Monday 25 February 2019

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Queen of the Night, Alexander Chee (2016)

In his sweeping epic story about the fictional Lillet Berne, an American orphan, international circus performer, Parisian courtesan, Empress’ maid and lauded operatic diva, Alexander Chee comes close to capturing the feelings of opera in novel form. For better and for worse.

The Queen of the Night (2016) begins in 1882. A star soprano is offered a role in an original opera, only to find that the libretto is based on the secrets of her own early life. Who has betrayed her? Is it a trap? How can she escape her fate?

The novel is dramatic and sumptuously costumed. The fates of its characters play out against a backdrop of war and political intrigue, as the plot cycles through victories and tragedies, farfetched as they are entertaining.

Alexander Chee (1967- )
On the flipside, the bad bits (whisper it!) of opera are there too—the thought that the work could have done with a good edit, the emotional detachment you can feel from characters larger than life who make questionable choices, even if their music brings you to tears.

One of the strangest things about the experience of reading the novel was that I wasn’t sure whom it was really for. Opera buffs may delight in the cameos of characters such as Giuseppe and Giuseppina Verdi and Pauline Viardot, but Chee also spends pages rehashing the plots of some of the world’s most famous operas for the uninitiated. I wanted more of Lillet’s emotions while she was singing (something that was frequently skipped over) and less dispassionate reporting of information. A small mistake about ballet positions also made me questions some of the facts I was getting.

As a heroine, Lillet is smart and strong, physically and emotionally, but the theme of fate can make her appear passive. She’s passed from master to master, and often used as a pawn. Adding to this is the one-note approach to sex scenes in the novel. Lovemaking is always rushed and brutal in the world Chee has imagined, one reason it’s hard to fathom why Lillet falls for the man she loves, who doesn’t seem markedly different from all the others.

On the other hand, Chee’s descriptions of jewels, gowns and settings are glittering. Every page had a detail I enjoyed, even if, if this had been an opera, I’d have been flicking to my programme to check the running time.

Which novel would you like to see the Secret Victorianist read next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Sunday 10 February 2019

Theatre Review: August Strindberg’s The Dance of Death, Classic Stage Company, NYC

A couple, Edgar and Alice, approach their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary in a marriage based on mutual hatred and co-dependency in August Strindberg’s bleak 1900 play, The Dance of Death.

Physically and socially isolated (they live on a secluded island and dislike their neighbours, Edgar’s colleagues in the Swedish military), the monotony of their constant bickering is broken by the arrival of a figure from their pasts—Alice’s cousin Kurt.

Soon one dysfunctional relationship becomes three as the trio’s jibes grow crueller and the stakes for all higher.

Richard Topol, Cassie Beck and Christopher Innver in the CSC's production
The Classic Stage Company’s production makes use of Strindberg’s first version of the play, with Cassie Beck as Alice, Christopher Innver as Kurt and Richard Topol as Edgar. The staging is in the round, with just enough props to suggest the period setting. But the subject matter feels modern—Kurt’s child custody issues are relatable and the married pair is reminiscent of many unhappy couples today.

Memorable moments include Alice’s sporadic playing on the piano—mimed here, with the music coming from offstage, a ghostly and strangely fitting, if practical, choice—and her husband’s sabre dance (the dance of the title, since his wife hopes more than once that the exercise will cause him to have a heart attack). It’s hard not to think of Strindberg’s rival Henrik Ibsen and Nora’s desperate tarantella in The Doll’s House (1879) as Topol veers about the stage, kicking the air.

The three actors do a good job sustaining energy in a tense and emotionally taxing performance, although Beck arguably has a less sympathetic character to work with than the men. I left feeling dramatic satisfaction at the cyclical conclusion of the play, relief at escaping the claustrophobic home of the central pair and fear at the confining nature of marriage—all very Strinbergian.

Do you know of any other plays the Secret Victorianist should review next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.