Casablanca gave us “As Time Goes By,” Breakfast at Tiffany’s “Moon River,” West Side Story “Tonight,” and Sicilian Flames “Forever Love.” Behind every great movie is a memorable musical score that communicates the story. A talented lyricist transforms notes into words to create an indelible love song that lasts long after the film fades from memory.
1. Villa Constanza, Naples 1962
The ornate gates of Villa Constanza opened and the limousine carried Bella into an alien world. She attempted to smooth the wrinkled skirt of her polka-dot dress before adjusting loose tendrils once part of a neat blonde pageboy. Chipped nail polish was the consequence of nail biting during the plane’s hour-long holding pattern over the rocky seacoast before landing. The light brush of mascara smudged her cheeks after a tearful confrontation with gawking, aggressive Italian men at the airport. A rumble in Bella’s stomach signaled hunger but the change in time zone left her confused as to which meal she craved. The journey was taking a toll and what she discovered during the final flight exacerbated the strain.
Bella still clutched the note found during the flight from New York. She read it so many times the paper was wrinkled and coffee-stained. Her fiancé must have slipped the message into her purse while she dozed before boarding in Chicago. Mitch with his stoic Scandinavian temperament was not the emotive, jealous type. That’s probably why he penned concern instead of directly confronting her with his fear the three-month separation could threaten their relationship. She tried to find a basis for his concern before concluding she was responsible.
Those vintage romantic films set in Italy with images of predatory Italian men she insisted on watching probably stoked Mitch’s suspicion. Three Coins in a Fountain was really a comedy about three giddy American girls finding romance in Rome after tossing coins into Trevi Fountain. She often sang the movie theme Frank Sinatra made popular. Mitch undoubtedly concluded she had become obsessed with the idea of romance in Italy when she wasn’t going anywhere near Rome. She wanted to watch David Lean’s Summertime twice because of her fascination with the musical score. The Venetian romance focused around a middle-aged spinster played by Katharine Hepburn who fell madly in love with a very married Rossano Brazzi.
Twenty-five and not a teenager, Bella wasn’t going to let Mitch’s imagination ruin the once-in-a-lifetime chance to work on an international film score especially when she promised to stop working after the project. She pushed the note into her purse and took interest in the drama unfolding outside the limousine.
Phalanxes of cypresses that provided villas privacy and security faded into the splendor of June blooms. The chauffeur, Carlo, watched his passenger in the view mirror and slowed down to prolong the glimpse of the fairytale gardens.
Signorina Nelson, “You like?” he asked.
“Carlo. Si prega di chiamare me bella! Please call me Bella.”
“Bel-la,” Carlo elongated the sensual syllables.
“Oh my God,” Bella whispered looking beyond box hedges and pergolas dripping with grapes. Her eyes followed a path lined with faux Roman statues that ended in a series of columns around a recreation of a small Greek temple. Waterlilies floated on the nearby pond. She saw Narcissus admiring himself in the water.
“Is this where the Maestro lives?” she said, trying to sound accustomed to such grandeur despite her rural Midwestern background.
Carlo turned his right hand back and forth in a gesture she interpreted as “more or less” before he clarified, “Contessa del Ponte house.”
“Oh!” she exclaimed rolling down the window then reeling back from the sudden gust fragrant with rose, gardenia, and jasmine. “The wife” she mused aloud, imagining a storyline about the famous conductor who marries a rich countess.
“No, no! Madre, mother,” Carlo interjected ruining her soap opera.
“No. No. Constanza dead. Contessa Adrianna del Ponte,” Carlo corrected.
Flitting birds shot like arrows from Cupid’s bow. Exotic squawks of parrots, banshee-like screeches, and clicks pierced the humid air.
“Okay, Contessa Adrianna,” she agreed while trying to understand why houses were named after dead people and old conductors lived, more or less, with their mother.
Bella didn’t know much about Maestro Leonardo del Ponte. Tito described him as a forty-year-old up-and-coming composer and conductor whose wife was a dramatic soprano and daughter a violinist. She pictured del Ponte short and bespectacled with tufts of graying hair and notorious bad temperament displayed by most conductors. She trembled at having to work with a volatile Italian conductor who was also a mamma’s boy but took comfort in soon reuniting with her beloved musical mentor Tito.
