The latest fragrance from Masque Fragranze, Romanza, is neither easy to describe nor to wear. That doesn’t mean it’s not utterly brilliant, because it is. It features narcissus, but instead of wrapping it in sunshiney beeswax (Ostara) or sweetening it with rose (Lumiere Noire Pour Femme), Romanza plays up all its ugly, bitter facets, resulting in a fragrance that is a real punch in the gut. Do you want to be challenged, confronted, and swept off your feet? Well, Romanza may be just the ticket.
I don’t really see the connection to Oscar Wilde or Dorian Grey here. To me, this is more Wuthering Heights, a book that always wounds me with its sheer savagery. In particular, I think of when Cathy outlines the difference in her love for Linton and her love for Healthcliff thus: “My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary.”
The chartreuse green opening reminds me not of absinthe but of vermouth in all its adult bitterness. It makes me shiver. I feel flooded with foreboding, like breaking a thermometer on the floor and watching the little balls of mercury scatter into every nook and cranny.
The narcissus rides up from under this slick of silvery moonshine, grabs me by the scruff of my neck, and mashes my nose down into a handful of crushed jonquils, paper whites, daffodils – whatever you call them. It’s a live, crawling mass of green stems and pollen-dusted stamens. The balance of beauty and decay is just perfect here; the crushed narcissus smells like life itself, but death and corruption are already eating away at the edges.
They say that narcissus oil has a narcotic effect on the senses – I can well believe it. The first part of Romanza, in particular, is intoxicating, like being bent back and properly tongue-kissed by Snow White’s evil stepmother. It’s arousing, but the inside of her mouth tastes bitter and too late I realize that it’s poison. I end up writhing on the ground as she looks on, smiling that creepy smile of hers. Narcissus has never smelled so sinister to me before. If Ostara is a sunlit meadow, all yellows and golds, then Romanza is the midnight witching hour, a dark green velvet cloak drawn tightly around it.
The wild, ugly side of narcissus, that dark green poison facet, is supported and surrounded by three very important accords. First, a drop of either civet or a very good ambergris-like material (not Ambroxan) adds a warm, salty funk that shifts between halitosis and the natural stink of a clean beach at low tide. Orange blossom adds a honeyed indolic breeze. And when vetiver root introduces a marshy skin note, this foetid mash changes the crystalline nature of the vermouth-and-stems opening to something altogether murkier.
The second important supporting player is a pairing of violet leaf and hyacinth. Violet leaf has an astringent green, metallic character that serves the function of a knife, sharpening the outlines of the narcissus. Hyacinth adds a watery note. The overall effect of the violet leaf and hyacinth tandem is that of crushed flowers, stems, and pollen dust floating in slightly stale vase water. Oddly, the violet leaf develops a mint-like note towards the end, reminding me somewhat of the wild, green-minty forest floor feel I get from Chypre Mousse. Now I imagine Narcissus himself, lured to the lake by the cruel Nemesis, leaning down to kiss his own reflection in the water.
Finally, the most important supporting player – to my nose at least – is a damp hay and jasmine mix. The hay is probably not a distinct note but rather another facet of narcissus that I am picking up on, as narcissus can sometimes give off aromas of dry hay, jasmine, and hyacinth. The hay note in Romanza smells like hay that has recently been urinated on by horses – and having smelled this on a daily basis for years, I can tell you that this aroma is in no way unpleasant. In fact, it smells like honey, chamomile tea, warm horse, and that friendly, sun-baked smell of clean hay, all mixed together.
This part of Romanza reminds me very much of two other fragrances that are nonetheless completely unrelated to either each other or indeed to Romanza. The first is Sarrasins by Serge Lutens, where in the dry down I also pick up on a dry, sun-baked hay or chamomile tea aroma. It might be a facet of Sambac jasmine, which is the type of jasmine used in both Sarrasins and Romanza. The second fragrance that this dry hay/jasmine aspect reminds me of is Cuir Pleine Fleur by Heeley Parfums. When I spray Cuir Pleine Fleur heavily on myself – so heavily that it drips down my arms and off my fingertips – this normally polite, pastel-colored leather fragrance takes on a ferociously animalic character, and smells exactly like warm, fresh pissy hay (the rotting flesh facets of hawthorn also adding to the warm, animalic impression).
Romanza is, all in all, a strange, intoxicating, and ultimately somewhat oppressive fragrance. I like that it showcases the duality inherent in cheerful flowers such as the humble daffodil or paper white – they smell bright and beautiful at first, but as soon as you pick them, they’ve started to die and wilt, their poisonous green plant juice staining your hands and flooding your mouth with metallic bitterness.
Anybody who likes narcissus or “corrupted” florals like Une Fleur de Cassie, Amoureuse, or Amaranthine should give Romanza a try. Narcissus oil has a calming effect on the central nervous system, but is so rich that over-exposure to it can cause fainting and dizziness, or even toxicity. That effect seems very much in keeping with the Victorian theme to the fragrance, with that idea of something that is both alluring and dangerous at the same time, like Narcissus’ reflection in the pool, self-obsession, vanity, the desire to stay young forever, and so on….
Oh see now, I’ve managed to work my way round to Dorian Grey after all.