Death of a Soprano: A Joseph Haydn Mystery
by Nupur Tustin
About Death of a Soprano
Death of a Soprano: A Joseph Haydn Mystery
Historical Cozy Mystery
5th in Series
Setting – Eighteenth-century Royal Hungary, Habsburg Empire
Foiled Plots Press (May 27, 2023)
Print length : 319 pages
ASIN : B0C3SR4GGW
When murder invades Haydn’s opera stage, scandal isn’t far behind . . .
Charged with ensuring that an imperial wedding transpires without mishap, composer Joseph Haydn has his hands full. Barely seventeen, Archduke Ferdinand Karl, the imperial bridegroom, is reluctant to marry. And the bride, Maria Beatrice, has her reservations as well.
But when an extortion note surfaces—an unpleasant reminder of the bridegroom’s shameful past—the wedding seems truly doomed. Worse still, all the evidence points to Haydn’s prima donna, Lucia Pacelli, being the blackmailer.
Before Haydn can confront her, however, Lucia is fatally poisoned. And Haydn is left to wonder whether his imperial charge had a hand in her death.
Troubled by the dark secrets he might uncover, Haydn is nevertheless compelled to investigate. Will the young Archduke be found innocent? Or must Haydn lead His Imperial Highness to the gallows?
Excerpts from Death of a Soprano: A Joseph Haydn Mystery, Book 5
Excerpt 1: Haydn faces an agony of indecision. Lucia Pacelli, his prima donna, is an incomparable singer. But could she be involved in seduction and—worse still—extortion?
Haydn stood in the orchestra pit behind his harpsichord and tugged anxiously at his red jacket. The note Rosalie had given him was in his coat pocket. Feeling it rustle beneath his fingers, he cursed himself for not having the courage to dismiss his prima donna.
To think she’d been attempting to extort money from the Archduke—a guest at the palace, a member of the imperial household, no less. And under his very nose at that!
Clearly, Lucia’s audacity knew no bounds.
He looked out over the auditorium, which—dazzling in its rich colors of red, gold, and green—was fast filling up. Paolo, Lucia’s husband, wore the same livery of red and green as the rest of Haydn’s musicians.
Seeing his thin figure rising proudly erect next to Maria Anna, Haydn’s lips puckered in distaste. Was the aged violinist aware of his wife’s disgraceful behavior? Had he put her up to it? Or was he merely content to turn a blind eye to her shenanigans?
God in heaven, Haydn thought, he ought to have dismissed Lucia the moment he’d heard the news.
He fingered the note again. Rosalie had delicately suggested Narcissa or even Trattner as its author. But Haydn had dismissed these possibilities. It was clear who had penned the note.
Who else could it be but Lucia? She was the only person who appeared to know the Archduke’s carefully concealed secret.
Excerpt 2: The Haydn Mysteries have an upstairs-downstairs dynamic. Palace maids, Rosalie and Greta, play a significant role in Haydn’s cases. Here they are enjoying the opera. All seems to be going well, until. . .
“The second act is even better than the first.” Greta leaned excitedly forward, her hands tightly clasped together. “Vespina has four disguises, and Signora Pacelli plays them all exceedingly well.”
“Shhh!” hissed a woman behind them; she’d been humming along to the catchy tunes Herr Haydn had composed for the arias.
“Shhh yourself!” Greta hissed back, undeterred. She leaned over to Rosalie. “I don’t think there’s ever been a funnier buffa, do you?” Karl, her beau, had regaled them with the plot. But it was something else to see the opera brought to life on the stage.
Rosalie smiled affectionately and reached out to squeeze her friend’s plump palm. “It’s the best we’ve seen. Gerhard thinks so as well, don’t you sweet?” She turned to face her husband, who sat with his arm around her.
“It is!” Gerhard’s blue eyes twinkled as he regarded them both. He grinned broadly as Signora Pacelli swaggered back onstage in male garb. “It’s another one of her disguises, is it?”
Greta nodded, giggling. “She’s pretending to be the German servant of an imaginary Marquis.”
“And doing a remarkably good job of it, too,” Rosalie said.
Signora Pacelli’s Italian had taken on a distinct German overtone as her character, Vespina, interacted with Nencio, Vespina’s former lover.
“Your Signora Pacelli plays a good drunk as well.” Gerhard’s breath tickled Rosalie as he bent his head to whisper into her ear. “Unless she’s had some help.” He tipped his chin at the bottle in Signora Pacelli’s hand.
