REVIEW: The Curtain Rises by Mary Burchell
Nicola was looking forward to marrying violist Brian when he came back from his tour of Canada. However Brian became ill and died suddenly. Months later Nicola had the opportunity to meet Brian’s boss Julian a world famous conductor. Nicola finds that she likes Julian very much but is later dismayed to find that Julian is instrumental in Brian’s death. Her job as secretary to a world-famous opera singer brought her into contact with a lot of interesting people — but it also threw her into the company of the one man in the world she had cause to hate! Can she ever forget and forgive?
Mary Burchell’s fourth book in her Warrender Saga centers on a rising young conductor and the niece of a prima donna soprano who endure an opera’s worth of drama on their way to a HEA. Those who have been put off by the descriptions of the previous Warrender heroes as “shoot him now” might be pleasantly surprised by Julian Evett. The man practically turns somersaults to help Nicola, though in the end it is that force of nature, Gina Torelli, who saves the day and the romance.
Nicola Denby and Brian Coverdale – a rising violist star – have An Understanding before he heads off for a series of concerts in Canada. A few postcards tell her of his successful performances but it is a newspaper article one evening that shatters Nicola’s world as she learns of his sudden death from pneumonia. Her loving father realizes she needs a diversion and suggests that she apply to become the personal secretary to his sister-in-law the great soprano Gina Torelli. Basically on auto-pilot, Nicola agrees.
Satisfied with the references she supplies – Gina doesn’t take on anyone just as a favor – Nicola becomes the general dogs body, secretary, personal cheering section and whatever else Madame – she will not yet allow Nicola to call her aunt – needs. In return, Nicola gains access to the rarified world of the renown star performer. Madame can be and often is selfish, obstinate, demanding, exacting, fiery, determined and exhausting to work for but also has her moments of lovability, vulnerability, childish delight and momentary interest in the affairs of others – even those that don’t immediately impact her. Madame can be maddening and sweep the world before her but she is also at the mercy of her instrument which happens to be herself. A pianist can have a piano tuned, a violinist can replace a string but an opera singer depends entirely on The Voice and that must be protected and coddled at all costs.
Nicola sinks into her work until Madame is upset when her choice of conductor – the Great Man Oscar Warrender – isn’t available for her initial London performance. Instead she must make due with a young man who is creating a stir in the conducting world. Julian Evett is good, Madame grudgingly allows, but her performance is not to be a stepping stone for someone else. She is finally talked into accepting him though she warns Nicola away from him.
Nicola can’t understand why since Evett seems competent, knowledgeable and able to handle Madame by not kowtowing to her or blatantly burning incense at her shrine. He also knew Brian in Canada and Nicola is determined to speak to him. Defying Madame’s instructions, Nicola approaches Julian and they arrange to have dinner together. He is pleasant and, even though they’ve just met, almost seems attracted to her but there is obviously something he’s not telling her.
Nicola later tells Madame, who was momentarily miffed when she discovers them together, that she only sought to speak to one who was around her “almost finance” in the weeks before his death. Startled, Madame then tells Nicola something that shatters her world again; Julian Evett was in large part responsible for Brian’s death.
Now what is Nicola to do? She’s even more stunned when she discovers that Julian carries her picture – the one she had given to Brian – in his wallet and that he refuses to give it back to her. Determined to avoid him when she can – not easy when by necessity she is with Madame who must often meet with Julian about the performances – and ignore him otherwise, Nicola is cool and dismissive of him. When she confronts him with what she knows, he doesn’t deny he is partly to blame and it’s obvious – well to everyone but Nicola – that he is haunted by his part in the tragedy.
Then another young woman appears on the scene. It seems she too met and knew Brian in Canada. But what was their true relationship and how does she feel about Julian now. Will anyone ever tell Nicola what really happened there? And after Nicola makes a dreadful phone call, can Madame help set things right or will Nicola have blasted her chance at true love?
Once again Burchell takes us backstage into the high pressure world of opera and the miraculous singers who toil for their moments of glory. It’s not a life for weaklings or those not absolutely dedicated to their art and to the performance. If you haven’t ever heard it, go to youtube and type in “Queen of the Night aria” and you’ll hear one of the pieces Madame sings here. Look for ones by Lucia Popp or Rita Streich.
Julian Evett might need to toughen up a bit as he hasn’t quite reached the stage of Oscar Warrender’s ruthless quest for perfection and willingness to put almost everything second to that. This book also flips the usual Burchell sweet heroine trope on its head. Yes, Nicola is generally a darling but when she is hurting based on the misinformation she is given, she lashes out and doesn’t hesitate to tell Julian exactly what she thinks of him. I can understand why she thinks what she does of him for so long as there’s almost a conspiracy of silence – mainly designed to protect her – and Julian manfully refuses to make excuses or attempt to deflect the guilt he feels he deserves. The poor man is almost broken by the end.
Their slow stagger towards love works for me since Julian’s feelings for Nicola are fairly clear from the beginning – only deflected momentarily when she acts out of pain. Her feelings for him swing from indifference to admiration to anger and back as the story progresses but Burchell makes sure we see her wavering and slow change as she learns – by bits and pieces – the whole truth. Nicola also comes to the final realization of her love before she is told everything which helps me to believe her feelings are for real. A final nice touch is added in the similarities between the way Julian and Tamino of “Die Zauberflote” both fall for their heroines. Burchell absolutely knew her operas. B+