Friday, April 25, 2014

Vienna Nocturne: Mozart's World as Viewed by Anna Storace, the First Susanna

If you're looking for some interesting creative nonfiction to read in the next while, I highly recommend Vivien Shotwell's Vienna Nocturne, a novel written from the point of view of Anna Storace, the English singer who created the role of Susanna in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro.

I've always wondered how a young English soprano ended up in Vienna singing in an otherwise (mostly) all-Italian cast. Much of the second half of the novel covers Storace's and Mozart's lives in Vienna, and although the extent of their relationship is somewhat speculative, Shotwell brings to life many figures of the time, including Venanzio Rauzzini (Storace's teacher in London), Francesco Benucci (the first Figaro), Antonio Salieri, Lorenzo da Ponte, Stephen Storace (whose piano works might be familiar to some pianists), Aloysia Weber, Costanze Weber, and of course Mozart.

The way that Shotwell brings to life the musical world of late 18th-century Vienna provides some of my favorite writing of the novel. On Anna's first experience of Mozart playing the pianoforte:
Anna had seen many virtuosi play. Wolfgang Mozart surpassed them all. He exhaled, and so many breathing notes unfurled from his unhesitating hands. He played as she had always wished to sing--how she imagined she might sing if she were not so excitable and striving, but selfless and assured, bound to music alone. His expression hardly altered. He looked as if he were listening to a soothing prophecy about the flicity of his children. His eyes, relaxed and open, took in the room and yet looked atnothing. The smile on his lips was scarcely there--a smile for himself, alone, because he felt no need to parade his emotions for their benefit. He would not distract them from his music, nor undermine the balance of its perfection with aping or sighs. He looked as noble and quiet as a physician tending to miraculously reviving child, and no one seemed to take more pleasure in his art, for all his equanimity of expression, than he himself.
On the rehearsal process of The Marriage of Figaro:
The company had divided into factions over the new Mozart opera. On one side, resenting it, were Stefano Mandini, his wife, Maria, and Luisa Laschi. The Bussanis swayed with the winds but were usually found over by the Mandini-Laschi borer, leaving only Anna and Michael Kelly solidly championing the opera. Benucci refused to ally himself one way or the other.

The root of the problem came down to matters of laziness and pride, and a reluctance to do anything unfamiliar. Mozart, try as he might to compose in an Italian style, was Austrian, and this bothered some of them. His opera was exceptional in its length and difficulty. They were used to singing dry recitative, as easy and natural to them as speech, easy duets and trios, and simple arias. But Mozart put everythin together so that one musical number ran into the next without rest. He did not only require them to sing duets or quartets: he required sextets. Performing one of these elaborate ensembles was like baking a new dish for a king, on pain of death, when none of the proper ingredients were at hand and everyone had only fragments of the recipe. Everything must be memorized and perfectly timed.
I particularly enjoyed how Vivien Shotwell's experience as a singer (she's the real thing and from Nova Scotia, no less) informed the narrative of the novel. Vienna Nocturne deeply immerses us in the experience of what it might have been like for an English singer to become successful in Italy in the 1780's, move to Vienna as a member of Joseph II's resident operatic ensemble, and create one of the leading roles in what would become the most famous opera of the 18th century.

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