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 began working on the libretto using the title L'Africaine, although his working title for the opera was Vasco de Gama at the time of his death in 1864, before he had prepared a final version. The opera had its first performance in a version made by François-Joseph Fétis at the Paris Opéra (Salle Le Peletier) on 28 April 1865. This version has been generally used, but some recent productions have used versions which reconstitute elements from Meyerbeer's manuscript score and libretto.
The first contract between Meyerbeer and Scribe for the writing of the libretto was signed in May 1837. The starting point for the story was "Le Mancenillier", a poem by Charles Hubert Millevoye, in which a girl sits under a tree releasing poisonous vapors but is saved by her lover. The plot is also based on an unidentified German tale and a 1770 play by Antoine Lemierre, La Veuve de Malabar, in which a Hindu maiden loves a Portuguese navigator, a theme already treated by the composer Louis Spohr in his opera Jessonda.
Cornélie Falcon was originally intended for the principal soprano role of Sélika, but suffered an illness which ended her career. The loss of Falcon and reservations about the libretto caused Meyerbeer to set the project aside in the summer of 1838, when he shifted his focus to the preparation of Le Prophète.
Meyerbeer resumed work on L'Africaine (the original working title) in 1841 and completed the first draft and a piano score of the first two acts in 1843, after which he again set the project aside. The original story was set in Spain during the reign of Philip III. The protagonist was a naval officer by the name of Fernand (based on Ferdinand de Soto), who buys Sélika as a slave. While sailing for Mexico in Act 3, his ships are forced to seek shelter on the coast of Sélika's kingdom in Africa on the Niger River.
In 1851–1852, Meyerbeer and Scribe continued working on the libretto. Meyerbeer had read a French translation of Camoens's The Lusiads, an epic poem which celebrates the discovery of a sea route to India by Vasco da Gama. Meyerbeer and Scribe changed the setting of Acts 1 and 2 to Lisbon and of Acts 4 and 5 to India. The protagonist became Vasco da Gama, and the working title was changed from L'Africaine to Vasco de Gama.
Meyerbeer's work on L'Étoile du nord and Le Pardon de Ploërmel caused further delay, but Meyerbeer returned to the libretto in September 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. He began composing music for the Council Scene of Act 1 in Nice (December 1857 – April 1858). He worked on the opera almost continuously from March 1860 until a few days before his death. Scribe died on 20 February 1861, after which Charlotte Birch-Pfeiffer provided German revisions which were translated into French by Joseph Duesberg. Meyerbeer himself revised Sélika's death scene in November and December 1863. He died on 2 May, one day after completing the copying of the full score.
Since substantial revisions and excisions almost always occur during rehearsals, Meyerbeer requested the opera should not be given, if he died before it was produced. However, Minna Meyerbeer (his widow) and César-Victor Perrin (the director of the Opéra) appointed François-Joseph Fétis to edit the music for a performing version, and Mélesville to edit the libretto. Because the title L'Africaine was already well known to the general public, it was reinstated, and, to achieve consistency of this title with the Hindu references in the libretto, India was changed to Madagascar. The opera was greatly shortened, damaging some of the logic of the story.
It was during the revisions by Fétis and his collaborators, including, besides Mélesville, Camille Du Locle, Germain Delavigne, and Marie-Joseph-François Mahérault, that the name of the character Yoriko was changed to Nélusko, the name of the high priest of Brahma (Zanguebar) was removed, and the spelling of Sélica was changed to Sélika. For the required ballet, which Meyerbeer had not provided, Fétis arranged two cut numbers (Sélika's Lullaby in Act 2 and the sailors' Ronde bachique of Act 3). He also moved a duet for Sélika and Nélusko from the Act 3 finale to Act 5.
The music historian Robert Letellier has written that Fétis "on the whole reached an acceptable compromise between the presumed artistic wishes of Meyerbeer and the practical necessities of performance", but "retaining the historical figure of Vasco, as well as the Hindu religion depicted in Act 4, led to almost irreparable absurdity in the action because of the change in locations given for Acts 4 and 5 on the printed libretto in the vocal score (an island on the east coast of Africa) and in the full score (an island in the Indian archipelago)." Gabriela Cruz has published a detailed analysis of the historical context of the events of the opera and the opera setting itself.
