Saturday, March 29, 2014

388 (2014 #16). Vienna Nocturne

by Vivien Shotwell

The main character of Vienna Nocturne is a real opera soprano of the late 1700s, Anna Storace of England, who was an inspiration for Mozart, particularly for the role of Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro.  She was a bit of a child prodigy, and at age 15 went to Italy with her family for more training and to obtain the respect and experience she needed to be a prima donna (the leading female singer) in opera buffa (Italian comedic opera).

In 1783, she was invited to join Austrian Emperor Joseph II's new opera company in Vienna.  There she meets Mozart.  Although there's no historical evidence for it, the book assumes a romance between the two based on music Mozart wrote for her.  In particular, there was a cantata ("For the Recovery of Ophelia," now lost to history) celebrating her return to singing after she lost her voice for five months (page 163: "her throat as taught [sic] and painful as a bound whip."). There was also a farewell aria (Ch’io mi scordi di te) that was a duet for a soprano (Storace) and pianist (most likely Mozart).

In a historical note at the end of the book, debut author Vivien Shotwell lets us know most of the named characters are real, the main exception being Anna's maid and companion Lidia.  She says she "stayed as close as I could to an accurate timeline," and "many of the scenes...are based on real events."  However, for most of the real characters in the book, there's very little in the historical record, so the author had a lot of freedom to create Anna (in particular) and others, like her composer brother Stephen.  Mozart is a rather peripheral character in this book.

This book didn't grab me the way A Good American did, another historical fiction novel with music (opera, jazz and barbershop) as a major theme.  Although I got some insights into the life of an opera company in this era, the singers themselves did not stand out.  Anna came across as immature, and the other characters, including Lidia, were not well developed.  The settings (England, Naples, Milan, Venice, Vienna) had few descriptions, and therefore were more or less irrelevant to the story.

Shotwell is a classically-trained singer and a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop.  She obviously knows the world of music well. I just wish she'd shared a little more of that knowledge of music and opera terms with those of us not so musically-inclined, perhaps through a glossary at the end of the book.  There is a good list of resources in her historical note. 

Perhaps I'm just not the right audience. Readers with a great appreciation for music might like this book more.  While reading it, I suggest watching and listening to the video playlist Shotwell put together.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[A hardbound copy of this book was sent to me from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program in exchange for an honest review.  The book will be donated to my university library.]

No comments:

Post a Comment