Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on Vienna Nocturne.
Readers are intrepid time travelers. Thanks to Vivien Shotwell's debut novel, Vienna Nocturne, they can immerse themselves in opera performances of the late eighteenth century. Her book recalls a time when opera, storied composers and celebrated singers were sponsored by royalty yet performed for average citizens. Readers won't have to be opera aficionados to enjoy reading Shotwell's well-imagined depiction of this luxurious era. As much romance as historical fiction, the victorious life of soprano Anna Storace (purported to be Mozart's muse) provides the basis of this work.
The multitalented Shotwell, an opera singer herself who holds degrees from Yale and also the Iowa Writers' Workshop, lived with this story for ten years. Her commitment is evident in this fully realized narrative that opens with a very young Anna auditioning for a famous castrato. Venanzio Rauzzini grooms Anna for a life on the most revered stages across the continent; she and her parents travel to Naples then Florence, where Anna bravely becomes "L'inglesina."
Making her way to prima buffa in the emperor's theatre in Vienna, Anna's talent transforms her professional life. In private however, she faces challenges experienced by ordinary women: a life-altering secret to hide; a Jekyll-and-Hyde husband to endure; a devastating illness to overcome; lifelong friendships to lean on; and a transformative love to leave behind. The author wisely paints Anna in the creams, yellows and pinks that not only embody the styles of the times but also Anna's personality—a cheerful cherub transformed into a supremely talented, graceful woman. A strong woman who manages to keep her heart tender while inflaming the hearts of others. In particular, Anna brings out the best in one of her most cherished composers.
"Mozart glanced at her with a calm smile, as if she were a rare nocturnal animal he had coaxed to the edge of a meadow. He seemed as if in a meditation, as one deeply caught up, in this music which he did not write down, or read from, but tossed into the air like unstrung beads."
Though Shotwell's book may be mostly fiction, I enjoyed envisioning her Mozart, even after he pens Anna's memorable farewell aria (translated as “Fear nothing, my beloved, my heart will always be yours."). Luckily, most of the audience takes it to signify Anna's great love for Vienna. Singing this work herself first inspired the author to imagine Anna's extraordinary life.
Shotwell’s characterization is an adept blend of period study and modern evocations of emotion. Mrs. Storace, Anna's quite stern mother, evolves over time into a warmer woman who truly mourns her past mistakes and the resulting pain they caused her indomitable daughter.
This novel is at its best depicting how Anna's heart blossoms with the love of music, and how both her heart and body are healed by perfect melody. It is pointedly clear, with the descriptions of arias, rondos and sextets, that Shotwell herself has experienced the same passions that arise from performing memorable musical works. Opera lovers who've read Ann Patchett's novel Bel Canto will recognize Vienna Nocturne’s appreciation of operatic excellence.
But don't make the mistake of thinking that Vienna Nocturne will be a dry, technical read. Shotwell is lyrical on the page: "She had believed in something that did not exist, trusted in what was daydreams and air." A favorite chapter head is "All the Words She Could Spill."
Part history, part fiction, part truth, part embellishment, part coming of age, part tragedy, part love story, Vienna Nocturne embodies the best form of escapism, one that leaves us wanting more of what we just read: more opera, more Anna Storace, more Stephen Storace, more Mozart, and most definitely more Shotwell.