It was half-empty, Rosalie noted in dismay, and some of the liquid sloshed out as the soprano lurched around onstage. The singer’s voice seemed to be slurring as well.
“That’s not the bottle you delivered just this morning, is it?” she whispered to her husband.
Gerhard glanced at the stage as Rosalie gazed anxiously up at him. “It had better not be,” he said, his handsome features grim. “It’s the last of its kind.”
The soprano’s gestures were becoming wilder and more animated.
“I’ve seen roistering lads act more soberly than that.” Gerhard’s astonishment caused him to speak out loud, much to Rosalie’s dismay. She glanced uneasily at her friend.
Greta was looking alarmed as well.
Onstage, Signora Pacelli, disguised as a Marquis’s servant, twirled around the tenor playing Nencio. Coming out from behind him, she took a wide step forward, stumbled, tripped, and then fell flat on her face. The bottle in her hand landed on the stage floor, spun halfway around, then shuddered to a stop.
“But that’s not part of the story!” Greta squealed.
Excerpt 3: Is Lucia drunk, ill . . . or worse? Haydn is beside himself with worry.
In the pit, Haydn watched aghast as his prima donna crashed gracelessly to the floor. For a brief moment, he wondered whether Karl had made a spur-of-the-moment change to the libretto. It was not unheard of for a librettist to do such a thing. But surely it was unwise to do it without consulting either the composer or opera director.
Almost simultaneously, another thought flitted through Haydn’s mind. Had Lucia taken her role too far?
But all such considerations instantly fled when his gaze drifted up to Nencio’s face. The panic-stricken expression plastered over the tenor’s features and his wide, staring eyes told the entire tale. This was no spontaneous act. It had certainly not been intended.
Lucia was . . . Haydn’s fingers felt stiff as they depressed, almost of their own accord, the keys of the harpsichord. Whatever afflicted his prima donna, she was clearly in no condition to continue.
Good God, what was to be done?
Raising his hand just high enough for the tenor to see, Haydn let it flutter through the air. A silent signal to Jakob Friberth—the tenor playing Nencio—to carry on as though nothing had happened.
What the man would do—or indeed could do—the Kapellmeister knew not. He could only pray for divine inspiration to fall upon his hapless tenor.
Fortunately, Jakob understood, nodding imperceptibly as he wiped the shock off his features. Deathly pale but smiling broadly, Jakob in his role of Nencio feigned glee at the situation.
“Ah, the drunken servant of a marquis!” Jakob gestured down at the prone Lucia. “If the servant is thus, can the master be any better?” Bending down, Jakob lifted the soprano’s arms and began dragging her offstage.
He snickered at the audience. “What say you, we let that false villain, Filippo, think the marquis has changed his mind?”
Near the wings, Jakob dropped Lucia’s arms to jab his forefinger at his chest. “Then Sandrina—beautiful Sandrina—can be Nencio’s!” Still singing the last few words, Jakob, along with Lucia, disappeared behind the wings.
The loud burst of laughter that greeted the scene was satisfying evidence that the ploy had worked.
And fortunately the curtain fell just as Nencio and Lucia exited the stage. That was thanks to Johann’s quick thinking, Haydn realized with immense gratitude, noticing his brother was no longer at his side.
Karl had written his libretto in two acts, but it did no harm to let the audience think a third was to follow.
Bouncing up from his seat, Haydn quickly turned and acknowledged the thunderous applause with a rushed bow. Then, leaving Luigi to conduct the orchestra as it played the music for the interlude, he hurried backstage—eager to discover what was amiss with his prima donna.
Lucia’s body had been dragged into the area beyond the grooved slots in which the wings sat. It was crowded with a variety of props. But Jakob had managed to find a narrow space where she lay between cooking pots on one side and a large table on the other.
There Haydn found Johann bent over Lucia’s still frame.
“What ails her?” the Kapellmeister asked anxiously. Against all hope, he continued, “Can she be revived?”
“I fear not, brother.” Johann turned around, his features whiter than a meadow of edelweiss in the spring. “She is dead—God rest her soul!” He hastily crossed himself.
“Dead!” Haydn’s eyes were drawn to Lucia’s body, lying unnaturally still on the floorboards. At least she was face up. “B-b-but how?” Had she really been ill? Or—
Resolutely, he pushed the thought away from his mind. Best not to consider it an unnatural death.