Summer splendor melded into the military precision of topiary carved into pyramids, spirals, and balls. Lattices lush with wisteria connected an explosion of geraniums, poppies, buttercups, and sunflowers. Bella gasped as the pale yellow villa appeared framed by a dark timeless and dramatic forest.
Carlo wiped perspiration from his forehead with the rising temperature in the car.
They passed a former carriage house remodeled for al fresco dining, its herb garden laden with terracotta pots and majolica jugs. Ignoring the scents of mint, basil, and lemon, she glanced at her watch: five o’clock, her normal dinner hour.
“Party. Dinner, tonight,” he revealed before parking next to a fountain across from the lower entryway to the villa.
He held up his wristwatch and pointed.
“Eight? Is it formal?”
Bella got out and approached the fountain where Neptune, god of the sea, holding his tridentsat surrounded by nymphs while a pod of dolphins sprayed him with water. She felt a gentle pressure on her shoulder and turned to face a petite woman in her thirties with lively chocolate eyes, olive complexion, and dark hair cropped in a shiny Sassoon bob. Reading glasses perched atop her forehead, her white shirt, crisp despite the heat, was accented by a flowing red scarf. Navy Ferragamo bow pumps matched her skirt and she carried a notebook and pen ready for the next annotation.
“Welcome to Villa Constanza, Miss Nelson. I’m Katia, the Contessa’s, secretary” she said with melodic Italian inflection, bending forward and air kissing Bella on each cheek. Bella found the new experience at first amusing then overcame her discomfort with the intimate touch of skin.
“Please call me Bella,”she invited.
Katia cupped her hand around Bella’s elbow and led her to the outside staircase. “Let’s get you to your room. I’m sure you want to rest after that long flight. Tito’s flight from Buenos Aires will be late. We don’t think he’ll get in until early tomorrow.”
Bella paused when they reached the top of the staircase. She leaned on the balustrade and panted, worrying about July and August if early June already sizzled.
“Are you okay?” Katia asked.
“Yes. Just catching my breath,” Bella straightened. “Is there…do I…I heard about a dinner party this evening,” she stammered.
“Yes,” Katia nudged her toward the door. “A very special evening is planned. Drinks first, then dinner at eight. And, if the Maestro’s in a good mood, he might play for us after in the music salon. You’ll like that. You’re a musician, aren’t you?”
“Actually, I’m a lyricist. I write the lyrics for music.”
“How exciting,” Katia beamed. "I’ve heard you and Tito will be working with the Maestro on a film in Sicily, correct?”
A butterfly with luminous green wings distracted Bella before she recovered concentration.
“Sicilian Flames is the movie. We were all supposed to meet in Sicily, but that changed when the Maestro needed a few days to finish business in Naples.”
“I know all about last-minute changes!” Katia held open the door. “Let’s hope things go smoothly after this. In bocca al lupo!”
“In the mouth of the wolf.” Bella froze, wondering if Katia used the expression of good luck as a warning. Thanks to a crash course in Parliamo Italiano, she had the appropriate response. “Crepi il lupo” “I hope the wolf dies,” Bella answered while entering the villa.
“You will surprise us with your Italian,” Katia complimented.
“I was really hoping to see Tito tonight,” said Bella.
“Don’t worry. The Contessa arranged for one of her best friends to sit next to you at dinner. Lady Pembroke-Jones is British. I think you’ll find her pleasant and very witty.”
From the floor railing, Bella had a full view of the glittering salon below connected to the upper level by a grand staircase.
“We’re on the second floor,” Bella presumed.
“No. We’re standing on the first floor,” Katia noticed Bella’s blue eyes widen. “Below is the piano nobile. Just last week, we celebrated the Contessa’s seventieth birthday. Lovely but I still haven’t recovered!” Katia ticked off two items on the list in her notebook.
Bella gawked at the lavish décor in the cavernous salon she thought could accommodate the entire population of Centerville, Indiana. Four white pilasters divided the space where light from massive chandeliers reflected on a parquet floor polished to the gloss of a skating rink. Three oval frescoes on the ceiling illustrated themes from mythology: Orpheus playing his lyre and leading his beloved Eurydice out of Hades along with a merry band of animals mesmerized by his music; Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, with her stag; Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom, with her sacred owl. A lively assortment of putti, acanthus leaves, and fruit enlivened the stucco molding around the ceiling. Gilt-framed chairs, red velvet upholstered Louis Fourteenth settees, and inlaid commodes topped with vases of fresh flowers were positioned against walls. But Bella sensed something missing.
