'There was never a genius without a tincture of madness'—Aristotle
Undoubtedly, there is a clear and vivid manifestation about the opera that fascinates various people to be enthralled, with its inexplicable incantation. Hence, it is a superb display of a pristine art form, in which librettos and musical scores are combined totally in unison, within a theatrical setting that includes the farraginous elements of spoken theatre, acting, scenery, costumes and dance, within that ensemble of performers.
Yet, there is a human element that is found invisible in the characteristics of the inception of opera that binds the mind to its effects so drastically, and that is the powerful element of absolute madness that confines the mind to an unparalleled Pandora's box. Herefore, the madness that I speak of manifests, in the most abhorrent manner feasible to mankind, when the mind is at its most susceptible state of comprehension and cognisance. It can fail to distinguish reality from phantasy, and the mind can be so easily manipulated to believe in that phantasy, when it is forever trapped in the echoic sounds of the incessant opera.
The Theatre an der Wien in Vienna, Austria had always been a fascinating attraction of the European aristocracy, where such immemorial history has been attached to its venerable façade, since its distinguishable inception. The theatre was located on the Left Wienzeile in the Mariahilf district of the city, and the tale that you will read is about a mysterious composer that once performed, within that haunting theatre years ago.
His name was Dietrich Weiner, a gifted Austrian prodigy, who the world had never truly known worldwide. The world only remembers the renowned Wolfgang Amadeus, Ludwig van Beethoven, George Frideric Handel, Johann Sebastian Bach and Domenico Scarlatti.
I was educated by him in the fine arts of conviviality, and I had revered his superb compositions of opera that transcended the mélange of the Baroque and Classical periods. I revered his spirited panache, amidst the bonhomie that his admirers expressed marvellingly, after his renditions and operas.
The tale I relate began in the year of 1843 in Vienna, during a cold wintry night of January. My name is Heinrich von Schuster an Austrian composer of opera, and I was at my home, when I received a cordial invitation to the Theatre an der Wein, by a certain female tenor, whose name was Hannah Grünewald.
My carriage had taken me to the theatre, where I had expected a spectacular and thrilling performance. I had been pondering before my departure the next opera I had recently composed and was to perform at the famous Teatro Capranica in Rome that was the place of sundry and fantastic premieres of Baroque operas, such as Caldara's Tito e Berenice, Scarlatti's Griselda and Vivaldi's Ercole sul Termodonte.
It was precisely at that theatre, when I first heard the angelic voice of the Lady Grünewald. She was performing a wondrous opera and I was a bidden guest of my fellow Italian compeer, Signor Francesco Messi.
He had introduced me afterwards to the Lady Grünewald. Indeed, I was totally enamoured, with her feminine persuasion and charm that had exuded her artistic talent immensely, beneath her fain and fair complexion. This intense appeal she possessed, I had discovered to be unlike any other woman I had met erstwhile.
Fortunately for us, we had arrived in sufficient time before the commencement of the opera. The theatre was full and there was not a single seat in the lower half of the house, nor in the balconies above by the wings, where we were seated in anticipation.
The night had reminded me of the cold night of winter as an eager child, when my father took me to see the premiere of Die Ahnfrau by Franz Grillparzer in 1817.
Thence, the first act at the gardens of Lammermoor Castle began, and I listened to the magnificent sounds of the harp solo, composed by Donizetti that preceded the aria ‘Regnava nel silenzio’. The harp and the violin were my favourite instruments, during my fond infancy.
I was aware of the reputation of the female soprano, who had performed the role of Lucia the night before, the famous Cornélie Falcon of France, but I was certain that the Lady Grünewald would equally captivate the audience. I did not know of the tenor, who was playing the role of Sir Edgardo di Ravenswood.
Whilst I was seated watching the opera, I was handed a note by one of the nearby ushers of the theatre, and the contents were very surreptitious and vague. The note was indeed addressed to me, but there was a minatory threat attached to the contents that arrested my attention forthwith. According to the note, the theatre would burst into rapid flames and trap every one inside the theatre. The words written were succinct and disturbing in nature.
I was not certain whether or not it was a macabre bluff or jest, but I knew that there was also, a possibility of that horrendous outcome betiding. My immediate reaction was of uncertainty and disbelief. I studiously observed the rows of seats within the theatre, and I sought to determine, who amongst the crowd could be the deranged author.
My urge was to resolve this mystery and alert the usher of the shocking contents of the note, but I became somewhat reluctant and therefore I tarried a bit.
Surely, I thought was I overreacting or exaggerating?
If I was, then I would be thought a fool, but if not?
That lingering doubt unnerved me sufficiently to react. I had excused myself promptly, from the people around me and proceeded to speak with the usher about the note privately, in the adjacent corridor. The opera of three acts by Gaetano Donizetti was to be performed on that night. I had seen before this particular opera in Paris in French, but I was extremely eager to see its performance in its original Italian composition.