Excerpt 4: With his prima donna, a possible blackmailer, dead, Haydn’s suspicions immediately veer toward Archduke Ferdinand. But there are other people who wanted to rid the world of Lucia as well.
Luigi was in the midst of playing an extended cadenza when Haydn returned to the orchestra pit. The Konzertmeister must have seen him out of the corner of his eyes, for he immediately turned to face Haydn, his eyebrows raised expectantly.
Anxious to share the awful news, Haydn approached him just as Luigi gracefully transitioned from the cadenza to the sinfonia that would open the next act.
Bending down, he quickly conveyed the news.
“Dead!” Luigi hissed, gripping his bow tightly. “How can that be? A young woman, untroubled by any serious maladies?”
Haydn shrugged, expressing his own doubts on the subject.
“Worse still, Narcissa insisted on being given her part, adamant that Lucia had brought her predicament upon herself.”
Luigi’s lips pursed, but he fortunately stopped himself mid-whistle. “You don’t think she had . . .?” His voice trailed off as his hazel eyes searched Haydn’s features.
“I know not what to think,” Haydn responded grimly.
Although suspecting Narcissa of having a hand in Lucia’s unfortunate demise was far preferable to entertaining suspicions of the only other culprit that came to mind.
He returned to his place, his gaze traveling toward the audience where the Archduke sat next to his bride.
Excerpt 5: Haydn’s youngest brother, Johann, ushers the barber-surgeon in to examine Lucia. Is there any hope for her? Unfortunately not. But there’s worse. . .
“The room, I fear, is in disarray,” Johann said apologetically, gingerly skirting around the pile of clothes.
“It is no matter, Master Johann.” Herr Hipfl had stopped before the heap of clothing and regarded the pile, amused. “I have seen far worse. The dead have no time to tidy up.”
“The dead?” Johann repeated, surprised. Was Lucia’s state that obvious? He’d been deliberately vague, not wanting to prejudice the barber-surgeon’s judgment. Who knew, the woman might still have life in her. Stranger things had happened.
Suppressing his distaste, he stooped down to gather up the clothing, clearing the barber-surgeon’s path.
Herr Hipfl stepped forward. His halo of unruly, gray-black hair fanned out from his smooth, unlined features as he turned toward Johann.
“Her chest would rise and fall, were she alive, Master Johann.” He drew closer to the body and knelt down. “I should’ve thought you’d seen enough dead bodies to know that. But I suppose”—he took Lucia’s wrist, feeling for a pulse, Johann surmised—“only a medical man would be aware of such a thing.”
The barber-surgeon let Lucia’s limp wrist drop and proceeded to delicately press upon her chest. “As I suspected. Long gone.” He raised his eyes toward Johann. “I saw her clutch at her stomach just before she fell. Had she any ailments, you know of.”
Johann shook his head. “Nothing so grave as to suggest she was on the point of death. She did complain of biliousness and a cramp in the stomach. But sister-in-law’s teas always seemed to put her right.”
The barber-surgeon nodded. “Then she must have been with child.”
“With child?” Johann’s voice rose. “How—?”
Seeing Hipfl staring at him, he subsided. He had thought Paolo, her husband, incapable of fathering a child. If Lucia was with child—Johann’s horror-struck gaze fell upon the dead woman—whose was it?
The Archduke’s? From what brother had told him earlier that evening, it was entirely possible.
Excerpt 6: When Haydn learns Lucia was poisoned, yet another suspect comes to mind. . .
“Poisoned?” Haydn missed a note in his astonishment. Fortunately, no one appeared to notice and the singers carried on uninterrupted. “How can Herr Hipfl possibly know that?”
“From the odor of her breath, the color of her eyes, and not least from the taste of her spittle,” Johann responded.
“But she has not ingested anything except—” Haydn swallowed, glancing over his shoulder at where his wife sat. The last thing Lucia had swallowed was the concoction Maria Anna had brewed for her.
A strange unease filled the pit of his stomach. Had Maria Anna let her jealousy get the better of her?
But would Herr Hipfl and the Bürgermeister see the situation the same way? It would not be the first time his wife had been accused of poisoning a woman.
“. . . the wine,” Johann was saying.
“What wine?” Haydn asked.
“The bottle of wine she had with her onstage,” Johann patiently replied. “Herr Hipfl surmises the poison was administered through the wine.”
