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You've been talking in your sleep (1/2)

BBC Sherlock

Rating: 12 (non-explicit femslash)

Summary: Anthea's trip to the opera brings some strange effects

Many thanks to Kalypso for betaing

Several months ago, fengirl made some requests for the Five Acts meme. She asked for sleep and bedding themes and her pairings included Anthea/Ella or Anthea/ACD!Irene. Inspired by her Sleeping Beauty sequence, this is the result.

It feels strange to Anthea, going to the opera without Ella, but Ella’s in London and she’s in New York, so going together isn’t a realistic option. Besides, Mycroft’s only provided her with one ticket for tonight’s performance and he claims he had to blackmail a Congressman just to get that.

The ticket’s by way of an apology to Anthea. What was supposed to be a quick trip to Virginia to liaise with the CIA turned into three weeks’ undercover work in Pennsylvania. Still, she’s left the Scowrers and the Valley of Fear behind and it’s time to enjoy herself. And how better to do that than with the hottest ticket in town? Tonight, Anthea’s going to hear Renée Adler sing.

Unusual to have a contralto be the current US opera sensation, but Adler’s no ordinary contralto. She’s that rare beast: an old-fashioned soprano sfogato, with a freakishly wide-ranging voice:  a natural in the low register of a contralto and yet can still somehow get up to a soprano C.  A lot of nineteenth-century operas were written for leading ladies like that and there are connoisseurs who don’t mind missing a few bolted-on high Es for a voice with real weight lower down.

It’s not just her voice, though, that Adler has going for her. Anthea’s spent the day reading profiles of the singer and, although they mostly recycle the same limited range of facts, that’s significant in itself. Renée Adler’s been very canny with her career, ever since she made it out of Hoboken, New Jersey. She trained in New York, somehow wangled herself a ticket to Europe and then made a big hit in Warsaw. A triumphal return to the States, but in her late twenties she abruptly cut her workload down to a handful of public appearances; no more interviews, no more recordings. Alongside that, though, were numerous private performances: Russian oligarchs, Saudi princes, but also supposedly several for the Crown Prince of Bohemia.

Anthea recognizes the old marketing trick: make something sufficiently scarce, sufficiently exclusive and the quality becomes secondary. It’s having heard Renée Adler sing when your friends haven’t that counts. And exclusivity is probably the reason for tonight’s unusual role: Amina in Bellini’s La sonnambula.

Anthea doesn’t know the work at all, and when she checks on it online she understands why. Beautiful music, but an achingly stupid plot even for opera, all about a sleepwalking peasant girl who wanders into a count’s bedroom on the eve of her wedding and is compromised.  Sleepwalking was apparently a fashionable subject for plays in 1827, which just confirms the advantage of living in the twenty-first century. Shame she couldn’t have seen Renée Adler in a breeches role; from the photos, she looks good as a boy. Anthea will go along to La sonnambula, but it’ll be for Adler’s voice only.


By the end of the first act, though, she’s changed her mind. The whole cast’s singing is ravishingly lush and, as usual at the Met, the director’s been conservative with the production. This isn’t sleepwalking in space and there are no Nazis: it’s set firmly in early nineteenth-century Switzerland, or at least an Italian dream of it. The mill that Amina’s foster-mother Teresa owns is there in the background, looking to be in full working order, and Anthea half-wonders if they’re going to bring a cow on stage at some point.

The stagecraft may be impressive, but the plot still shouldn’t be convincing. Yet it almost is, mostly due to Adler’s acting. Amina, the innocent peasant girl who brings nothing to her wedding but her heart, sounds too sickly sweet to be true, but the trust Adler puts into Amina’s eyes when she gazes at her fiancé Elvino is breathtaking.

And yet somehow, in the sleepwalking scene, Adler’s eyes go blank and you know that she’s not there anymore, that the spirit is no longer inside that beautiful body. A woman who’s singing an aria can’t possibly be asleep, but you can almost believe she is. Amina’s calling for Elvino as she sleepwalks into a bedroom in the inn. The long lost heir to the nearby castle is staying there, but Count Rodolfo doesn’t take advantage of the sleeping girl. It’s no wonder he ends up jumping out of the window to avoid being caught with her. There’s something uncanny about Adler’s Amina in that scene; her unconscious purity almost a threat. If you touched her, would it really be a surprise if your hand were cut to ribbons or shrivelled up?