When I attempted to explain to him the note, the usher was too busy to address my concern. The opera had been continuing and the employees of the theatre were occupied with their nightly duties. I returned to my seat to discover that the Lady Grünewald was performing her role Lucia. She was simply dramatic in her thespian talent expressed so eloquently.
I was surprised by her powerful voice, but at first, I did not want to equate the opera to the incident with the note and I had waited anxiously for her fabulous finish.
Therefore, I remained in my seat, as the second act of the opera continued without interruption. After several minutes had transpired and the Lady Grünewald had finished, I rose to my feet to investigate the theatre.
I began by enquiring to the individuals, who were seated around us. Not one of them present had seen any strange activity, but when I asked the usher, he had informed me that he saw a man, who had been speaking to another strange man.
The question I had was he a stranger or a mere acquaintanceship of one of the individuals of the audience or actors for that matter?
I had searched carefully from top to bottom, but I failed to find any relevant clues, amidst the attentive crowd.
Where was this man exactly in the theatre?
A terrible sense of cark and desperation encompassed me thereafter. Immediately, I had thought of asking the usher whether he had not seen the men return to their seats, but I was not certain if they were still inside the theatre or did not leave unannounced.
Simply, I did not have any solid proof to conclude that they were together in a furtive complot, except of the obvious fact that the men had been spotted. Thus, I had contemplated my options, and the notion of them still within the theatre was a viable possibility I could not disregard so casually.
I tried to assuage my anxiety, but after ten minutes had elapsed, I could not bear the uncertainty of the situation that had been unfolding, since the distressing note was first given to me.
Once more, I had spoken to the usher about the mysterious men, and the usher had given me another disconcerting note. This time, there was a definite reference to their presence and the intimation was extremely frightening.
According to the author of the note, the theatre was going to be torched before the scene of "Oh, giusto cielo!...Il dolce suono" (Lucia, "Mad Scene") of Act 3. The note was sent by the mysterious individual, who had written the prior note that was addressed to me. Again, there was no specific name attached to the note.
I was unable to identify the brash culprit. However, there was one thing that was very explicit, and that was the genuine threat to burn the theatre, if I did not comply.
There was only one unmistakable demand made by the craven, and that was not to involve the police in the delicate matter. This was an implicit warning directed at me, by this pusillanimous person.
Who could this contemptuous scoundrel be, and what perverse game was he playing?
He could have been anywhere in the theatre observing my every gesture and reaction. I could not dissimulate any longer my apparent frustration and apprehension as well.
There was a significant clue attached to the distressing note that indicated the culprit’s possible whereabouts, within the theatre. The difficult challenge that I had to confront did not seem to me overtly frantic, with desperation and panic.
I had to present myself equanimous in my mien and demeanour, amongst the prying onlookers. Yet, I had sensed that one of these persons was perhaps the devilish rogue I was seeking.
The feasibility of this fiend being a member of the cast of the opera was an inevitable conclusion. I could not afford to exclude anyone, who was attending the opera that night, at the Theatre an der Wien.
Could he be in the green and silver colours of the auditorium hiding?
Could he be in the parterre, nearby the orchestra, partaking in the opera? It was like searching for something that I had very little clues to lead me steadily, with this questionable investigation.
His daring allusion was a masterful duplicity concocted, with a brilliant subterfuge as its fundamental ruse. I had wondered if this incredible plot of the madman had formed part of a greater scheme of a delusionary nature. It was an unimaginable presupposition to have to conceive so rationally.
I had to eschew the immediate involvement of the police, but how was I to deal with this baffling quandary on my own?
There was something queer of the stage that had caused me to be drawn, by its powerful attraction. There in one of the areas of the back stage was a crossover that led to a dressing room. There was no one near, not a cast member of the opera nor an usher at that moment.
I took this particular occasion to investigate the singular passage that I saw from above, with a lantern I had taken from the theatre.
The opera was then in Act 3 and I had sensed that time was of the essence.
The extreme importance of finding the maniac had depended on incongruous factors that I was not certain I could control voluntarily, since the identity of my supposed foe had remained insoluble.
Then, the only actual certainty that I had understood as a reality was the threat of this madman.
However, it was unclear if I would be able to find him, within the theatre or was he hiding somewhere that I was not aware of its accurate location?
A sudden eerieness I felt, as I walked forth cautiously. I had observed the webwork of the broken remains of cobwebs of the passage. There ahead stood a lone and peculiar image of a stranger dressed, in all black from top to bottom. His inconspicuous guise had startled me to the core of my unsettling nerves and preoccupation. The lantern was the only light I had available for my search.
