La Traviata at the Vienna Opera House
The exquisite hush, the overture, and the curtains rise, cue Violetta and her soon-to-be lover, Alfredo, and I wonder how my husband has managed to acquire these coveted seats. I study the audience below, the tiered boxes across the way—women wearing couture, a surprise of silk kimonos, men in tuxedos, satin sashes across their chests. Other performances; stories I’ll never know. An immense chandelier still twinkles in the theatre’s semi-darkness and my mind wanders to our day’s trek across the city, from the boutique hotel where a copy of Klimt’s The Kiss hangs on the bedroom wall, to the nearby stone church, fresh snow on cedar roping, wreathes; streets filled with shoppers; the Café Central, its marble-topped tables once occupied by chess players, Trotsky, and Freud, where we indulge in coffee and chocolate cake—all lush backdrops for tragedy.
The Hofburg’s verdigris dome rises above the winter residence of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth—Sisi, he called her—and it’s easy to be distracted by soaring ceilings spangled with gilt, parquet floors, the pigeon-blood red dining room where they entertained, rather than the private rooms where Franz Joseph mourned the suicide of their son, Sisi’s brutal end, assassination of his heir, the stilled heart that triggered the First World War, seeded the next, and I glance out the tall windows, see the once flag-draped balcony overlooking Heroes Square, where in ’38, Hitler—who as a youth, shoveled snow so the Emperor and his family could pass, who yearned to follow them into the dazzling ballroom—stood before a crowd, warp and malice disguised in rhetoric, and commanded the good people to forfeit their city, country, to take up hammers, shatter glass to recover what he claimed had been lost.
We walk to the Museum of Fine Arts with paintings that once shimmered in Shabbos dinner candlelight before being scooped up, along with the candlesticks, by good people now remembered as the führer’s murderers and thieves, yet, I climb the front steps, drawn by Brueghel’s scenes of village life, and a single Vermeer, The Art of Painting, recovered from a salt mine after the war, its ownership disputed as if it were a child in an ugly divorce. I linger, immersed in its luminosity. I have the right to this moment, I tell myself, and try not to think of what was stolen, never to be restored.
We arrive at Schönbrunn, the summer palace, its gardens and follies now snow covered, where in 1762, six-year-old Mozart, bubbling with joy, performed for Queen Maria Theresa who moved her children across the continent like game pieces, including her fourteen-year-old daughter, Antonia, a budding flute-player, a pawn sacrificed to France, stripped of her name to become Marie Antoinette, forever tagged with a line she never uttered—about cake. Maria Theresa, a mother who never saw what became of her girl. Maria Theresa, an anti-Semite whose strategy was expulsion—unlike the solution favored a hundred and fifty years later by the jackbooted man on that balcony in the splintered heart of Vienna, hand slashing the sky, promising to restore glory, the fate suffered by my cousin, Rochel, smiling from a framed photo, a glimmer of light extinguished at the Stutthof concentration camp when she was nineteen, her winsome brother, shot dead crossing a border, and over thirty other family members caught in the rain of glass. Stories I’ll never know.
I reach for my husband’s hand. We keep attending these performances beneath prisms dangling above the stage, its streets. Violetta and Alfredo join Verdi’s chorus: Let’s drink from the joyful cups! I savor each bright note because I know what’s ahead. When the curtains fall, the audience will rise from velvet seats and applaud.
Diana Dinverno’s work has appeared in The Gyroscope Review, The Westchester Review, Panoply Magazine, The MacGuffin, and other publications. She is the recipient of the Michigan Poetry Society’s 2019 Margo LaGatutta Memorial Award, the Barbara Sykes Memorial Humor Poem Prize, and the 2022 Chancellor’s Prize. Her work received a nomination for Sundress Publication’s Best of the Net in 2020, and a Pushcart nomination in 2021. Dinverno writes and practices law in Michigan.