In late-18th-century Vienna, blind piano virtuosa Maria-Theresia Von Paradis meets the now-legendary Dr. Franz-Anton Mesmer, who seems to promise a cure for her blindness, her innocence and her state of dependency upon autocratic parents. Of course, cures have costs.
This slim debut by Frenchwoman Halberstadt introduces us to a real-life contemporary of Mozart, the 17-year-old daughter of the secretary to her namesake, the Empress of Austria. Maria-Theresia is a girl in a gilded cage, and she's adapted brilliantly to it. She sees her blindness as simply a fact of her world, not as an affliction, and she resents and finally rejects her father's relentless attempts to have it "repaired" by medical doctors. But when the charismatic Mesmer offers to take her into his care, Maria-Theresa consents, in part because she feels outmaneuvered, in part because Mesmer has a suave erotic charm, but mainly because Mesmer's treatment requires her to leave home for an extended period, and thus seems a step toward independence from her controlling father and shrill, unaffectionate mother. Mesmer does restore her sight—gradually, painfully, intermittently. And he and his patient fall in love. But sight is at best an equivocal good, she finds; gone are both her innocence and her musical talent, and sight introduces her, too, to the shabby games of ambition and power that men play. As the controversial Mesmer's welcome in Vienna wears thin and rumors about the intimacies of his "treatment" of her swirl, Maria-Theresia's father demands to bring his daughter back home, and Mesmer makes a decision to betray her in favor of his ambition. Maria-Theresia sees that now is the time for her, too, to make a bold decision and choose her fate and future.
A sharp, lyrical fable, perhaps a little too pat and Aesopian at times but poignant and plainspoken.