At first, the dark dressed stranger who stood before me did not speak one word, as I addressed him. He wore a black cape, a top hat and a bauta mask that were distinctive features of his manifest appearance, and he had a luminous gold walking stick by his side to denote his unique stature.
I had recognised his familiar attire, from the night before, when I had left the Theater in der Josefstadt after a marvelous performance by Fanny Elssler, the Austrian ballerina of the Romantic Period. He was the mysterious man, who had been following me, as I had walked the streets that murky night.
When I had approached more, he instantly told me to stop and not advance any further. It was the first time he made an utterance or response that was clearly audible to my ears.
'Do not come closer!'
'Who are you mysterious man, and what do you want? I asked.
'Who am I you query?' He said.
'I shall not partake in this insidious game of yours. Are you the authentic author of the notes? Tell me now mysterious man, why are you going to burn the theatre?'
'I see that time and fame has caused you to forget your memorable past Heinrich.'
'Who are you? How do you know my name?'
'Oh, do you not recall my voice Heinrich?'
The more that he spoke, the more I began to recognise that familiar voice of the past, 'Mein Gott, Dietrich Weiner! You cannot be him, since he is dead!'
'Yes Heinrich, I am the great composer Dietrich Weiner. I have risen from the graveyard to avenge my death upon this night!'
He had gradually removed his noticeable bauta mask and I was able to descry his grotesque and unsightly countenance that was covered, with burnt scars.
'How can this be? I thought you were dead Herr Weiner!'
'That is what the world wants you to believe Heinrich. For many years I have lived in the engrossing shadow of the underworld of Vienna Society. Today, that will all change, and the world will know of my miraculous and superb return'.
‘Why have you done all of this Herr Weiner?’
‘Because you have usurped my place and my prestige in history! The expectant world was mine to dazzle and conquer forever, with my fantastic compositions of breathtaking opera. Now, I am only a freak of nature, who remains hidden and inconsequential, behind the gruesome scars that burnt my body and soul, with such an intractable indignation!'
‘What are you talking about Herr Weiner? I demanded.
He grinned with a devilish smirk, before he reiterated, ‘Oh you were never a foolish lad, when you were younger Heinrich. You were an excellent pupil, but you were always terrible in your judgment of women’.
‘And you were an excellent mentor Herr Weiner, but how did you survive the infernal flames of the Odéon-Théâtre de l'Europe in Paris? The newspapers reported your death!’
‘I did not die—I survived! I was left to die in that wretched theatre on that night, by the whole world. Do you not remember Heinrich?’
‘What are you saying Herr Weiner? Have you gone completely mad? You were trapped in the fire in the theatre that night. You became mad!’
He started to become enraged, and I knew then that I was dealing with an absolute madman and a manipulative dastard, ‘Herr Weiner, you are evidently in need of medical attention. Your mind has inspired you to insanity! I entreat upon you, to forget this absurd vengeance of yours?’
Once more, he smiled at me, and began a discursive ramble, about how I had ruined his career as a renowned composer, ‘If it had not been for your evil greed for fame and prosperity, I would have been the best composer of all Europe Heinrich!’
‘I don’t know what you are alluding to Herr Weiner. I was your devoted pupil and you were my exceptional mentor. I had nothing to do, with the fire that burnt your entire body!’
‘Mad, it is you who are mad and evil. You are the cause of my callous misfortune and ugliness!’ He retorted.
‘It was not me I tell you Herr Weiner! ‘You are sorely mistaken. I did not cause the fire. It must have been someone else Herr Weiner’, I avowed.
‘Liar, you are lying to save yourself Heinrich!’ His eyes were emboldened, with an indescribable passion that surpassed the incited state of rage.
'You are not well Herr Weiner! Where have you been all this time?'
His livid madness was exhibited in a disquieting manner, 'How can you expect me to be normal, when my face is disfigured and my dreams destroyed? I have been condemned to the wretched chambers of darkness and dreariness ever conceived by man, since that terrible night of the fire.'
'Herr Weiner, there is still time for you to regain your sanity and your former grandeur. Do not commit this insane act of murder! Do not burn the theatre down!'
'Yes, Yes, I shall regain my status and fame anew! However, I cannot allow you to reap what I have sowed with my effort and talent!'
'Think Herr Weiner, by killing me you will not achieve your objective! I once admired you as a child, and even now, I still admire your brilliance. I repeat, I did not cause the fire!'
The evident sound of footfalls were heard approaching the dressing room, and there behind us stood the Lady Grünewald dressed in a silk white gown, ‘Papa, he is correct. He did not set the theatre on fire, it was I, who caused the fire’.
‘What are you suggesting Hannah?’
‘It was a terrible accident Papa—you were not supposed to be there at the moment of the fire’.
She stared into my eyes, with a maddening repulsion and pointed at me, ‘It was supposed to be him, and not you! He Heinrich Von Schuster was supposed to have died on that tragic night Papa’.
