Callas in The Venice Adriana

Ethan Mordden writes with insight and panache about opera and the performing arts. Perhaps best known for his study Demented: The World of the Opera Diva, Mordden has also published essays, fiction, and guides to recordings.

Mordden’s novel The Venice Adriana (1998) is a roman à clef depicting Maria Callas. Its narrator is a young, closeted gay man who is sent to Venice in the early 1960s to help write the memoirs of Adriana Grafanas, a much loved and much hated diva in premature decline.

A prized, elusive tape of Grafanas in Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur is one plot element (shades of McNally’s The Lisbon Traviata). Others include a love triangle that parallels the story of Cilea’s opera, and the narrator’s sexual coming-of-age. Characters based on Elsa Maxwell and Pier Paolo Pasolini, among others, weave in and out of the story.

I expected to enjoy The Venice Adriana, and I wish that I had something nice to say about it, but it seems to me utter tripe. Its flaws are both small and large, ranging from laughably inaccurate Italian to a deeply misogynistic depiction of Grafanas/Callas, who is vain, superficial, capricious, and cynical (for starters).

The misogyny, alas, makes appearances elsewhere in Mordden’s work. Demented, for example, draws contrasts between performances that are, yes, “demented” (spellbinding, of overwhelming power) and “filth” (bungling, subpar). “Demented” deprives the diva of agency (she is out of her mind, not in control), while “filth” associates her with obscenity, rot, and putrefaction. (Mordden does not claim to have coined these terms, but he did help to fix and institutionalize them.)

Maria Callas recorded the two big arias from Adriana Lecouvreur in 1954. Since I already posted them, I offer you instead “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì” from her 1956 recording of Puccini’s La bohème—neither “demented” nor “filthy,” I think, but a thing of sweetness and shy ardor. (Again, those portamenti!)

By the way, this recording was made sixty years (and not fifty, as some sources suggest) after the premiere of Bohème. I learned from Wikipedia that Toscanini’s recording of Bohème is the only recording of a Puccini opera by its original conductor; and also that Sir Thomas Beecham, who led the marvelous de los Angeles/Björling set, worked closely with Puccini on a 1920 production of Bohème.

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