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Awkward love scenes but lovely music – Vienna Nocturne, by Vivien Shotwell

Review of Vienna Nocturne by Vivien Shotwell
Vienna Nocturne by Vivien Shotwell (Random House of Canada, 2014)

A nocturne, as in the title of this novel, is a musical composition that is inspired by, or evocative of, the night. And while Vivien Shotwell’s novel has a romantic cover, all lace and gold, it has pretty disturbing passages as well, and the title should’ve forewarned me of that. Still, to have bodice-ripping scenes in a novel about a serious subject like 18th century opera was a bit unexpected. Fortunately, the novel has many moments where the author’s knowledge of music and opera allows her to write genuinely heartfelt and lyrical descriptions of music and its effects on both listeners and performers.

But unfortunately, Shotwell’s descriptions of love scenes are a trifle awkward, like Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze writhing and gasping at a pottery wheel in Ghost – in this case, at a piano. Her choice of words is also sometimes awkward, repetitive, and slipping in and out of “old-fashioned” English. There are too many instances to list here, but these are phrases like “flaxen hair” “enwrapped” and “wreaked” mixed with anachronistic terms like “can-do and savoir faire”. (The first known use of “can-do” was in 1945 (Merriam-Webster), and the earliest, based on “no-can-do”, was 1903/4. The first use of “savoir faire” was in 1885.)

All this could have been taken care of by judicious editing, which would’ve left only Shotwell’s ability to put music (very enjoyably) into words. For a debut, Vienna Nocturne is better than many first attempts, and demonstrates that Shotwell has the potential to successfully switch between genres, opera and literature, which is no mean feat for a first attempt.

While her technique will no doubt become more assured with her next novel, some of her descriptions are already quite startlingly original:

“She was too afraid, and too proud. The secret was like a rotten quail’s egg, webbed with cracks, which she must carry in her mouth. Her tongue pressed it against the back of her throat and saliva collected around it, and at every motion the shell threatened to burst all its putrefying liquids. She must paste her lips in bandages.” (p. 87).

Never thought of quail’s eggs like that.

Music and passion, or a passion for music

Silhouette of Francesco Benucci and Anna Storace by Hieronymous Loeschenkohl, from Oesterreichisches National Taschenkalender, Vienna 1786-1787
Silhouette of Francesco Benucci and Anna Storace by Hieronymous Loeschenkohl, from Oesterreichisches National Taschenkalender, Vienna 1786-1787 (Benucci was Storace’s singing teacher).

The main character, the singer Anna Storace, is based on the real life soprano Nancy (Anna) Storace (1765 – 1817). The role of Susanna in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro was written for her and she first performed the role. Perhaps the hot and bothered passages in the novel are not so inappropriate if one considers that her singing apparently had the power to make the younger audience members hot and bothered too. The diary of Count Karl von Zinzendorf, a government official who regularly attended the theater in Storace’s time, is quoted: “I find the duo [Pace, caro mio sposo], between Mandini and Storace so tender and so expressive that it poses a danger to the young members of the audience. One needs to have had some experience in order to see it with a cool head”.

Anna and WA Mozart were of the same generation and lived and performed Vienna at the same time. But in this novel, they become obsessed with each other and it is on her piano that they first make beautiful music together, pardon the pun.

”’Oh, no’ she gasped, urgently, over his kisses – her neck, he wanted to devour it – ‘someone will notice, I have to keep singing or someone will notice,‘ so he pulled her forward and sat her in his lap and played the next chords with his lips nuzzling her nape, her hair, the sweet downy slope of her shoulder. Laughing, breathing against him, she somehow continued the recitative, about the beautiful Spanish grove, the earth, the sky, the night, welcoming and responding to her desires, and then she turned around and kissed him like someone dying of thirst.” (p.214)

Art imitating life

Nancy Storace, ca. 1790, by Benjamin van der Gucht (1753–1794)
Nancy Storace, ca. 1790, by Benjamin van der Gucht (1753–1794) Well, in the novel she might be a beautiful woman with the voice of an angel but here she looks mighty plain.

Shotwell comes into her own when she depicts art imitating life, when the story is interwoven with words from libretti, showing how she thoroughly understands many of the most famous operatic works.

“The first aria in the cantata was Stephen’s: light, charming, English. The last was Salieri’s, and quoted cleverly from The Grotto of Trofonio. The second stood alone. It was both happy and sad. The sadness contained joy and the happiness was veiled in suspense and unease. The text related a moment of darkness, yet it was mixed with light. The vocal line, through-composed and wrenchingly dissonant, languished and rallied and languished again, while the piano rolled and fretted beneath it, until finally the voice gave four soft cries – “Ah! – Ah! – Ah! – Ah! –“ and stopped midway through the bar. Perhaps it was morbid, enacting the moment Anna’s voice had failed her, but after all this was what drama was for: to render control by turning the chaos of living into an orderly story, something that had a beginning and an ending and that happened to someone else.” (p.181).

