Death and the Chaste Apprentice (Barnard)

In Robert Barnard’s Death on the High C’s (1977), an obnoxious Australian is murdered during a small-town production of Rigoletto.

In Death and the Chaste Apprentice(1989), an obnoxious Australian is murdered during a small-town production of a Restoration comedy and a lost Donizetti.

Both books are amusing; neither is a great mystery.

I enjoyed Apprentice more.  The pastiche Restoration comedy is full of the riper bits of Beaumont, Middleton, and Massinger.  (“It was generally agreed that two hands were discernible in it, though only half a brain.”)


And Barnard certainly knows his Donizetti.

Prolific and versatile, the bel canto composer from Bergamo turned out around 70 operas (depending on how you count them) in comedy, tragedy, and genres in between.

A short list of his most popular operas would include Lucia di Lammermoor, with its famous mad scene (soprano stabs husband on wedding night); Lucrezia Borgia (soprano poisons son); Anna Bolena (soprano is beheaded by Henry VIII); Maria Stuarda (soprano Elizabeth I beheads another soprano – “Figlia impura di Bolena! … Vil bastarda!”); Roberto Devereux (soprano Elizabeth I beheads the Earl of Essex); and La favorite (the king’s mistress – mezzo, actually – dies of an unhappy love affair).

Plus three comedies in which, surprisingly, no soprani are harmed at all: L’elisir d’amoreDon Pasquale; and La fille du régiment.

Donizetti is part of mainstream repertoire in opera houses around the world, but fell into neglect in the mid-19th century.  His operas were rediscovered in the post-WWII bel canto boom after years of neglect, thanks to singers like Joan Sutherland and Montserrat Caballé.  Opera Rara in Britain has devoted itself to recording his works, using critical editions

Adelaide di Birkenstock, the long-lost opera semiseria in Barnard’s novel, was composed in 1825, for the castrato Velluti, revised in 1838, and then lost – part of the MS in London, the rest discovered only the year before as a door-stop in the Conservatory of Music in Naples.

The soprano “hacks her husband’s head off, and then stabs herself after some fearsome coloratura”.  Here, Birkenhead is somewhere North of the Border.  “Indeed, to him or his librettist all England seemed to be an appendage of Scotland, which at least righted a balance, some might think.”

It’s a nod to:

  • the unfinished Adelaide, which became the unfinished L’ange de Nisida (performed for the first time this year), and which became La favorite
  • the early Emilia di Liverpool.  Emilia is the daughter of Claudio, Count of Liverpool; Liverpool is, Charles Osborne says, “a village in mountainous country somewhere just outside London”; and the opera is full of “dreadful jokes in Neapolitan dialect”.
  • Gabriella di Vergy, a long-lost Donizetti opera, which Donizetti composed in the 1820s for his own pleasure, revised in 1838, but was never staged.  The husband presents his wife (soprano) with her lover’s still-beating heart in an urn.  Donizetti liked bloody plots.  “Give me love – but let it be violent love!”

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (T.J. Binyon, 29th December 1989):

The centre-piece of the annual arts festival in the London suburb of Ketterick is always an Elizabethan or Jacobean drama performed in an authentic Elizabethan setting: the yard of the Saracen’s Head.  This year the hitherto unknown The Chaste Apprentice of Bowe has drawn the short straw, and Robert Barnard has great fun fabricating a suitably Elizabethan plot and garnishing it with some of the worst lines of the period.  The first performance, however, has an unexpected climax: the pub’s unpleasant Australian landlord is stabbed in the back.  The theatre is always a reliable setting for a detective story; it and thespian eccentricity are used to good effect here, rather upstaging, however, the detective element.  But the whole adds up to an amusing read.