“Where’s the piano?” she asked.
“Piano?” Katia searched a context for the remark. “Ah! Piano. No. Piano nobile, means main floor. In America the main floor is on the bottom but we are standing on our first floor, your second floor. That’s the main floor down there. Piano means floor.”
“Of course,” Bella said without conviction.
“The music room is on the other side of those doors with the crest—that’s the main dining room where you’ll dine tonight. The loggia is outside those doors on the far end. It’s a large balcony overlooking the pool where you can relax,” she said before moving down the hallway.
Bella lagged behind, distracted by portraits in gaudy frames of joyless subjects with features like bloodhounds.
“Famous people?” she inquired.
“All family, but all dead,” Katia responded without looking at the portraits.
Bella pressed her forehead, trying to contain an on-coming migraine. Nothing made any sense—dinner so late, a main floor on the second floor, a living room that looked like a ballroom, and paintings of dead family members.
Katia opened the last door in the hall and Bella entered a bedroom swathed in mauve. Katia strode by the canopied bed and opened the window. Bella rubbed one of the velvet tassels wound around the bed post.
“I’ll be in my office downstairs. Call if you need anything,” Katia placed a card on the bed table. “Come down about twenty minutes to eight and I’ll introduce you to Lady Pembroke-Jones.”
“Thanks, Katia. I’ll nap and be downstairs later.”
Once alone, Bella raced for the bowl of fruit on the nightstand. After devouring a banana and apple, she concentrated on unpacking a few items including the simple below-the-knee black dress her mother had made and promised “would suit every occasion.”
Stripping off her travel clothes, she freed a bar of almond soap from the wings of an alabaster bird and showered. Pulling back the duvet, she fell back onto the satin sheets and pillowcase into a peaceful sleep.
2. The Contessa’s Dinner Party
A furry moth flew through the open window and brushed Bella’s face. The affront startled and she sat up in darkness and turned on the lamp. Noticing the time, she realized the need to dress for the party but the little black dress left her unenthused. She looked around at the sumptuous décor and created a spectacular evening gown. Garlands of delicate flowers on the wall fabric became a stunning blouse to match the billowing mauve skirt on the dressing table. The voile drapes became a whipped cream cape and the velvet tassel on the bed post made a fine belt. The daydream ended and she got out of bed.
Slipping into the dress and patent pumps, she sat at the dressing table sniffing creams and perfumes. She sprayed a combination of sandalwood and gardenia on her neck before massaging wild rose hand cream into her arms and hands. A brush of rouge and application of pink lipstick added color to her pale skin and she clipped her hair back into a flaxen tumble. The pearl choker and earrings Mitch gave her for Christmas completed the ensemble.
While removing items from her travel purse, she found Mitch’s crumpled note, remembering she promised to write the minute she arrived. Describing a fancy party in a romantic villa was only going to fuel his angst. She decided to wait until arriving in Sicily to write since she actually told him she would write the “moment she arrived in Sicily.” She tossed the note into the vanity waste can before picking up her clutch purse and leaving.
Animated conversation, clink of glasses, and laughter wafted up from the grand hall. She peered down and saw guests clotted in front the dining room closed doors. Servants circulated among guests carrying trays of drinks and appetizers. A few older men and women were seated on chairs or settees drinking.
Bella’s knees wobbled as she descended the staircase. Once at the bottom, she moved to the center of the crush to be less conspicuous in the short dress.
Men wore black tuxedoes and stark white shirts. Ladies favored floor-length evening dresses in bright colors or vivid patterns. Bella moved between the swish of chiffon and rustling of beads, tugging the hem of her below-the-knee dress in a futile effort to stretch the length.
A waiter approached with a tray of apertivos and pointed out some possibilities: “Negroni, Fragolino, Bellini, Spritz, Spumante…” Bella hesitated. Mitch disapproved of hard liquor and her conservative Lutheran family rarely drank wine. She decided to be daring and sip a drink.
“Questo o quella?” she playfully asked which she should choose before picking up the crimson colored drink.
“Campari,” the waiter clarified.
