The Queen of the Night
By Alexander Chee
As romantic operas tend toward grandeur and sweep, crammed with adore and passion, weepy with suffering and lost love, so does Chee’s caricature of an operatic life in melodrama set against the dramatic backdrop of mid-nineteenth century European history, with the Franco-Prussian War as its centerpiece (1870-71). And like an opera, it clocks in as a long affair, 550-plus pages, a two intermission presentation; for some, maybe feeling like a three intermission extravaganza.
Lilliet Berne, also known by her sobriquet, La Générale, narrates her story, beginning with the appearance of a novel to be turned into an opera that appears to relate aspects of her life she wishes kept secret. As she tries to unravel who might be behind the novel, she flashes back to different times of her life, beginning at the beginning with her life as a girl on the northern plains of America.
Quite a life it is, too, worthy of an operatic diva, encompassing being orphaned as a child, her life as a circus performer, her travels to Paris as part of the American spectacular, her abandonment of that life, then her life on the streets of Paris as a prostitute, followed by a career in a very specialized brothel catering to the peculiar tastes of wealthy men.
It’s in that posh setting where she meets the tenor, who recognizes her vocal abilities and who falls forever under her spell, so much so that he buys her contract and possesses her, imprisoning her in the lap of luxury, as he attempts to cultivate her voice so that he might perform with her on stage.
Again, though, she flees, ending up as a servant girl in the employ of the court of the Second French Empire under Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte and his empress Eugénie de Montijo, as well as an agent of the Empire’s enemy, Comtesse de Castiglione, reporting back on the activities of the empress.
Along the way, she meets the true love of her life, a young composer in the employ of Eugénie, Aristafeo Cadiz. The rivalry between her true love and keeper-lover-nemesis, the tenor, with life and death in the balance, provides for some overwrought soul-searching and heated passion on an operatic scale, including a Faustian bargain that may bewilder modern sensibilities.
Chee packs the novel with plenty of historical color. Of particular note are his treatments of upscale brothel life and antics, palace life during the Second Empire, and the siege by starvation of Paris during the Franco-Prussian war. Also jammed into the novel, in addition to the real historical figures already mentioned, are an assortment of renowned opera singers, among names aficionados will recognize, Pauline Viardot-Garcia, Giulia Grisi, and Adeline Patti, to mention a few.
All in all, Chee gives readers an often stirring view into the world of grand opera in its heyday, plenty of personal and political intrigue, romance, women’s high fashion of the period, as well as famous operas, among them Carmen and the Magic Flute, from which the title, The Queen of the Night, derives. And he manages to keep the entire enterprise galloping along, like a well staged operatic extravaganza, as to reduce length to nearly nothing. w/c