A review of Vienna Nocturne by Vivien Shotwell

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

Vienna Nocturne
by Vivien Shotwell,
Ballantine
2014, ISBN 978-0-345-53637-2, S$26 hc

The novel Vienna Nocturne traces the life of singing sensation Anna Storace, starting when she is eleven and concluding when she is twenty-one. During these formative years, Anna makes money, dazzles audiences and undergoes devastating experiences: a romance that leads to pregnancy, a hasty marriage to a violent abuser, her infant’s death, the temporary loss of her voice, and her love affair with a famous, married composer.

Anna Selina “Nancy” Storace, (1766-1817) was the granddaughter of the owner of the Marylebone Gardens, a pleasure resort with a theatre outside London. There, her Italian-born father translated and arranged Italian burlettas for the theatre. He married the owner’s daughter and they had two talented children, the violinist and composer Stephen Storace, and Anna Selina, who took part in the burlettas and at thirteen, sang at the Royal Opera House.

In 1781, when Anna was fifteen, the Storaces took her to Italy to gain recognition as a soprano, as Italian divas were much in demand. Her father died; the family struggled. Eventually both she and her brother found work in a comic opera company in Florence, and eventually she became part of Austrian Emperor Joseph II’s well-paid and prestigious “opera buffo” company. In Vienna she became famous for her role in”A Rare Thing“, an opera wildly popular at the time, but her favourite role was “Susanna” in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro“. The novel ends in 1787, when she leaves Vienna and goes back to London.

Vienna Nocturne stands out from the general run of historical novels for two reasons. First, author Vivien Shotwell convincingly shows Anna’s feelings. Early their marriage, John Fisher her abusive husband, drops her onto a table on top of the dishes, food, wine glasses and cutlery. She refuses medical attention for her cuts and bruises because she is pregnant by another man and a doctor would reveal to her husband just how far along she is. She fears for the unborn child: “The poor, sweet, good baby who stayed so quiet and small that it might remain safe and be her own baby to love and need her and bring her joy.” Later, after her baby’s death, a week after the birth, she agonizes: “The poor, poor baby…I shall think of her as long as I live.”

Although the novel is in the third person, it is told from the hearts and minds of the characters, not via an omniscient author looking down from on high with an ironic, superior attitude. When Anna tells Emperor Joseph II that she must leave his opera company because she is in love with someone she can never have, he says, “Wait a few months and it’ll all be over.” This voice of experience may be right, but Anna does not feel that way about her situation, nor does the reader.

Vienna Nocturne is outstanding, as well, because of Shotwell’s knowledge of opera. As a professional singer, a mezzo-soprano, she knows how a singer feels as she or he stands before an audience, and she can also put musical effects into words. When Anna first sings the role of Susanna, she has “the sensation of balancing a ball on her nose like a bear at a circus.”

Readers like to learn new things while being entertained, and Shotwell obliges. Through Anna, she distinguishes comic opera from traditional opera, for example. She describes the staging, mentioning the hands who “must work in silence at the limits of their physical strength and whose any mistake might kill someone”. She shares bits of musical history; for instance, that the Emperor’s opera company disliked Mozart’s Figaro because the opera moved from big number to big number without much “recitative” between the songs, hence less time for the singers to rest.

A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, Shotwell puts her skills to good use in Vienna Nocturne. The shoe motif works well in the novel. Early on, she mentions that Anna wears pink shoes for one of her performances. The “meet cute” between Anna and Mozart involves shoes; Anna is in Emperor Joseph II’s gardens at twilight and has slipped off her shoes. Another guest at the party, a man, steals up on her, notices the shoes, grabs them and won’t give them back until she kisses him. Later, she is formally introduced to the man, who turns out to be the famous composer. Farther along in the novel, when they know their affair must end, she slips out of her shoes and says, “Give me back my boots.” Mozart replies, “Never.” No doubt Shotwell is aware of Sigmund Freud’s writings on the symbolism of shoes – enclosed spaces capable of being filled. In the epilogue a shoe reference recurs to good effect.

Shotwell excels at creating memorable scenes. One, drawn from historical sources, shows sixteen year old Anna, in the Florence opera buffo company, bring down a bully. The Storaces need money, so her mother has warned her to “do everything to perfection and offend no one.” But the leading male singer, Marchesi, likes to humble young female singers and put them in their place. In every show, he sings a cadenza known as “la bomba de Marchesi”, a “dazzling violetta of octaves ascending by semi-tones all the way to High C.” Anna thinks Marchesi is “all embellishment and show… pompous and ridiculous”, adding too many trills and frills, yet employing poor diction.

After singing his “bomba” in the first act, Marchesi strolls around the stage talking to his friends in the audience, while other performers are singing. When it is time for Anna’s aria, she mimics Marchesi, adding ornamental “roulades”, pretending to take snuff, singing without consonants and reaching high C in a scream. She has “matched, ridiculed and bested” him. Although she is fired, her boldness turns out to be a good career move. Her name is in all the papers and she is asked to be prima buffa at La Scala.

Another outstanding scene shows Anna visiting Mozart at his home to rehearse “Non temere, amato bene“, the aria he has written for her farewell concert, which he will perform with her. Also present are his wife, Constanze and her sister, Aloysia Lange. Constanze seems unsuspecting of any romantic attraction between Anna and her husband, but the more experienced Aloysia, a soprano and rival of Anna, senses something erotic between them. The dialogue is fraught veiled hints, double-meanings and innuendo.

Early on, we see thirteen year old Anna playing Cupid at London’s Royal Opera. Nervous, excited, she finds the experience dreamlike and, on finishing her song, runs offstage into her teacher’s arms. Near the end, at Anna’s twenty-first birthday party, a little girl, overly rehearsed and complacent, plays Cupid and dispenses party favours. Readers are reminded of Anna as Cupid and we are reminded of the many wounds of love she has endured in just seven years.

In real life, Anna Storace’s career flourished in London. She never saw Mozart after leaving Vienna, for he died in 1791. She found a new lover, John Braham, a singer ten yers her junior, whom she never married, but with whom she had a son. They toured Europe, where she sang for Emperor Napoleon I. Despite her long relationship with Braham, which lasted until a few years before her death, it is clear that Shotwell sees Mozart as the great love of Anna’s life.   Although there is no historical evidence that they had affair, Shotwell sees their love revealed in the music he wrote for Anna. As an undergraduate music student, singing “Non temere, amato bene” for the first time, Shotwell knew that she had to write about their romance. She has made it into a remarkable novel.

For information on Ruth Latta’s books, including her most recent novel, The Songcatcher and Me, visit http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com

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