She sniffed. “Cherry, strawberry, orange, herbs, and something else” she smiled while noticing the latest fashions. Beehive hair-dos, short cropped Sassoons, and bouffant flips were popular among the younger woman with traditional chignons and French twists for the older set. Newspapers were full of stories about Jackie Kennedy traveling to the Amalfi Coast in August. Her face and fashions were on every magazine cover with Italian designer Valentino known to be a favorite couturier. The only other woman in the room wearing black was an elderly matriarch filling one of the French chairs but no one noticed her dress because she dripped in diamonds.
Bella sipped her drink then gasped from the bitter medicinal taste of Campari. She carried the drink around as stage prop while looking for Katia. Women gave her curious glances then immediately looked away. Men, on the other hand, stared in a fashion she found unnerving that bordered on rude.
Pressure on the back of her skirt turned into a firm grasp causing her to quickly turn and spill the drink. Facing a short, balding elderly man wearing thick-lensed glasses who fit her image of the conductor, she accepted his handkerchief to wipe moisture from her bodice. “Maestro?” she asked before looking up into the dagger glare of a matronly woman. Bella thrust the stained handkerchief back to the aging Casanova as his spouse pulled him away.
Snaking through the crowd toward the outer edge of the room to find a side table on which to put the glass, Bella’s passage was blocked by two women.
“Excuse me,” she tried to move on as the women gaped at her dress and laughed.
“Must be a funeral somewhere,” one of them commented in accented English.
Bella pushed forward putting the glass on a sideboard and was about leave the party from the rude assault when she saw Katia approaching with a woman who limped. She covered the stain on her bodice with the clutch purse and recovered her composure.
Katia wore a floral-patterned gown but the notebook remained. Prepared for the air kiss, Bella readily participated in the warm social convention. Katia pulled the other woman closer.
“Bella, let me introduce Lady Pembroke-Jones. I think the two of you will be wonderful dinner partners.”
Lady Pembroke-Jones offered a welcome smile and they exchanged air kisses while Katia glanced at her notebook.
“I’m glad to tell you a recital is scheduled after dinner. Can you ladies forgive me? I have some other people to introduce,” Katia explained before withdrawing.
Bella turned full attention to her dinner partner with the kind face of a nanny from a Jane Austen novel. Neither thin nor heavy, she seemed comfortable in the taupe sheath and long rope of creamy pearls that complimented her ruddy complexion and short bob of marmalade hair. Bella forgot about the stain, captured by Lady Pembroke-Jones’ sparkling blue eyes that didn’t seem to notice she was wearing an inappropriate dress but gave her their full attention.
“Lady Pembroke-Jones, I’m so glad to meet you. I just arrived this afternoon. I didn’t bring formal clothes. I spilled my drink. I didn’t know…”
Lady Pembroke-Jones’ hands flapped air as if she was going to applaud.
“We’re going to be dinner neighbors,” she said with a distinctive British accent. “And please, let’s drop the hyphens. Call me Marina.”
“I don’t know anyone and my bit of Italian is so useless,” Bella confessed.
“Well, then, Bella, now you have both a translator and a companion for the evening.”
“My real name is Annabelle Lee Nelson. But when the chauffeur paged me in the airport, the name came over the public address system sounding more like Hannibal. My nickname was always ‘Bella,’ I’ve decided to let everyone call me that. It’s easier. Don’t you agree?”
“Hannibal!” Marina broke into guffaws of infectious laughter. “We can’t have that. One of him was more than enough. Yes, I see your dilemma my dear. I love Bella. It means pretty and rhymes with stella that means ‘shining light?’ The sound of the name just glides off the tongue. You’re Stella Bella!”
“I wasn’t so Stella Bella a few moments ago when two women over there confronted me about my shabby…dress,” Bella frowned.
“Harpies, is the term I use for that sort.” Marina took her arm. “They’ve opened the doors. Shall we join the herd at the trough. I have a gimpy leg, dear. Can I lean on you a bit?”
“Actually, they did seem to have wings and claws,” Bella muttered before guiding Marina into the apricot dining room.
The thirty-four seat table was set with silver candelabras and crystal vases filled with white roses, baby’s breath, and clusters of orchids. The narrow room was expanded by mirrors reflecting light from Baccarat chandeliers.
“I don’t want to get out my glasses, can you find our seats? We’re on the south side of the table. They should have given out maps.”
Bella read place cards and found them seated near the center. They took their seats and Marina followed Bella’s eyes looking at the ceiling and read her thoughts. “The fresco is Greek. Goddess Aurora leading in dawn on a chariot of fire. That’s just how I want to leave this world,” Marina wryly added.