And then that purity is abruptly challenged. The villagers find Amina asleep on Rodolfo’s chaise-longue and when she wakes up Elvino denounces her as faithless, despite her protests of innocence.


The story shouldn’t move her, Anthea thinks as she sips her Bellini at the interval. It’s ridiculously primitive. Amina should have dumped Elvino at the moment in the first scene when he sang about being jealous of the breezes in her hair. And how can you take seriously a world where a woman makes one false move and she risks everything, her whole life, perhaps?
Except it’s all too easy for Anthea to believe in a story like that at the moment. After all, she’s just spent three weeks undercover in the Valley of Fear.


“We need someone to go up to Vermissa Valley Township in Pennsylvania,” the CIA agent tells Anthea when they meet at Langley. “They call it the Valley of Fear.”

“There’s a definite connection to the men we’re interested in?” she asks, because she hasn’t been sent here just to help out the Americans. It’s supposed to be a trade.

“It’s the main base for the Scowrers, a white supremacist militia. They have strong ties to the neo-Nazi groups in Europe that you’re after. If we could bring some of the Scowrers in, I reckon we could unravel a lot of the wider networks.”

“Why’s it called ‘The Valley of Fear’?” Anthea asks, and wonders whether she should have asked that question first.

“Because the Scowrers rule it. It’s weird country up there,” the agent replies, with the earnestness of a young man who’s always lived in upmarket suburbs. “Used to be a big mining area in the nineteenth century, but then the industry collapsed. Now there’s nothing but pollution and poverty. The rivers run orange from the abandoned mines, and anyone with any sense leaves town.”

“Except for the supremacists.”

“They pretty much run the valley, and the drug trade for miles around. Only a local problem for years, but then a guy called Jack McGinty came along with bigger plans. Murders and beatings all over the county; the Scowrers muscled in on every racket going. They even beat up a local journalist. That was when a militia member called Morris got cold feet and went to the FBI. They recruited him as an informant, but lately he’s been too scared to talk to them. Doesn’t even dare leave the valley to meet his handler anymore.”

“Really?” she asks. It’s starting to sound like the Wild West has come east.

“Thing is, there’s only one road out of the valley through the hills, so it’s easy to tail someone. Or to run them off the road, if you don’t care for who they’re seeing. The Feds want Morris to turn state’s evidence, but if they go into Vermissa to try and pick him up, they’re worried they could trigger a second Waco. They ended up coming to us, asking for some advice.”

“You want to do it as quietly as possible,” Anthea says. “Particularly since the Agency’s not supposed to get involved in domestic operations. So what are you hoping we might do?”

“We need a harmless-looking outsider researching their family history. Just about the only reason someone from out of state would go to the Vermissa Valley. Morris runs a clothing store that’s been there for generations. Easy enough to get talking about local history and then take things from there.”

“What if Morris needs to relocate?”

“Bring him to Wilkes-Barre and the Bureau can handle things from then.”

Anthea knows the answer to the next question before she asks. “How soon do you need someone to go in?”

“It’s why we got you over the moment we heard MI5 might be interested. We’re run ragged with Syria, not a field agent to spare. But I’d say Morris has been living on borrowed time for at least six months.”


“Your name’s Ettie Edwards, and you’re from Chicago,” her handler tells Anthea, as she starts prepping for the operation. “Mother’s English, hence the accent, father’s ancestry is German. You’ll need to go blonde, by the way.”

“Edwards doesn’t sound very German,” Anthea comments.

“You’re married,” the handler replies. She’s a shrewd middle-aged woman called Sarah Rubin. “Your husband’s back in Chicago for the summer, but you’ve got a yen to trace your roots. You’re on the trail of an ancestor called Jacob Shafter. We know a man of that name lived in the Vermissa Valley back in the 1870s.”

“Do I need to be married?”

“You’re wearing a wedding ring, aren’t you?” Sarah says. Her own plump hands have no jewellery on them.

“Yes.” Anthea’s worn it for the last couple of months. “But I can take it off during the operation.”

Sarah shakes her head. “Best not to. Often there’s still a mark underneath. Someone might spot it, start asking questions. Besides, a married woman in the Vermissa Valley will get less hassle than a single one, let alone a divorcee.”

A white woman married to a white husband, maybe. Not a white woman recently married to a black woman, like Anthea is in real life. Good job that she’s used to pretending.

