"When it began, it began as an opera would begin," it begins, and it goes on like one too — a novel vaguely modeled on "The Magic Flute," pressed through the mold of the 18th-century picaresque, with a hint of the charm of Victorian erotica, a marvelously involute plot and a whiff of the circus in the American grain. The novel's terms are set at once: "in a palace, at a ball, in an encounter with a stranger who, you discover, has your fate in his hands."
Let's face it: To truly appreciate the comedy and tragedy of opera, we have to suspend our disbelief up there in the rigging, and so it is here. Once we accept this condition, all the wild vagaries of plot and amazing coincidences, with reference to omens and curses and the tyrannies of capital-F Fame and Fate, it becomes a scintillating sort of entertainment.
FOR THE RECORD:
Book review headline: A review in the Feb. 14 Arts & Books section of the novel "The Queen of the Night" by Alexander Chee included a headline referring to an 18th century opera star. It should have said 19th century. —
The year is 1882. Lilliet Berne, legendary soprano, is approached by the emissary of an unknown composer, a protégé of Verdi, with an offer to originate the leading role in his opera. It is every singer's dream, a chance at immortality, but it comes with a catch: The proposed opera tells the story of Lilliet's secret past. Only four people could know the story the stranger sketches for Lilliet. One is dead, one loves her, one wants to own her and one, she prays, never thinks of her at all.
And so Lilliet, fear-stricken, is launched on a search for her betrayer, a search that becomes a retrospective tour of her remarkable life, circling back again and again to the present peril. There's a lot to tell. Our heroine is a churchgoing Minnesota farm girl who buries her family (literally), makes her way to New York City intending to travel overseas to her mother's people in Lucerne (a prospect that comically keeps popping up as her adventures become ever more outlandish), falls in with a small traveling cirque, the Cajun Maidens and the Wonders of the Canadian Frontier, as a trick-riding equestrian singer (stopping first to pluck one of many aliases from a gravestone).
With the cirque, Lilliet travels to Europe, where she becomes a prostitute in an establishment called Majeurs-Plaisirs ("There were many men who wanted the attentions of a hippodrome rider"), does time in a prison comparable to the Cave of Queens and Courtesans in Gounod's "Faust," fakes her own death, and with yet another alias winds up in an orphanage whose overseeing nuns land her a job as a seamstress for the conniving Comtesse di Castiglione, who gets her a position as a servant of the Empress Eugénie. Somehow, she's implicated in the fall of the Paris Commune to the Prussians — and because I don't like to belabor plot, I won't mention the escape by balloon, the passionate coupling on the grounds of Compiègne, the possessive Prussian tenor or the tutelage of the brilliant Pauline Viardot-García in the house she and her husband share with Ivan Turgenev in Baden-Baden.
Put this way, it might seem pretty droll, but so do the operas helpfully summarized for us by Lilliet ("As the serpent prepares to finish him, three sorceresses arrive and defeat it, and then they debate as to which one of them he shall belong to as a lover. This bargaining is interrupted by a mystical communication from their queen, the Queen of the Night, who arrives and tells them he is to be her daughter's rescuer and, if successful, be given her hand in marriage."), which are hardly less comical than Robert Benchley's deliberately silly "Opera Synopses."
After pages and pages of Lilliet's speculation about the significance of the possibility of the chance that the meaning of (and so on), I came close to tearing my hair out in my own operatic fashion. And yet I was nonetheless mesmerized by Chee's portrait of Second Empire Paris at its glittering heights and in its bloody fall, on a grand scale made intimate in the salons and opera houses, the underground cells and the apartments of the demimonde, the Tuileries and Compiègne.
In his follow-up to his acclaimed novel "Edinburgh," a closely observed tale of child sexual abuse and its aftermath, Chee has leaped to another scale altogether.
Lilliet, his Queen of the Night, is the sort of soprano called a "falcon," a "voice that sounded at first as if it did not have the capacity for high notes, until they emerged, surprising, with great force. A voice for expressing sorrow, fear, and despair." Here, that voice, a rare instance of a fairy-tale first person, is at once fabulous in its simplicity and intimate in its specificity, making the story seem historical, mythic and at the same time deeply personal.
"My whole life had become the opera," Lilliet says. And "[a]lways," the tenor who loves and torments her tells us, "she is giving the performance of her life." Whether it matters, and how much, is a measure of our willingness, in the dim hush of the balcony seats, to believe.
Akins, author of four novels and the story collection "World Like a Knife," is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and a writing coach with the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.
The Queen of the Night