Shotwell does in this book precisely what the bold line, above, describes – she turns the drama of opera into a story – and it is a very dramatic one, complete with a child born out of wedlock, affairs, lust, jealousy, domestic violence, royalty, executions, etc. But for the first time I got some idea of why people sing, and why opera has endured for centuries – one, it is beautiful and two, it mirrors life.

The final, beautiful scene

When Anna gives her final performance in Vienna in Mozart’s Ch’io mi scordi di te? … Non temer, amato bene, saying goodbye to Mozart, Shotwell writes:

“’Non temer, amato bene; per te sempre il cor sará. “Don’t fear, greatly beloved; for you, always my heart will remain.’…The notes of the piano tickled her neck and lapped at her toes. Her voice, as he had written it, became a bed for him to lie on, as tender as new moss, and the stream was theirs, as well, and the bright cheerful buttercups, and the air filled with bees and warm fragrance. This was play. This, forever, was the play of their life. When it was over, in the piercing space between the music and the applause, she heard him whisper, “Brava.” (p. 274)

The libretto of this concert aria, Mozart’s masterpiece in the genre, which he wrote especially for the real Nancy Storace, describes the pain of forbidden love and parting (below).

Listen to the YouTube recording. You can actually hear the “tickling piano” in the line Nontemer, amato bene; per te sempre il cor sará. Unless you are made of stone, you’ve got to admit, it is beautiful. And, having listened to the music described in this book, I should congratulate Shotwell on having, as she put it in the afterword: “encouraged others to seek out live performances of classical music and of opera, and to play instruments and sing.”

(Published on Feb 9, 2013, Recitativo y aria (rondó) para soprano, piano obligado y orquesta (1786), Texto de la ópera “Idomeneo” (1786), Edith Mathis, soprano)

Libretto – Idamante:

You ask that I forget you?
You can advise me to give myself to her?
And this while yet I live?
Ah no! My life would be far worse than death!
Let death come, I await it fearlessly.
But how could I attempt to warm myself to another flame,
to lavish my affections on another?
Ah! I should die of grief!
Fear nothing, my beloved,
my heart will always be yours.
I can no longer suffer such distress,
my spirit fails me.
You sigh? O mournful sorrow!
Just think what a moment this is!
O God! I cannot express myself.
Barbarous stars, pitiless stars,
why are you so stern?
Fair souls who see
my sufferings at such a moment,
tell me if a faithful heart
could suffer such torment?
Ch'io mi scordi di te?
Che a lui mi doni puoi consigliarmi?
E puoi voler che in vita?
Ah no! Sarebbe il viver mio di morte assai peggior.
Venga la morte, intrepida l'attendo.
Ma, ch'io possa struggermi ad altra face,
ad altr'oggetto donar gl'affetti miei, come tentarlo?
Ah, di dolor morrei!
Non temer, amato bene,
per te sempre il cor sarà.
Più non reggo a tante pene,
l’alma mia mancando va.
Tu sospiri? O duol funesto!
Pensa almen, che istante è questo!
Non mi posso, oh Dio! spiegar.
Stelle barbare, stelle spietate,
perchè mai tanto rigor?
Alme belle, che vedete
le mie pene in tal momento,
dite voi, s’egual tormento
può soffrir un fido cor?

About the author

Author of Vienna Nocturne, Vivien Shotwell (Photo The Chronicle Herald)
Author of Vienna Nocturne, Vivien Shotwell (Photo The Chronicle Herald)

The very lovely Vivien Shotwell,an award-winning Canadian-American mezzo-soprano, received her Artist Diploma in opera from the Yale School of Music, and was awarded the Phyllis Curtin Career Entry Prize. She studied music and English at Williams College in Massachusetts, and received an M.F.A. in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was an Iowa Arts Fellow. A dual Canadian-American citizen, Vivien currently writes and sings in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Vienna Nocturne will be translated into ten languages. She is represented by Barrett Vantage Artists and she has an enviable musical résumé.

She recently performed the role of Romeo in Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi with Yale Opera. Of her performance in The Rape of Lucretia with Yale Opera, Jeffrey Johnson of the Hartford Courant wrote, “Shotwell was filled with intensities and even sang her succession of low B-naturals in the second act like the ringing of a haunted bell.” [Ain’t that a lovely compliment.]

In 2014-15 she sang as soloist in Messiah with Symphony Nova Scotia. Other roles include Béatrice and Ursule in Béatrice et Bénédict, Dido in Dido and Aeneas, the Third Lady in Die Zauberflöte, Public Opinion in Orpheus in the Underworld, A Woman in Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, and the title role of Giulio Cesare, which she has sung on four occasions, on stage and in concert, most recently with the Arcadia Ensemble in Toronto and The New Opera in Williamstown, MA. Her concert repertoire includes Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder and Rückert-Lieder, Elgar’s Sea Pictures, Mozart’s Requiem, Handel’s Israel in Egypt, and Copland’s In the Beginning.

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