed, everyone turned to the conductor. All that was left to finish the opera off in complete disaster was for Tosca's lover to break out of prison and throw himself onto the pile. "Signorina!" the conductor coaxed with vexation, tapping his baton on the lectern. "Basta, signorina, enough ... basta!"
After a moment the figure of the soprano stirred.
"I -- I -- I cannot -- go -- on -- " she began, hammering her heels into the floor like a five-year-old, her volume increasing with each kick, "with this -- this -- this -- madhouse! Questo è un casino!" she finished, shouting like a street vendor.
She jumped up and flung the small prop knife she'd been clutching as though it defiled her hand. All eyes watched the knife skid across the floorboards, its retractable blade aiming for the harpist's head. He ducked. It crashed discordantly into the strings and fell harmlessly to the floor.
"You, signore, I see," she said, whirling toward the conductor, "still think you can bamboozle me!"
Complete silence fell over the opera house. All eyes were now on the conductor.
"Do something!" the eyes implored him. "She's ruining the production!"
No one dared move. The star soprano stomped to the stage footlights, impatiently pulling the train of her gown. Her hot eyes skewered the frail, white-haired conductor, who stood with his slender baton still raised.
"In case you do not remember," she said in a measured voice laden with sarcasm, "the person you are trying to bamboozle is not a chorus girl being given her first solo. She is Francesca Frascatti!"
She stamped her foot for additional emphasis. The conductor gripped his baton with both hands, remembering the invited guests and press. The baton bent under the strain like a bow about to give flight to an arrow. After all he'd gone through in the past week with this Medusa from Napoli, he felt like pummeling her to jelly or throwing her headfirst down a well.
"Signorina Frascatti, we know who you are. You do not need to remind us. We all have great respect for you and your experience, but we have discussed this point many times. Many times! Why the knife must be small, unobtrusive ... I must remind you, now, per favore, that this is an invited dress rehearsal! We are to open tomorrow night!"