“Tell me more about my husband,” she says.

Sarah smiles. “His Christian name’s Boyd, but he’s always known as ‘Birdy’.”


It’s straightforward enough, in the end. Morris is elderly, a kind old man who can show an avuncular interest in Mrs Edwards’ researches without arousing suspicion. And shrewd enough to have collected a lot of hard data about the Scowrers over the last eighteen months. Anthea wonders how he got involved with them in the first place, but she mustn’t ask questions like that. Her job is to get all Morris’ information onto her laptop and then get the data and Morris safely out of harm’s way.

That bit’s easier said than done. She’s staying at the only motel in town, which is owned by Jack McGinty, and Anthea’s pretty sure most of the other businesses in the immediate area are under his thumb as well. And as the local highway commissioner, he can use roadworks as an excuse to seal off the valley whenever he needs to. Anthea might possibly be able to hike out on foot, but Morris certainly wouldn’t be up to that.

She’s being watched, as well, and it’s not just the usual interest in a pretty blonde stranger coming into a small town. The questions she gets asked in the motel bar by the local drinkers aren’t preludes to an attempted pick-up, but pumping her to see what she knows. Checking that she is just an innocent with a fascination for genealogy. She has to be sure to look convincing, not break character even when she thinks she’s alone. No reports to Mycroft; no calls home to Ella, even if she could get a decent cellphone signal. Just cheery, meaningless chats on the motel’s payphone to ‘Birdy’ in Chicago.

It takes a week to secure all the data, and nearly a fortnight more to work out a way to make an exit. Anthea’s running out of local history to investigate. Time to force the pace, maybe. On her next call to her husband, Anthea asks ‘Birdy’ to let ‘Cousin Sally’ know she’s in the area. Sure enough, two days later Morris comes into the motel bar asking to speak to Jack McGinty urgently. Morris is to tell him that he’s heard rumours from a friend in Old Bridge about a Pinkerton operative coming to the valley, show him the warning letter he’s been sent. Anthea has to hope McGinty won’t over-react, but she’s the obvious person to suspect.

It works better than she could have hoped. Within twenty-four hours, her motel room has been broken into and her laptop stolen. McGinty blames it on “fucking Latrino thieves,” and insists they’re “not from round here”, but it’s easy enough for Anthea to pretend that she doesn’t feel safe in Vermissa Valley anymore, and to ask her new friend Morris to accompany her to Wilkes-Barre airport. She isn’t exactly surprised, however, when the local police stop her as she’s on the highway out of the valley, saying there have been reports of theft, and asking to search her rental car.

Morris is sweating, but Anthea has the flash-drive safe in the heel of one boot and the officers don’t think to look there. She’s wiped her laptop hard drive carefully, so all McGinty’s men will find will be her genealogy notes and a few faked pictures of ‘Birdy’. And as long as she stays polite and submissive, the cops know better than to harass a white woman around Vermissa Valley. They let her go with apologies, and she smiles graciously at them.

There’s a federal agent at the airport ready to fly to O’Hare with Morris, so Anthea’s job is over. She retrieves her own passport and Blackberry and gets a plane for Newark. After that it’s on to New York and civilization...

What would Vermissa Valley have been like back in 1827, Anthea finds herself wondering, as she waits for the second act curtain to rise. Before they dug out the hills for anthracite, would it have been a leafy paradise, like the state parks nearby? Good land, perhaps, but fights over it from the start: the Six Nations, the Dutch, the Pennamites all wanting it.

And when the mines got going, did some of Bellini’s Swiss villagers end up there? A lot of Northern Italians certainly emigrated to the Coal Region, judging by the records she saw. Peasant life clearly wasn’t as much fun as Bellini made it look.

Time to forget about the Valley of Fear, and all the deaths and disasters it’s seen, as the orchestra tunes up again. Tonight, there’s no need to worry. This is opera semiseria, after all, so everything’s going to end happily.

As expected, everyone spends most of Act 2 telling Elvino that Amina’s innocent and he flatly refuses to believe them, despite Rodolfo spending an entire aria explaining the theory of sleepwalking. Instead, Elvino’s going to marry his previous fiancée, Lisa, though she’s now clearly eyeing up the Count as a late alternative. Amina’s foster-mother Teresa is about to denounce Lisa, Rodolfo’s still trying to insist Amina is innocent and then the climax comes. Amina appears, asleep again, walking across a dangerously narrow and decrepit mill bridge that Teresa obviously hasn’t bothered to repair.

