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L'Africaine (The African Woman) is a grand opera in five acts, the last work of the composer Giacomo Meyerbeer. The French libretto by Eugène Scribe deals with fictitious events in the life of the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama – Meyerbeer's working title for the opera was in fact Vasco de Gama. The opera had its first performance by the Paris Opéra at the Salle Le Peletier on 28 April 1865.

Performance history[edit]

Victor Warot as Don Alvaro

The opera was premiered 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 de 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.[1][2]

Meyerbeer worked on the score from 1854 to 1855. He 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.[3]

The work had its British premiere 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. It was also performed in Melbourne, Australia, in July 1866.

The opera was enormously successful in the 19th century, but along with Meyerbeer's other operas,it fell into almost complete neglect in the 20th century, except for very occasional revivals. Plácido Domingo has sung it in at least two productions: a revival at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco that premiered on November 13, 1973; and in 1977 at the Liceu in Barcelona, with Montserrat Caballé. To mark the 150th anniversary of Meyerbeer's death, the work was performed again at La Fenice in November 2013.[4] In 2013, Meyerbeer's original version in a new critical edition by Jürgen Schläder was performed by Chemnitz Opera under the original title Vasco de Gama.[5][6] The production was a success with audiences and critics and won the poll of German critics award presented by Opernwelt magazine annually as "Rediscovery of the year" in 2013.[7] This edition was also used for a production at the Deutsche Oper in October 2015, with Roberto Alagna as Vasco da Gama and Sophie Koch as Sélika.[8] In the 21st century, Meyerbeer's major French grand operas are again appearing in new productions in European opera houses. A new production of L'Africaine/Vasco da Gama was staged at the Frankfurt Opera in 2018.[9]

The best known part of the opera is the act 4 tenor aria "Pays merveilleux ... O, paradis", which has been recorded many times.


The four principal singers at the premiere, from left to right: Naudin, Battu, Sasse, Faure
Role[10] Voice type Premiere cast, 28 April 1865
(Conductor: François George-Hainl)[11]
Sélika, a slave soprano Marie Sasse
Vasco de 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)[12]
Don Diégo, an admiral bass Armand Castelmary
Anna, Inès's confidante mezzo-soprano Leonia Levielly[13]
Don Alvaro, council member tenor Victor Warot
Grand Inquisitor of Lisbon bass Joseph David[13]
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

Act 1[edit]

The council chamber, Lisbon

The beautiful Inès 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.

Act 2[edit]

The prison

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.

Act 3[edit]

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.

Act 4[edit]

Sélika's island

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.

Act 5[edit]

The island

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[edit]

Set designs for the original production at the Salle Le Peletier

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 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 Desplechin for scene 2 of Act 5 (The Manchineel Tree). Engravings depicting the amazing sets appeared in periodicals throughout Europe. The final scene designed by Desplechin 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.[14]


Year Cast
(Vasco da Gama, Inès, Sélika,
Nélusko, Grand Inquisitor, High Priest)
Opera house and orchestra
1971 Veriano Lucchetti, Mietta Sighele, Jessye Norman,
Giangiacomo Guelfi, Graziano del Vivo, Mario Rinaudo
Riccardo Muti,
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
1988 Plácido Domingo, Ruth Ann Swenson, Shirley Verrett,
Justino Díaz, Joseph Rouleau, Mark Delavan, Kevin Anderson
Maurizio Arena,
San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra
DVD: ArtHaus Musik
Cat: 100 217

Recording of original version Vasco de Gama[edit]

Year Cast
(Vasco da Gama, Inès, Sélika,
Nélusko, Grand Inquisitor, Don Diego, Don Alvar)
Opera house and orchestra
2014 Bernhard Berchthold, Guibee Yang, Claudia Sorokina,
Nikolay Borchev, Kouta Räsänen, Martin Gäbler, André Riemer
Frank Beermann,
Chemnitz Opera, Robert Schumann Philharmonie



  1. ^ Cruz, Gabriela, "Laughing at History: The Third Act of Meyerbeer's L'Africaine" (March 1999). Cambridge Opera Journal, 11 (1): pp. 31–76
  2. ^ Cruz, Gabriela, "Meyerbeer's Music of the Future", Opera Quarterly 25: 169–202 (Summer–Autumn 2009)
  3. ^ Camille Saint-Saëns, (Trans. Edwin Gile Rich),"Meyerbeer", Musical Memories, Chapter XX. Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1919
  4. ^ Press release of Teatro La Fenice
  5. ^ "Vasco de Gama". Die Theater Chemnitz. Archived from the original on 2014-07-14. 
  6. ^ "Giacomo Meyerbeer – Vasco de Gama". Kulturradio. Archived from the original on 15 June 2014. Retrieved 15 June 2014. 
  7. ^ "Opernhaus des Jahres". Kultiversum.de. Retrieved 15 June 2014. 
  8. ^ Solare, Carlos Maria. Report from Berlin. Opera, Vol 67 No 2, February 2016, pp. 193–4.
  9. ^ "New Productions". Frankfurt Opera. Retrieved 11 June 2017. 
  10. ^ Roles and voice types are listed according to Huebner, p. 31.
  11. ^ Premiere cast and conductor are from Letellier, pp. 172–174, and Chouquet, pp. 421–422.
  12. ^ 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).
  13. ^ a b 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. 
  14. ^ Letellier, p. 174.
  15. ^ Recordings of L'Africaine on operadis-opera-discography.org.uk
  16. ^ "Vasco de Gama". Presto Classical. Retrieved 15 June 2014. 

Cited sources

  • Chouquet, Gustave (1873). Histoire de la musique dramatique en France depuis ses origines jusqu'à nos jours (in 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.

Other sources

  • Rosenthal, Harold and John Warrack (eds.), The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera (Oxford, 1979)
  • Zimmermann, Reiner, Giacomo Meyerbeer, (Berlin, 1998).

External links[edit]