“I’ve always loved mythology,” Bella’s eyes sparkled in the candlelight. “Read and seen photos of frescos in art classes but never really saw one until today. Now I’ve seen four!”
“You may see five after the music room. Who was that American president who promised ‘a chicken in every pot?’ Well Italians have a motto, ‘a fresco in every room!’”
“I haven’t seen this many knives since my father butchered a cow at the farm,” Bella looked at the profusion of crystal, plates, and cutlery.
“Well they’ll be bringing the cow soon—cooked,” Marina cracked a smile.
“Marina. I’ll bet you know what that Latin means,” Bella touched the Latin del Ponte emblem on the plate.
“That translates, ‘bring on the food!’” Marina tapped her plate with a sterling spoon.
“You’re not much for convention, Marina,” Bella stated with delight.
“Convention? I can’t remember the last time I went to one,” Marina feigned disgust.
“Then there’s me, afraid to ask how many courses with this solar system of porcelain,” Bella counted plates to her front.
“Only five: Antipasto, primo, secondo, contorno, dolce,” Marina spieled like an auctioneer when she saw Bella flinch. “Don’t worry. The choreography of the table is not all that bad. When you’re served a dish, start from the outside in for the cutlery and the inside out for the glasses. It’s really easy—plates: pasta, meat, fish; salad forks, salad spoon, dessert spoon; goblets: water, red and white wine, sherry, and Prosecco. Just follow my cue if you’re not sure. I’ve yet to miss a dish let alone a morsel.”
“I see why the Contessa wanted you next to me,” Bella twisted her ring to hide the small diamond after noticing the large jewels on other ladies’ fingers.
“Are you married, dear?” Marina noticed the self-conscious gesture.
“Engaged. We…Mitch and I don’t have a wedding date set but I promised this would be my last professional commitment. We’ll decide after this summer.”
“Promised,” Marina said with an inflection that Bella thought resembled ‘prisoned.’ “You’re British but you’re very comfortable here. How long have you been in Italy?”
“Oh, centuries. My husband was a British diplomat—consul here in Naples for many years. After he died, I wasn’t really happy back in London. Gray and dull. So I came back and am now what’s called an ‘ex-pat.’ Adrianna and I have been close friends since childhood when we were in lyceum together in Switzerland. She’s really a very special and intuitive person.”
“My background is ordinary. Simple farming family in the Midwest. Actually, I’ve never been out of the States before,” Bella restored her ring to the proper position.
“You can’t be ordinary if you’ve been chosen to work with the Maestro. So how did you meet him?”
“I’ve never met the Maestro. But Tito, Roberto Puglisi the Argentine tango composer, and I worked together in Chicago on a film called Tango Nights. I’m a lyricist. Tito wanted me to collaborate on the English lyrics for the British-Italian film Sicilian Flames. Haven’t read the script but Tito says it’s a kind of Sicilian Romeo and Juliet story,” Bella quelled the urge to bite her nails thinking about the enormity of the project.
“Goodness,” Marina touched a sharp knife. “A Sicilian Romeo and Juliet is more like a Bonnie and Clyde tale. We’re quite fond of Tito. He’s been here a few times. Quite a character.”
“Yes, Tito’s unique, irrepressible.” Bella cheerily added. “We were all supposed to meet in Sicily but plans changed. The Maestro had business in Naples and we needed to spend a few days here. Tito’s plane from Argentina got delayed. I want to do a good job. He launched my career. More than a mentor, he’s been like a father.”
“Impressive. How does one become a lyricist?” Marina saw Bella’s shoulders loosen.
“The truth is that I’m the only one in my family to go to college. I studied music and English literature. Always had a knack for writing jingles, poetry, songs. I sang in the church choir and played piano. Mom and I used to watch all the musicals on television: My Fair Lady, Kismet, Oklahoma, Music Man, you know. I memorized all the lyrics.”
A film crew came to my town summer after graduation. I got a job as an editor. When they found out about my knack for phrasing, they sent me to Chicago where I worked with a musician. That’s where I met Tito who was working on some tangos and…”
“A star was born,” Marina lifted an empty wine glass and finished the sentence. “With such a creative mind, do you really think you’ll want to stop after this summer?”