Rodolfo warns everyone to shut up or she’ll wake and fall, which somehow manages to sound poetic in Italian. Everyone on stage holds their breath – or at least sings under it – as Amina walks along the bridge above the moving mill wheel. A plank gives beneath her feet with a crack, and as the chorus shriek softly, Anthea almost lets out a squeak herself. No guard-rail and Renée Adler’s unseeing eyes can’t look where she’s going. Miss her step and it’s a ten-foot drop at least. There must be some trick to it, but it’s a brilliantly staged trick.

But then Adler’s across the bridge, safely back on the main stage and as the audience breathe again, Amina starts to sing. She is innocent but her wedding ring is lost. The flowers she wears have already withered. And at last that bastard Elvino has realised his mistake, is crying. The audience applaud the aria, but Amina doesn’t hear. All the sleepwalking girl wants is Elvino. She calls on him despairingly to turn to her and he reaches out, places the wedding ring on her finger and then collapses at her feet. As the chorus’ songs of joy surge up, Amina wakes at last, bewildered.

“Tu non dormi,” Elvino sings, “Il tuo sposo, il tuo amante è a te vicino.” You’re not asleep. Your husband, your lover is near you. Amina rejoices in her final aria and Anthea’s swept up in that joy, of the closing promise of a heaven of love. As she leaves the opera house she knows her heart’s still beating a little faster, she’s standing a little taller. Because that’s how it can feel, can’t it, whoever you are? She suddenly remembers a verse from Betjeman:

"Let us not speak, for the love we bear one another—
Let us hold hands and look."
She such a very ordinary little woman;
He such a thumping crook;
But both, for a moment, little lower than the angels
In the teashop's ingle-nook.

Amina may be ordinary and Elvino crooked of heart, but Renée Adler isn’t either. She’s taken a ridiculous opera and made it live and how many others singers could do that?

Tempting to phone Ella when she gets back to her hotel room, but it’s the middle of the night in the UK, so it’d be very anti-social. And besides, Anthea can’t yet work out how to put tonight into words, explain Adler’s magic. Her own thoughts are still scrambled. She’ll have a shower and go to bed. Phone Ella tomorrow at breakfast time, like she did today, which will be lunch-time for Ella.

In the shower, her weary mind keeps on nagging at her: there’s someone else she has to phone. But that doesn’t make sense. She’s done with the CIA for now, she’s phoned Ella and Mycroft today, and none of her East Coast friends know she’s around. So who else can it be? And then she finally remembers. For the last three weeks, most nights she’s been phoning her supposed husband, and her mind still hasn’t entirely caught up with her changing identities. Though there’s no such man as Birdy Edwards, and she wouldn’t want him as her husband if there were. And suddenly she can’t resist the ridiculous joke. Leaning back in the shower she starts to sing in a voice that would appal Renée Adler:

“I’m gonna wash that man right out of my hair,
I’m gonna wash that man right out of my hair,
I’m gonna wash that man right out of my hair,
And send him on his way.”

Part 2


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 24th, 2014 04:17 pm (UTC)
thank you very much for this - I like your updating of ACD!Irene as Renée a lot, and am looking forward to seeing how the story turns out. I don't know the Bellini opera, but enjoyed your account of it.
Dec. 24th, 2014 07:23 pm (UTC)
I'd never heard of 'La sonnambula' before I started researching for this fic, but once I realised there was a whole opera on sleepwalking that could plausibly have a contralto in the lead, it seemed perfect. Apparently there was a production of it at the Met a few years ago, but it was modernised version that got booed. There's an amazing Youtube video of the second sleepwalking scene from that where Amina's singing on a sort of extended plank above the pit. But I thought something more 19th century might suit Renée.

Just posted the final section. Happy Christmas!
Dec. 25th, 2014 04:31 pm (UTC)
I knew of it, because I have Kobbé's Complete Opera Book and have read most of the summaries at one time or another*, though I don't think I've ever heard the music...

I do love the idea of Rodolfo singing "an entire aria explaining the theory of sleepwalking".

* If you ever want a really preposterous tragic plot, try La Wally, whose title is an apt description of the contents of the tin, but which does include the very well-known aria used (though fortunately shorn of context) in the film Diva, if you remember that.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )