L'africaine (The African Woman) is a grand opera, the last work of the composer Giacomo Meyerbeer. The French libretto was written by Eugène Scribe. The opera is about fictitious events in the life of the real historical person Vasco da Gama. (Meyerbeer's working title for the opera was Vasco da Gama.)
The opera was premiered by the Paris Opéra at the Salle Le Peletier on 28 April 1865 in a performing edition undertaken by François-Joseph Fétis, as the composer had not prepared a final version by the time of his death the previous year. It is Fétis who gave the work its present title; Meyerbeer had referred to it as Vasco da Gama. In fact it is clear from the text, with its references to Hinduism, that the heroine Sélika hails not from Africa, but from a region of, or island nearby, India. Madagascar has been suggested as a compromise reconciliation. Gabriela Cruz has published a detailed analysis of the historical context of the events of the opera and the opera setting itself.
Meyerbeer was working on the score from 1854 to 1855, and had intended the role of Sélika for the soprano Sophie Cruvelli, but Cruvelli's abrupt retirement from the public stage in January 1856 interrupted his plans.
The work was first performed at Covent Garden Theatre, London, on 22 July 1865, and in New York on 1 December 1865. It also received its Italian premiere in 1865 in Bologna, conducted by Angelo Mariani and was staged four times at La Fenice between 1868 and 1892.
The opera was enormously successful in the 19th century, but today it is rarely revived. To mark the 150th anniversary of Meyerbeer's death, the work was performed again at La Fenice in November 2013. Most modern performances and recordings are severely cut to give prominence to the parts of da Gama and Sélika, and therefore they cannot give a full idea of the composer's conception, which in any case has been to some extent obscured by the version prepared by Fétis.
The only part of the opera known to most opera lovers is the Act 4 tenor aria "O, paradis!", which has been recorded many times.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere Cast, 28 April 1865
(Conductor: George-François Hainl)
|Sélika, a slave||soprano||Marie Sasse|
|Vasco da Gama, a naval officer||tenor||Emilio Naudin|
|Inès, daughter of Don Diego||soprano||Marie Battu|
|Nélusko, a slave||baritone||Jean-Baptiste Faure|
|Don Pédro, president of the Royal Council||bass||Belval (Jules-Bernard Gaffiot)|
|Don Diégo, an admiral||bass||Armand Castelmary|
|Anna, Inès's confidante||mezzo-soprano||Leonia Levielly|
|Don Alvaro, council member||tenor||Victor Warot|
|Grand Inquisitor of Lisbon||bass||Joseph David|
|High Priest of Brahma||bass||Louis-Henri Obin|
|Councillors, naval officers, bishops, Brahmins, Indians, soldiers, sailors|
The opera depicts fictional events in the life of the explorer Vasco da Gama.
- Place: Lisbon, at sea, and in an exotic new land.
- Time: late 15th century
The council chamber, Lisbon
The beautiful Inèz is forced by her father, the Grand Admiral Don Diego, to marry Don Pédro instead of her true love, Vasco da Gama. Da Gama, who is thought to have died in the expedition of Bartolomeu Dias, appears at the Grand Council saying he has discovered a new land, and displaying Sélika and Nélusko as examples of a newly discovered race. His request for an expedition is refused, causing da Gama to attack the Grand Inquisitor, who anathematises him. Da Gama is then imprisoned.
Sélika, who is in fact queen of the undiscovered land, saves da Gama, whom she loves, from being murdered by Nélusko, a member of her entourage. Inès agrees to marry Don Pédro if da Gama is freed; da Gama, not realising that Inès has made this bargain, and noticing her envy of Sélika, gives her Sélika and Nélusko as slaves. Don Pédro announces he is to mount an expedition to the new lands that were da Gama's discovery. Nélusko offers his services as pilot.
On Don Pedro's ship
Nélusko is navigating the ship, but is secretly planning to destroy the Europeans. He sings a ballad of the legend of Adamastor, the destructive giant of the sea. Nélusko gives orders which will direct the ship into an oncoming storm. Da Gama has followed Don Pédro in another ship, and begs him to change course to avoid destruction. Don Pédro refuses, and orders him to be chained. The storm breaks out. Nélusko leads the local people to kill all the Europeans on the ships and only da Gama is spared.
Sélika is met with a grand celebration and swears to uphold the island's laws, which include the execution of all strangers. Da Gama is captured by priests, who intend to sacrifice him. He is amazed by the wonders of the island, and sings the most famous aria of the opera O Paradis! (O Paradise!). Sélika saves him by saying that he is her husband, forcing Nélusko to swear this is true. Da Gama resigns himself to this new life, but hearing the voice of Inès, who is being taken to her execution, he rushes to find her.