‘Mein Gott!’ Uttered Herr Weiner.
‘Kill me, what motive would you have to want to murder me Lady Grünewald?’ I asked.
‘Your pompous attitude and recognition! If you had died on that night, Papa would have been forever immortalised, as one of the greatest composers of Austria and Europe!’
I marvelled with her blatant confession and ire that I was horrified, with her ghastly measure of vengeance sought upon me. She had took from underneath her white silk dress, a pistol she carried in her hand. She pointed the pistol at me, and then said, ‘The end is near Heinrich Von Schuster, you must now pay for everything you did to Papa’.
‘You are insane, like your beloved father. Please, do not kill me, for I am not to blame for this cruelty imposed upon your father. I admired his brilliance and his operas have inspired me hitherto. If I am to be blamed for your father’s misfortune, then it is my failure to have not recognised his horrible condemnation afterwards. However, you must understand that I did not know he was alive. I offer my assistance to him voluntarily, and it is not too late. He was once my mentor, and for this reason, I shall attempt to help him to be sane again, if he allows me’.
‘Hush, for the applauses I can hear and the clamour of the audience. They are calling you Papa, the great Dietrich Weiner!’
She then stared into the eyes of her father, as they manifested, a deep trance and psychosis that demonstrated the irrevocable stage of their insanity.
‘Oh yes Hannah, I can hear them now clapping loudly! As in the old days, when you were a small child and your beloved mother took you, to the theatre to see the delights of the opera’.
The baritone, tenor, bass, and soprano of the opera was heard, as it continued, ‘The world will now grant you the needed recognition you have sought for so long Papa. I will make certain that the world will know of Dietrich Weiner’.
She looked at her father for a moment, and sensing her distraction I attempted to grab the pistol from her hand. Soon, we struggled for the pistol and it triggered.
There was a swift shot and the bullet fired had accidentally struck Herr Weiner. He slowly fell to the ground, as he lingered in death. The Lady Grünewald immediately went to succour him, but it was too late. Herr Weiner had died from his bullet wound to the chest.
A stentorian scream came echoing from the Lady Grünewald, as she could not believe that her beloved father was dead. She held him in her arms tautly, with an uncontrollable weeping, as I looked at them. She then rose to her feet and brushed off her tears, and scurried to the stage to continue her role in the opera. Before she did, she stared at me, and professed, ‘The world will now know of the Great Dietrich Weiner, my devoted father!’
I do not know if it was a mere coincidence, but it was precisely the unbelievable scene of "Oh, giusto cielo!...Il dolce suono" (Lucia, "Mad Scene").
She had taken the pistol and shot herself in the temple with a single bullet, before the onlookers of the theatre, as the blood came pouring down from her head.
The audience was absolutely horrified, with the terrible occurrence. The Lady Grünewald stared at the audience, who gasped with horror. Everyone in the theatre including myself had witnessed the gloomy tragedy that befell the troubled Lady Grünewald.
Within several minutes, she was dead. But before she died, she screamed to the audience, ‘Long live Dietrich Weiner, the Greatest Composer of Austria!’
Her fathomless death was a sad reminder of what madness could cause one to commit, with such a fervent passion unnecessary.
There was a cigar discovered, nearby a big container of blackpowder, with a long fuse made of rope. If the cigar had reached the rope it would have naturally caused an explosion and the death of many of the guests of the Theatre an der Wien.
Herr Weiner and his unstable daughter had devised a plan to murder me and the others within the theatre, but their ingenious plan had resulted in their eventual deaths in the end.
When I was interviewed at the Police Station in Vienna, I described every revealing detail possible that I recalled. I mentioned my relationship, with the Lady Grünewald and Herr Weiner. I handed over the daunting notes that were written and addressed to me. The Vienna Police believed my story and included my deposition in their investigation. The case was ultimately closed and I was excluded, from any criminal involvement in the plot to burn the Theatre an der Wein.
Every time I had thought of the tragic circumstance that led to the horrid death of the Lady Grünewald and Herr Weiner, I would awake from a horrific nightmare that burdened my conscious and soul relentlessly. Is it contingent that the condemnation of one's own soul can be carried by another so purposely, or is that traumatic burden too invincible in the end to conquer?
It is difficult to make tangible comparisons to the actual events of the opera of Lucia di Lammermoor that was performed on that night of the winter of 1843, but the morose tragedy that occurred was forever parallel to the merciless fate of the Lady Grünewald, who loved and was loved in accordance, with the meaning of the word love. I had fallen in love with her, and she with me, but our mutual affection was only to remain an inconsequential detail of a horrifying night of dread and death. The madness at the opera was twofold, and it was her blinding devotion concealed, within an endless quench for vengeance that had doomed our sublime destiny and musical collaboration.