As the sponsor of the Readers Views Literary Award for Best Historical Fiction, I am delighted that “Vivaldi’s Muse” by Sarah Bruce Kelly has won for 2011. I admit I know very little about Vivaldi or opera, but I love historical fiction, and Kelly has done a fabulous job of recreating the world of early eighteenth century opera in Venice, Vienna, and other significant musical cities of the time. Rather than rely on sweeping historical scenes and lots of detail, Kelly blends her research into the story in what feels like an effortless portrayal of the life of priest-turned-composer Vivaldi and the woman who was his pupil and Muse, yet never his lover, Annina (Anna) Giro.
The relationship between these two primary characters is detailed largely through Anna’s eyes as the reader watches her grow from a child of nine who dreams of becoming a great singer, to one who becomes pupil to the great maestro, and eventually becomes his dear friend until the time of his death.
Kelly does a magnificent job of keeping the reader interested in the characters while including just enough historical detail to make the reader feel he really is walking through the streets of Venice or watching prima donnas in grand opera houses rehearse their roles. Kelly also knows how to balance the characters against one another. I was impressed that she did not try to make the novel sexy or melodramatic in depicting Vivaldi and Anna’s relationship, leaving their relationship more meaningful and believable as evidenced by history, and the book appropriate for younger readers. Kelly does, however, do an excellent job of demonstrating the backbiting and envy that existed among the singers in a world where boys would be castrated so they could sing as sopranos in Rome because the pope forbid women to perform on stage, and where female singers often had to give their bodies to powerful men in the music world, from patrons to composers, so they could attain the roles they desired.
Amid this somewhat sordid but glittering world, where music reigned supreme, Kelly offers a balanced portrait of a man who was a priest but has a physical ailment that does not allow him the strength to stand and perform Mass so instead he composes operas, and of a young woman who becomes his friend but never his lover. While others, including a cardinal, insinuate that an improper relationship exists between Antonio Vivaldi and Anna, the relationship never slips into a romantic or licentious one, and Kelly, who has thoroughly done her research, knows how to tie together pieces of the true story, filling in holes with plausible fictional moments, including why the cardinal later changes his tune.
While Anna and Vivaldi are both well-drawn, I have to admit my favorite character was Chiara, a young singer who is jealous of Anna and immediately upon meeting her is determined to put her in her place. Chiara is an excellent villainess full of spiteful language and evil schemes to make Anna’s life miserable. She is perfectly bitchy without going overboard or being unbelievable. I also thought Anna’s mother was well-depicted and added to Anna’s character development by how she abandoned her family while Anna was still young, leaving Anna with some insecurities and a perpetual longing to heal her relationship with her mother, a situation that Vivaldi’s attention helps to soothe for Anna.
I have only read one other book about the life of an opera singer, Willa Cather’s wonderful “The Song of the Lark,” and I found Kelly’s novel could easily hold a place beside it. “Vivaldi’s Muse” is an example of what good historical fiction should be. It seeks to be realistic and true to the past and characters. Kelly’s broad brush strokes bring the people and era to life without ever boring the reader with too much detail. I hope Kelly continues to introduce us to the history of great music through her books. This reader, at least, wants to explore that great music after having read this novel.
For more information about “Vivaldi’s Muse” and Sarah Bruce Kelly, visit www.BelCantoPress.com