The reunion of da Gama and Inès is interrupted by Sélika, who feels betrayed. When she realises the strength of the lovers' affection, she allows them to return to Europe, telling Nélusko to escort them to da Gama's boat. She then commits suicide by inhaling the perfume of the poisonous blossoms of the Manchineel tree. Nélusko follows her into death.
Set designs for the premiere
The stage designs for the original production at the Paris Opera were created by Auguste-Alfred Rubé and Philippe Chaperon for act 1 (Council Scene) and act 2 (Dungeon Scene); Charles-Antoine Cambon and Joseph-François-Désiré Thierry for act 3 (Sea Scene and Shipwreck) and act 4 (Hindu Temple); Jean Baptiste Lavastre for Scene 1 of act 5 (Queen's Garden, not shown); and Edouard-Désiré-Joseph Despléchin for Scene 2 of act 5 (The Machineel Tree). Engravings depicting the amazing sets appeared in periodicals throughout Europe. The final scene designed by Despléchin received special praise for its originality. Possibly because of advance publicity and high expectations, the Shipwreck Scene of act 3, executed by numerous stagehands, was deemed by the press to be somewhat disappointing. However, Arthur Pougin writing in 1885 identified the scene as the epitome of the company's grand opera mise en scène.
(Vasco da Gama,
Opera House and Orchestra
Graziano del Vivo,
Orchestra and Chorus of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino,
(Recording of a performance at the Maggio Musicale, 30 April)
|CD: Opera d'Oro,
Cat: OPD 1467
Ruth Ann Swenson,
San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra
|DVD: ArtHaus Musik
Cat: 100 217
- Cruz, Gabriela, "Laughing at History: The Third Act of Meyerbeer's L'Africaine" (March 1999). Cambridge Opera Journal, 11 (1): pp. 31-76
- Cruz, Gabriela, "Meyerbeer's Music of the Future", Opera Quarterly 25: 169-202 (Summer-Autumn, 2009)
- Camille Saint-Saëns, (Trans. Edwin Gile Rich),"Meyerbeer", Musical Memories, Chapter XX. Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1919
- Press release of Teatro La Fenice
- Roles and voice types are listed according to Huebner, p. 31.
- Premiere cast and conductor are from Letellier, pp. 172–174, and Chouquet, pp. 421–422.
- The bass who performed under the stage name Belval was actually named Jules-Bernard Gaffiot (1823–1879) according to a short biographical note in Letellier's annotated edition of Meyerbeer's diaries (vol. 4, p. 331).
- The singers in the roles of "le Grand Inquisiteur" and "Anna" are not mentioned in Letellier, but are identified as David and Levielly by Chouquet. Two seasons later both David and Levielly also sang in the premiere of Verdi's Don Carlos at the same theatre and have been identified as Joseph David and Leonia Levielly in the cast list for that performance at "Don Carlos". Instituto Nazionale di Studi Verdiani. Retrieved 5 November 2010.
- Letellier, p. 174.
- Recordings of L'Africaine on operadis-opera-discography.org.uk
- Chouquet, Gustave (1873). Histoire de la musique dramatique en France depuis ses origines jusqu'à nos jours (French). Paris: Didot. View at Google Books.
- Huebner, Steven (1992). "Africaine, L' " in Sadie (1992) 1: 31–33.
- Letellier, Robert Ignatius (2008). An Introduction to the Dramatic Works of Giacomo Meyerbeer: Operas, Ballets, Cantatas, Plays. Hampshire, England: Ashgate. ISBN 978-0-7546-6039-2.
- Meyerbeer, Giacomo; Letellier, Robert Ignatius, editor (2004). The Diaries of Giacomo Meyerbeer: 4. The Last Years, 1857–1864. Madison, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. ISBN 978-0-8386-3845-3.
- Sadie, Stanley, editor (1992). The New Grove Dictionary of Opera (4 volumes). London: Macmillan. ISBN 978-1-56159-228-9.
- Rosenthal, Harold and John Warrack (eds.), The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera (Oxford, 1979)
- Zimmermann, Reiner, Giacomo Meyerbeer, (Berlin, 1998).
- DVD Arthaus Musik Kultur (Verrett, Domingo, Swenson, Diaz, Devlin, Skinner -Arena) San Francisco 2 Disc Set
- Eugene Ketterer's piano "Fantaisie on Meyerbeer's "L'Africaine" played by John Kersey (mp3)