“Well it really was a lot easier working in Chicago than traveling half-way around the world!” Bella pressed the budding yawn away with her hand.
“Ah, my dear, you will be with wings on your shoes by Friday. My husband used to say ‘never commit yourself to giving anything up until you are sure the vice isn’t absolutely necessary for your survival.’”
“I try to accept that marriage is just moving on to another phase of life. You see, there’s a lot to do on a farm and we plan on having a family. I’m not sure they’ll be enough time for me to pursue my creative side. Men require a lot of attention.”
“I certainly do know, Bella. You’ll think me cheeky, and you would be correct, but between you, me, and the candelabra, Italian men need molto attention. They have perfected the art of flirting. Being tall, lithe and blonde, you’ll soon find that out.”
“Not the kind of attention I want. I find that rude,” Bella emphatically replied.
“It’s only rude when you’re young,” Marina winked. “The perspective changes at my age when they no longer pay attention. But don’t you find it amazing, I mean generally, that men can have careers, families, pursue their hobbies, and travel while women have to be kind of ‘one-note sambas?’”
“You make me feel old fashioned, prudish.” Bella scanned the table for someone who fit her image of a conductor. “Is the Maestro here?”
“Not yet. Notice the two empty end seats? The Maestro usually escorts his mother into the room, seats her at the other end, returns to his seat over there and proposes a toast to her. That’s been the custom at formal dinners in this house. Nice, don’t you think to do that for your mother?”
“And the Maestro’s wife? Family?” Bella noticed the baroque chairs on both ends fit for a king and his queen.
“His daughter Livia is coming soon for vacation. I’m her godmother,” she beamed. “Lovely girl. She plays the violin like an angel. Her mother’s a dramatic soprano, in opera speak a Verdi soprano. They’re all very busy in this family. ‘To those who are given, much is expected,’ so says the Good Book.”
“How did all this happen …the del Ponte family come into all this wealth?” Bella looked up at Aurora on the ceiling.
“Such a complex question, my dear. Where to begin? Well, there are many ways. Rather like your explanation of the different roads to become a lyricist. The del Ponte family goes back a few hundred years. Not Johnny-come-latelies as you Americans would say or noveau riche as we often put it. One of those old Pope’s, Clement, Sextus, Innocent, can’t remember which one gave the first del Ponte a title but few were innocent. Then it’s just a matter of producing an heir, a male successor,” she snickered. “Or at least that’s the official story.” She leaned over and whispered. “My husband used to joke ‘you can buy it, bury it, scare it, and marry it!’”
Bella laughed until tears welled in her eyes, captivated by her eccentric and irreverent British table mate. She watched a server pour Prosecco into her champagne fluke.
“Is there a count?” Bella wondered.
“That, my dear, is Italian Holy Water—champagne.” Marina gestured at the glass of Prosecco. “The count was Adrianna’s father. Her parents died years ago. She is the Chatelaine, mistress of the house.”
Bella was about to ask why the Maestro wasn’t a count when the dining room doors opened and the room fell silent. The moment the Contessa entered, everyone stood. Contessa del Ponte was model tall and rail thin with an erect posture complimented by a flowing purple chiffon dress and amethyst and diamond jewelry.
Although not conventionally beautiful, her long face, swan neck and thick-lashed hazel eyes made her interesting. Her prominent jawline with a nose straight from top to bottom like a triangle was the perfect classical profile. A smooth chignon accented with a diamond crescent held back the dark hair. She turned slightly acknowledging guests and was still striking at seventy. The balletic cadence of her footsteps was followed by the military march step of the Maestro who followed a few paces behind.
Except for height, Maestro del Ponte bore little resemblance to his mother or any other man present at the table. He had swarthy complexion and a helmet of shiny black hair. His facial features were dominated by a Roman nose with a prominent bridge. His eyes were dark as obsidian with a slightly exotic slant accented by arched brows. Dark circles under his eyes revealed intensity and frown lines hinted at a tendency toward broodiness.
The finely tailored black tuxedo with satin lapels and white pleated shirt showcased his lean muscular physique. While the Contessa smiled, turned, and acknowledged guests, her son’s gaze riveted ahead. Despite Adrianna’s regal beauty, the Maestro’s presence lent a magnetic, intimidating, even mysterious aura to the party.
