The Queen of the Night – Alexander Chee. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2016.
Exotic and lavish. Passionate and dramatic. Incredulous, grandiose, exhilarating. And oh, yes. There’s singing. For opera fans everywhere and also for those who don’t know their Verdi from their Wagner, Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night captures the drama and intrigue that is at the heart of every good story.
Set in the last days of Napoleon III’s Parisian court and the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, the story follows the rags-to-riches career of Lilliet Berne, an American-born soprano whose secret past threatens to destroy her fabulous fame. Her story is known to only four people – one who wants to possess her, one who wants to destroy her, one who has forgotten her, and one who is dead.
The book begins at the height of her fame when she is approached at a ball by an unknown writer who desires to produce an opera based on a libretto that is remarkably parallel to her own secret past. Flattered yet afraid, she seeks to find who has betrayed her. Her investigation takes the reader back to her childhood on a Minnesota farm, into the world of a traveling circus, through the doors of a Paris brothel, into the arms of a renowned tenor, behind the pomp of the Second Empire, under the tutelage of a famous voice coach, onto the stages of European opera houses, and finally back to a traveling circus.
“Victory, defeat. Victory, defeat. Victory, defeat,” is how she describes opera, and by extension, her own turbulent life. Along the way, she meets possessive lovers, scheming courtesans, political spies, desperate aristocrats, successful composers, and a cast of acrobats, servants, street dwellers, soldiers, survivors, misfits and con artists who serve as the chorus for the five-act drama that is unfolding. Throw in love at first sight, dramatic escapes, grand settings, shameless behavior and fabulous costumes, and Queen of the Night becomes, as the Germans would say, ‘Sturm und Drang’ – a story filled with epic storm and stress.
Lilliet’s first person narrative voice transports the reader into the story much like Author Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha. Both books focus on historical events where often those without power can best describe the excesses of those who have it. Throughout her story, Lilliet often feels pursued by a curse that will take her voice from her, which underscores how powerless she feels in the face of forces that are shaping her destiny. Like Carmen in the opera she admires, she sees herself as “a woman with a lover’s impatience with the whole world, a woman who feared when she did not get what she wanted that it meant she was not loved by creation itself.” But Lilliet has remarkable survival skills, best stated by a fortune teller: “When the earth opens up under your feet, be like a seed. Fall down; wait for the rain.”
While knowledge of opera is not needed to follow the story’s plot, Chee acknowledges that the novel is a reinvention of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” who’s Queen of the Night aria serves as the book’s title. To many opera fans, this character is both villain and a symbol of a free woman, someone determined to succeed despite insurmountable odds. Chee also cites Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind as inspiration. Lind gained fame and riches beyond European opera houses when ‘the Swedish Nightingale’ toured America with P.T Barnum in 1850. Lilliet’s fictional life intertwines with real people of the era including composer Giuseppe Verdi who recruits her to sing in his operas, Empress Eugenie whose clothes and furs Lilliet manages, voice teacher and former opera star Pauline Viardot-Garcia, and the Italian Comtesse de Castiglione who was mistress to Napoleon III and whose photograph by Pierre-Louis Pierson serves as the cover for the book.
Like a lavish opera set, Chee’s writing captures the excesses of the time period. Consider the dress Lilliet wears when she performs the Queen of the Night aria:
“Worth had created a costume for me that made me look to be covered in a shower of stars and comets. The embroidery was hand stitched in a technique original to him that shaped the fabric as it was sewn, and the silhouette of the bodice was sculpted as a result. One comet outlined my left breast and wound down to circle my waist, meeting others, all beaded in crystal and leaving long white silk satin crystal-beaded trails that ran across an indigo velvet train. More comets created a gorgeous bustle and the edges of their trails scalloped the skirt down to the floor—the comets looked like wings. On the front panel of the gown’s skirt, more comets streaked across a night sky of indigo silk satin, and clouds hid a crescent moon as rays of white and gold light spread from it, embroidered in silver thread. The moon was beaded in pearls.” Plus, there was a headdress.
With or without the historical references, The Queen of the Night is a ‘tour de force’ – an impressive novel that, while not a masterpiece, certainly captures the ‘over-the-top ‘splendor of the stage and the mega personalities who inhabit it.
My Wine Recommendations
For a French wine, I’ve avoided First Growth vineyards like Rothschild’s or Chateau Lafite in favor of one that fits more easily into Lilliet’s budget and perhaps your, too. My choice – Chateau Baret 2010 Bordeaux. One of the most popular wines from the Bordeaux region, the wine has a lightly creamy quality that gives way to a pleasing fruit flourish at the end. $20