By Vivien Shotwell
Ballantine. 289 pp. $26
Vivien Shotwell’s historical novel “Vienna Nocturne ” centers on an actual 18th-century woman who became the most celebrated soprano of her era. Anna Storace, born in London in 1765, was a child prodigy who turned into one of Europe’s favorite divas. She was a muse to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who wrote some of his greatest arias for her. A close emotional bond, perhaps even a love affair, developed between them.
“When I consider my presumption in writing fiction about Mozart, I am embarrassed,” Shotwell admits in a note at the end of the book. Nonetheless, this modest author succeeds in making her Amadeus believably complex, funny, frustrated, bawdy and incomparably gifted. And she portrays Anna as an ambitious, difficult yet delightful diva with a gorgeous voice and an ability to cause storms as well as to weather them.
Anna’s first teacher is the renowned castrato Venanzio Rauzzini, for whom “the young Wolfgang Mozart had written an exquisite motet.” Rauzzini recognizes that his 11-year-old student has “intelligence, openness, heart — these qualities attracted him, these rang upon his life’s purpose.” When Anna turns 15, her teacher says she must establish herself in Italy. With her parents, Anna voyages to Naples where her violinist-composer brother Stephen is studying. The family is happily united, but Anna’s opportunities are stunted by the prevailing attitude that one “could not gamble on a little English girl.”
Months of hardship pass until an offer for Anna finally arrives. Invited to sing at the Pergola theater in Florence, the daring teenager decides to make her mark. She will risk all by singing an unrehearsed dramatic cadenza. When the moment arrives, “Anna took a breath and stretched out her arms,” and without ever practicing it, sings a roulade that raced “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.” The audience goes wild.
The little English girl has the right stuff to be a star in the new, modern Italian comic operas: “a witty stage presence, a fetching figure, and a talent for comedy.” In 1787, when Anna is 21, another career advancement takes the celebrated soprano and her mother to Vienna. After one of her performances, she meets the married Mozart. “There was a mixture of lightness and strength about him,” Shotwell writes. “His smile was ready and catching. Most of all she noticed his eyes.” Mozart is overwhelmed by Anna’s voice: “I heard you and saw you and went out of my mind — with excitement, you know, and joy.” As they work together toward the premiere of “The Marriage of Figaro,” their affection becomes dangerously ardent.
A classically trained singer and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Shotwell writes authoritatively with passion and flair. “Vienna Nocturne” transports us to an intoxicating 18th-century European world of privilege, enlightenment and glorious music.
Zukerman is a flutist, writer and arts advocate.
By Vivien Shotwell