Cohen’s debut takes a popular Victorian theme—destitute young woman rescued by older man with rakish past—and tweaks it for current preoccupations, adding pedophilia and anti-Semitism to a story that’s more sensational melodrama than romance.
Set in the early 1890s, the tale has trademark Wharton details—Mrs. Astor is still giving parties; money as much as love is the stuff of gossip, and reputations can be destroyed by the smallest indiscretion—but, like the décor in present-day theme restaurants, these seem contrived and artificial. All begins as Mario Alfieri, a famous Italian tenor, arrives to make his debut at the Metropolitan Opera. In his 40s and unmarried, Mario is a noted womanizer. Wanting some privacy, he decides to rent a house and is shown one facing Gramercy Park. The property of the recently deceased Henry Slade, it’s just what he wants—but then, exploring, he encounters, hidden in the music room, a sickly looking girl. Sensing her underlying beauty, Mario is instantly smitten. The girl is 20-year old Clara Adler, the mysterious Jewish ward of the late Mr. Slade and thought to be his heir until his will revealed otherwise. Naturally, Mario, who decides he wants to marry Clara, has to contend with a wicked and wily adversary: Slade’s lawyer, the sinister Thaddeus Chadwick, with his own dastardly plans for Clara. Though Mario whisks Clara away from the house and marries her, he discovers that she has a troubled past—which, soon revealed, makes the rest of the tale an anticlimactic race to bring Chadwick to justice. Clara, Mario learns, was seduced at age 11 by a pedophiliac headmaster; she is also haunted by dreams of murder and mayhem, which the loving Mario must confront, ditto for threats to his reputation and career.
As melodramatic and stagy as any opera, but without the compensations of music and singers.