Mozart may have been a little guy with a big nose, but as one primary source noted, “he had a certain something.” Two centuries after his death, he remains a romantic figure.
So his female fans, and we are legion, will want to embrace Vivien Shotwell’s “Vienna Nocturne.” The novel imagines a love affair between him and Anna (or Nancy) Storace, the young soprano who created the role of Susanna in “The Marriage of Figaro.”
“Imagines” is the right word, because although people have whispered over the centuries, there is no proof they were involved. Most of the speculation centers on a concert aria Mozart wrote for Storace’s farewell recital in Vienna at the age of only 21. It has a piano part in addition to a sensual vocal line. Its Italian text translates to “Fear nothing, beloved, my heart will always be yours.” Mozart dedicated it “to Madame Storace and me.”
Shotwell, who studied creative writing as well as classical singing, learned to sing the aria and was fascinated. I was fascinated, too, when I began to read her book. It is rare to find a writer who knows classical music enough to write about it this well. She has a beautiful way of describing what is in an opera singer’s head.
Even before she began to sing she felt the change in the hall like a great warm wave. She pretended to take some snuff. Somebody laughed. Then they were all laughing. She had them,” goes one passage, describing Anna’s breakthrough performance as a teenager in a comic role. She describes Anna finishing her aria “up and up by semitones in leaping octaves, all the way to the high C, a great victorious scream, as if the top of her head had popped open and light was shooting from the middle of her forehead, and it was the feeling that counted, of being a hollow body full of rushing air, empty and full all at the same time…”
That was fun!
Shotwell shows a solid knowledge of singing conventions at the time, as well as the backstage doings of 18th century opera houses. There is a sense of suspense as the teenage Anna negotiates this thorny world, and falls into a disastrous romance with her co-star, the celebrated but ultimately noncommital Benucci. They star in an opera as two lovers who are united. For every performance they are wedged together in a kind of closed compartment, descending onto the stage.
Benucci breaks her heart, but that romance is fun while it lasts, and Shotwell recounts it deliriously: “Almost every other night, for more than a month, they could step into that lifted space and for five or 10 minutes be alone together again, alone in their secret, before the door would slide open and they would come forward, flushed and laughing, to general applause, to sing their last number and be married for the hundredth, the five hundredth, time, just as all lovers dreamed.”
You can’t wait for the moment when Anna’s path crosses Mozart’s.
Shotwell sets it in a garden, like the finale of “The Marriage of Figaro.” Anna flees a party one night to go out and get some air, and she takes her shoes off, and – well, I don’t want to give it away. Let’s just leave it that Mozart kisses her. And that, as Shotwell puts it, “It made Benucci’s kisses seem like hard, hasty fumblings.”
The romantic nature of the meeting made me think of the 19th century novella “Mozart on the Way to Prague,” by Eduard Morike. Scenes in that tale took place in gardens. There was a sense of nostalgia, of things being fleeting and elusive. There was a kind of sadness you could not put your finger on. There was, in other words, that sense you get from Mozart’s operas. And Shotwell’s book almost captures that.
Enjoyable as parts of the book are, though, it becomes dull. In a depressing and humorless narrative, Storace struggles through a horrible marriage, a miscarriage and other troubles. There is a gratuitous chapter devoted to a grisly execution. Meanwhile, whole chapters pass without much about Mozart or much about singing, either. Shotwell imagines the noted soprano Aloysia Lange – Constanze’s sister, and Mozart’s first love – behaving cattily toward Nancy, but their verbal sparring is embarrassingly cliche.
The scene where Anna and Mozart finally do fall into each other’s arms made me giggle. She’s singing Susanna’s enchanting aria “Deh, vieni, non tardar,” and he’s playing the piano, and I’m sorry, it’s just silly.
The book also has structural problems that make it hard to suspend disbelief. Shotwell imposes modern sensibilities on Mozart. She completely ignores something that was a major motivation in his life, the Roman Catholic Church..
There’s one more problem I have to mention. Forgive me, because it’s not Shotwell’s fault.
That is the concert aria that inspired the book. It’s just not that great. It’s by Mozart, so of course it’s first-rate, but it’s not sublime in the way Mozart can be. It’s not passionate. It makes me think Mozart and Anna Storace could never have been involved. And Shotwell’s book couldn’t convince me, even for a couple of hours.
It’s too bad, because Shotwell’s writing can sing. She can write well about music, and hardly anyone can. With luck this book will prove to be just a rehearsal, and she’ll go on to write something else.
Mary Kunz is The News’ Classical Music Critic.
By Vivien Shotwell
289 pages, $26