“She had imbibed some?” If it was the wine, then Maria Anna could not be held responsible. Neither—Haydn glanced over his shoulder again—could the Archduke, fortunately.
Unless—an unhappy thought occurred to him. Had the Archduke prevailed upon Narcissa to carry on his dirty business? Heaven knew, she would be only too willing to do it.
Moreover, Rosalie had informed him, His Imperial Highness had sent Narcissa flowers that afternoon. To what end?
Haydn shook his head. No, no that was unlikely.
“Karl says it was half-empty when she went onstage.” Johann’s words interrupted his thoughts.
“What was—?” Haydn stopped himself just in time. Johann was referring to the wine bottle, of course. He hurriedly changed his question.
“Where is the bottle? Has Herr Hipfl taken charge of it?”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his younger brother shake his head.
“Hannah carried the news of Lucia’s demise to the stagehands, and Fiore, hearing that the wine might have been tainted, emptied out the bottle.”
Dear Lord, had the boy no sense? Haydn couldn’t prevent an exasperated huff escaping his lips.
“He meant well,” Johann confided with a sigh. “He was worried lest someone else suffer the same fate. They’ve all apparently been chafing at the stricture to leave the wine alone.”
“And all except Lucia abided by the stipulation, I suppose?” Haydn said. He had no desire to think ill of the dead, but his prima donna had clearly possessed an inflated sense of her own importance.
“I’m afraid so.”
Haydn pursed his lips. Someone had known of Lucia’s partiality for wine and taken advantage of it. The question was who?
She was onstage now, her features never far from a pout because she’d not succeeded in her mission to take over Lucia’s role.
Excerpt 7: Although Haydn has more than one suspect, as far as the authorities are concerned, there’s just one viable culprit. Haydn’s wife, Maria Anna. Is there any way of persuading them otherwise?
When they were both seated, Herr Hipfl leaned across the wooden table between them and said in a low voice: “I am convinced Signora Pacelli was with child, Herr Haydn. The matter remains to be ascertained, of course. But if she was . . .”
The barber-surgeon’s voice trailed off and he regarded Haydn for some minutes before bringing forth a small pouch of herbs.
“This was found in her changing room.”
Haydn gripped the table, desperately trying to contain his shock. “Her room was searched?”
Herr Hipfl shook his thick mane of hair. “No, no. It was the seamstress who discovered it. She was gathering up Signora Pacelli’s clothing at her husband’s behest.”
Haydn nodded, his eyes still on the pouch. Made of cream-colored muslin, it looked exactly like the bags in which Maria Anna dispensed her herbs.
But of course it was no secret that Maria Anna had given Lucia herbs. At the singer’s own request. He said as much to Hipfl.
The barber-surgeon nodded sympathetically. “The question is was your wife aware of Signora Pacelli’s pregnancy? If she was, she could be charged with illicitly aiding Signora Pacelli to rid herself of her child.”
He cleared his throat. “Given what I’ve heard, I doubt it was Signor Pacelli who fathered the child. Although, of course, he will have to be informed his wife was with child when she died.”
“Of course.” Haydn reached out for the pouch, letting it twirl from his fingers as he examined it.
“It is a mixture of herbs. But the crushed pennyroyal leaves it contains are unmistakable.”
Haydn was barely listening as he examined the pouch. Had Maria Anna ever given Lucia a bundle of herbs? He couldn’t recall.
But she had given the Archduke a bundle of herbs to settle his stomach a few days ago. There was no way of telling whether this was the same bundle.
If it was, how had it found its way into Lucia’s changing room?
He raised his head. “Maria Anna usually administered her remedies to Lucia in the form of teas.” He paused, unsure how to communicate his conjectures.
“Lucia’s symptoms came and went, so a tea made to remedy the particular situation was the best solution. She wasn’t the only person who sought Maria Anna’s remedies, however. Archduke Ferdinand has a tendency to indigestion. The symptoms were always the same.”
“This pouch you say was intended for the Archduke?” Herr Hipfl sounded skeptical.
“It may have been.”
“How then did it find its way into your prima donna’s changing room?”
Have we whet your appetite? Buy Death of a Soprano to see what happens next.
About Nupur Tustin
A former journalist, Nupur Tustin relies upon a Ph.D. in Communication and an M.A. in English to orchestrate murder. She also writes the Celine Skye Psychic Mysteries based on the Gardner Museum theft. Childhood piano lessons and a 1903 Weber Upright share equal blame for her musical works.
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