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This is the partly true, partly fictional story of Anna Storace, an English-born soprano who became the prima buffa in the Italian opera company at the Viennese court of Emperor Joseph II. The book is steeped in the world of 18th century opera, written very convincingly by an author who has apparently formally studied and sung opera herself. She paints a believable picture of this small group of singers and musicians, somewhat cut off from the reality of the world outside and living intensely through their art, relying on patronage to give them the freedom to pursue their professions.
Anna was the daughter of an Italian violinist and an English mother and showed her talent from an early age. After training in London with the famous castrato, Venanzio Rauzzini, she and her family moved to Italy so that she could pursue her career. Shotwell chooses to concentrate largely on Anna’s personal life, and this is the aspect of the book that strays a bit from historical fact. Following a failed love affair with a member of the buffa company, Anna makes a disastrous marriage to a man who is viciously cruel to her, beating her so badly that it becomes common knowledge despite Anna’s attempts to hide it. But it is when she meets Mozart that Anna finally falls passionately in love, and the bulk of the book is the story of their affair.
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.
The book is very well written and I found the depiction of the lives of the musicians both credible and fascinating. Shotwell has clearly researched the period thoroughly and her knowledge of the technicalities of singing opera adds a great deal to her characterisation of Anna. The other main characters are just as well drawn – her brother, struggling to be accepted as a composer while being outshone by those around him, her fellow members of the buffa company jostling for position and advancement, and of course Mozart. Much of the fascination of the book comes from Shotwell’s descriptions of Mozart’s skill as both composer and pianist and the struggle for him to be accepted at a time when Italian composers were seen as the pinnacle of the profession. We also see him as a man who truly loves his wife and family and yet has become obsessed with the beautiful Anna and her voice – in real life, she was apparently the woman for whom he wrote the role of Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro.
I have a couple of caveats that prevent me from giving the book the full five stars. The first is a matter of personal taste only – the book was too much focussed on Anna’s love life for my preference. The second is a little more serious – Shotwell has chosen to deviate from the historical facts at a couple of points. It appears that there is no evidence that Anna and Mozart ever had an affair, though it has been suggested on occasion. But the inaccuracy that really grated with me was the suggestion that Anna’s first child was conceived before her marriage and that she had trapped her husband into marrying her while concealing that she was pregnant to another man. It appears that this is entirely untrue, and somehow it left me with the feeling that the Anna I had got to know, while believable in terms of the book, was more fictional than factual; and I found myself wondering, as I often do, why an author would choose to use real-life characters and then skew their stories, rather than just creating entirely fictional characters. And I came to the same cynical conclusion that I always do – the names of Storace and Mozart will undoubtedly sell more copies than two fictional names would.
She needn’t live if she couldn’t sing. Without singing she was nothing, had nothing, no personhood, no purpose, no knowledge, no mastery, nothing with which to make anyone happy. She was without use. And the longer she was without use, the longer she did nothing, the more pitiable she became.
Caveats aside, this is well worth reading for the richly detailed picture it paints of the musical world of its time. While it might perhaps appeal most to people with a love for opera, the strength of the setting and characterisation will make it an interesting and pleasurable read for anyone who enjoys historical fiction.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Ballantine.