When the Contessa reached her seat at the end of the table, the Maestro pulled out the chair. She tucked back the chiffon skirt and gracefully slipped onto the seat. The Maestro walked back to his seat at a faster pace before raising a fluke of Prosecco. Everyone repeated the gesture as if musicians obeying a downbeat while the Contessa remained seated.
The Maestro placed a hand over his mouth and cleared his throat. Most guests knew that affectation more a nervous habit than a physical need. He felt naked without the conducting baton which gave him absolute control. Public speaking even among those he knew was not his forte and he detested cocktail chit-chat. Whenever he was anxious or angry, a nerve on his cheek began to spasm. Close associates and musicians recognized the slight twitch as a warning. He did not suffer fools lightly but recognized his familial obligations as a member of the del Ponte family. He clenched his jaw and looked directly at his mother sitting on the other side of the table.
His rich baritone rose and fell in a rhythmic pattern. Each time he pronounced an Italian word beginning with the letter “S,” the sound resonated with a metallic echo. His sincerity was transparent through tone and his magnetic dark eyes. He delivered the toast like an actor reciting a Shakespearean sonnet. For all his hesitancy, he was more than effective.
“Cent’ anni!” he concluded the toast by wishing his mother “a hundred years.”
Bella heard a chorus of what sounded an Asiatic chant: “shin-shin.” She sat sipping her first Prosecco, much less bitter than Campari, while watching the Maestro politely conversing with the two stunning women seated on either side of him.
Side doors opened and uniformed staff began serving the first course.
Marina waved her hand in front of Bella’s face. “Formalities over. Time for fun. ‘Cin-Cin’” she interrupted Bella’s reverie before sprinkling drops of Prosecco on Bella’s head.
“What was that for?” Bella startled.
“Why your baptism, my dear. I’ve officially named you ‘Bella.’”
“Chin-chin?” Bella phonetically repeated.
“Yes, cin-cin, like ‘Cheers or ‘to your health,’” Marina explained. “You have to know these expressions. You may be coming back here this summer for a performance. The Maestro does a gala benefit concert for the Contessa’s favorite charity every August in the opera house. Maybe you can come. We would see each other again.”
“I won’t be invited back,” Bella said while watching the waiter pour white wine into the next empty glass.
“Nonsense! Why do you say that?”
“Look at my dress, then look around,” Bella picked up the white wine and sniffed.
“Don’t underestimate yourself or Adrianna,” Marina pressed close to Bella’s ear and whispered. “She sees through people. She was once an outsider. This is all theater. Ceremony. Think masquerade. Always smile. No matter what you feel, smile. You have a beautiful smile, Bella. Radiate confidence!”
Bella’s curiosity was piqued about Marina’s comment that the Contessa was once ‘an outsider,’ but as the server poured red wine for the next course, she took Marina’s advice and sported a broad smile because of her baptism and new ally.
What sounded like a high-pitched bell was the Maestro tapping a butter knife against an empty wine glass. He stood and uttered a few words in Italian before exiting a side door.
“We’re in for a treat,” Marina folded her napkin. “He’s going to play something for us. Did you get enough to eat, dear? You need that sustenance. There’s too little of you and too much of me.”
“I’ve never eaten so much food at one meal and never at such a late hour!” Bella boasted before finishing the last sip of wine. She offered Marina her arm and they walked into the music room where the Maestro was already playing warm-up arpeggios.
Rows of chairs formed a crescent around the piano in the yellow salon. They took seats in the second row from where Bella could see the keyboard from her aisle seat. The room was dedicated to Saint Cecilia, the goddess of music, who looked down from the ceiling playing the violin. Wall panels depicted musicians and composers of differing ages.
“Bach, Mozart, Wagner, Beethoven,” Bella identified each painting.
“You left out two important Italians, my dear. Vivaldi and Monteverdi. Don’t let the Maestro know you did that,” Marina teased.
Bella couldn’t stifle the yawn, “Vivaldi, Monteverdi,” she slurred.
The Maestro stood near the piano, nervously adjusting his cufflinks. The Contessa spoke to her son and he looked toward Marina. Marina stepped into the aisle as he approached and Bella overheard her call him “Nardo” before they briefly spoke in Italian. Marina reached over and tugged Bella’s arm. Bella got up and dropped her purse. While picking up her purse, a hairclip fell from her hair. She tucked the loose strand back and stood next to Marina who placed a hand firmly in the middle of her back.