Richard Harvell's novel about 18th-century opera, "The Bells"

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By Nancy Robertson
Saturday, October 9, 2010


By Richard Harvell

Crown. 374 pp. $24

Richard Harvell's first novel, "The Bells," offers lessons on the experience of music, the appeal of opera and the human cost of art. The story describes the tumultuous life of Moses Froben, "who could make ladies swoon with a mere wave of his hand, who could bring an audience to tears with his voice."

Froben's tale begins in a small village in the Swiss Alps, known for having the "Loudest and Most Beautiful Bells Ever." His mother, a "deaf idiot girl," was the only person in town who could ring the bells without damaging her ears. Hearing her ring them while he was in the womb gave Moses an extraordinary ability to discern sounds. This gift proves to be both a blessing and a curse.

The novel's central motif comes from the tale of Orpheus, the great musician of Greek mythology, who charmed his way into the underworld and begged the gods with music to bring his wife back to life. Harvell says the inspiration for his book came from the opera "Orpheus and Eurydice," by German composer Christoph Willibald Gluck. It premiered in Vienna in 1762 with the lead sung by Gaetano Guadagni, one of the most popular castrato singers of the time. In 18th-century Europe, castrati, also known as "musicos" or "angels," were the rock stars of their day. But unlike Michael Jackson, David Bowie and other modern gender-bending performers, a castrato's androgynous appeal depended upon a cruel cut of the knife.

The plot of "The Bells" contains enough drama, tragedy, romance and silliness to please any opera lover. The Catholic Church does not come off well: Moses's life is ruined by a despicable priest, an ambitious abbot and a creepy choirmaster before he's saved by two gay monks, a dwarf and a strong-willed woman who loves him.

Harvell, an American now living in Europe, tells this story in the noble, melodramatic style of opera seria, and it takes us to such real places as the St. Gall monastery in Switzerland and Stephansdom and Burgtheater in Vienna. Gluck, Guadagni and Abbot Coelestin Gugger von Staudach all existed, but the barbaric practice that preserved Moses's perfect soprano voice was rarely performed north of the Alps. (Squeamish readers may want to skip the description at the end of Act 1.) At the peak of Italian opera's popularity in the 18th century, as many at 4,000 boys -- mostly from poor families -- were gelded each year and put in music conservatories for an arduous course of study. The operation continued to be performed in Italy until it was banned in 1870.

One of the most difficult feats Harvell accomplishes in "The Bells" is capturing the physical experience of music. It warms necks and backs, resonates in jaws and temples, and rings in chests and legs. Music fights with death, seduces a woman, guides a thief and ultimately triumphs in love. Harvell has written an entertaining and eye-opening aria of a book.

Robertson is a producer of "The Diane Rehm Show."

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