by Nancy Freedman ‧ RELEASE DATE: Feb. 20, 1980
Despite occasonal echoes of Maria Callas' career and some effortful attempts at musical detail, this maudlin account of an opera star's miserable rise and fall is too overwrought to be even half-convincing. The first 100 pages, in fact, read like a weak stab at updated Dickens-at-his-stickiest: a failed, divorced pianist commits suicide in pre-WW II London, forcing her children--wise Mark and willful little Benedickta--to go live with Father and wicked Stepmother in Larchmont; Father sticks them in private school, then abandons them, and (after bad times in foster homes) brave, noble Mark dies of consumption. . . while gifted singer ""Benka"" is rescued by a sweet, elderly church organist and his super-sweet niece. But even after this miraculous turnabout (the organist is a superb vocal coach), death-haunted Benedickta has a rotten time ahead of her. Some early audition successes lead to dashing maestro Wolfgang Menetz, whom naive Benka marries--only to discover that he's an evil Svengali, a rampant bisexual partial to orgies and sadistic tricks with a vibrator. Her first triumphs in Italy are marred by a still-born baby and the death of mentor Harry. Marriage #2, to soil researcher Jeff in Mexico, ends when she can't resist a chance to sing Norma. And her high-living liaison with film-billionaire Wendell Simeon leads to a stormy filming of Norma, voice problems, and a La Scala fiasco. So finally there's a throat operation, total loss of the voice, a suicide try, an attempt at vicarious thrills through teaching, a doomed last grab for love with Jeff, and. . . a miraculous vocal recovery, with a resolution ""to put all that was not music behind her."" Those who know anything about opera or music will find a fatal lack of verisimilitude throughout these goings-on, especially since Stassinopoulos' Maria Callas (p. 1561) portrays a similar career/private-life conflict so persuasively. And even those looking for plain old soap opera may be put off by such an unsympathetic, unlifelike heroine--as well as by Freedman's tortured prose, awkward injections of musicology, and murky symbolism (much dithering about knives and castration). A strangely unpleasant melodrama overall--but the Callas parallel (only slightly exploited, to Freedman's credit) and the author's past successes (Mrs. Mike, etc.) will guarantee a certain audience.
Pub Date: Feb. 20, 1980
Page Count: -
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1980
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