Tim Ashley of The Guardian wrote:
Fétis's alterations consisted largely of cuts and re-orderings, the aim of which, ostensibly, was to bring the opera within manageable length, and to improve narrative clarity, though the plot, by operatic standards, isn't that difficult. ... But Fétis's changes tone down Meyerbeer's clear-minded examination of the complex relationship between colonial and sexual exploitation. He makes Sélika acquiescent by shortening or removing scenes in which she is assertive. And he prettifies her suicide, which Meyerbeer intended as troubling. We don't know what changes Meyerbeer was planning: one hopes he would have sorted out the longueurs in the first two acts. But there's no doubt that Fétis did him a grave disservice.
The opera was premiered on 28 April 1865 by the Opéra at the Salle Le Peletier in Paris under the title L'Africaine in the performing edition undertaken by Fétis. Because of the long-running and unprecedented advance publicity, including countless reports in the domestic and international press, the production was a social and artistic sensation. The first night, attended by Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie, "provided Second Empire society with its most exalted self-presentation in terms of an opera premiere." Hourly reports on the progress of the event and its reception were relayed by telegraph to other European capitals. A bust of the composer, newly executed by Jean-Pierre Dantan, was revealed on the stage at the conclusion of the performance, and with only a few exceptions critics declared the production brilliant and the opera, Meyerbeer's masterpiece.
L'Africaine was nearly the only work presented by the Opéra until 1 November 1865. In its first year it brought in 11,000 to 12,000 francs per performance (roughly twice what was earned by other programs) and reached its 100th presentation at the Salle Le Peletier on 9 March 1866. It was given there 225 times before its first performance in a new production at the new Paris opera house, the Palais Garnier, on 17 December 1877, and reached 484 representations before it was dropped from the repertoire on 8 November 1902.
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, with Shirley Verrett; and in 1977 at the Liceu in Barcelona, with Montserrat Caballé. In the 21st century, Meyerbeer's major French grand operas are again appearing in new productions in European opera houses. To mark the 150th anniversary of Meyerbeer's death, the work was performed again at La Fenice in November 2013.
In 2013, a preliminary edition by Jürgen Schläder was staged by Chemnitz Opera under the title Vasco de Gama. 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. This edition was also used for a production at the Deutsche Oper in October 2015, with Roberto Alagna as Vasco de Gama and Sophie Koch as Sélika. A new production of L'Africaine/Vasco de Gama was staged at the Frankfurt Opera in 2018.
Critical edition of Meyerbeer's autograph score
In December 2018, a critical edition of Meyerbeer's autograph score, edited by Jürgen Selk, was released as part of the Giacomo Meyerbeer Werkausgabe, by Ricordi, Berlin. This edition makes available, for the first time, a musical score derived directly from Meyerbeer’s surviving autograph and employs the title Meyerbeer and Scribe had assigned to the work, Vasco de Gama. It also restores much of the original material that Fétis and his collaborators had altered in preparation both for the first performance and for the first publication of the work by G. Brandus & S. Dufour (1865). Among these revisions were musical alterations, cuts, tempo indications, and much of the lyrical text. Another change undertaken by Fétis and his collaborators was to change the names of “Sélica” to “Sélika” and “Yoriko” to “Nélusko.” Additionally, the High Priest of Brahma was referred to only under that title (“Le grand prêtre de Brahma”) and not as “Zanguebar.” Meyerbeer, however, used “Sélica,” “Yoriko, ” and “Zanguebar” exclusively throughout his score. The edition restores these character names to the way Meyerbeer wrote them.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere cast, 28 April 1865|
(Conductor: François George-Hainl)
|Vasco de Gama, a naval officer||tenor||Emilio Naudin|
|Inès, daughter of Don Diégo||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 ('de Gama' in the French libretto).
- Place: Lisbon, at sea, and in an exotic new land
- Time: late 15th century
The council chamber, Lisbon
The beautiful Inès is forced by her father, the Grand Admiral Don Diégo, to marry Don Pédro instead of her true love, Vasco de Gama. De 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 de Gama to attack the Grand Inquisitor, who anathematises him. De Gama is then imprisoned.
Sélika, who is in fact queen of the undiscovered land, saves de Gama, whom she loves, from being murdered by Nélusko, a member of her entourage. Inès agrees to marry Don Pédro if de Gama is freed; de 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 de Gama's discovery. Nélusko offers his services as pilot.
On Don Pédro'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. De 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 de 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. De 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. De 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 de 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 de 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 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.
Recordings as L'Africaine
(Vasco de 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
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
San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra
|DVD: ArtHaus Musik|
Cat: 100 217
Recording as Vasco de Gama (based on Meyerbeer's unedited version)
(Vasco de 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
Chemnitz Opera, Robert Schumann Philharmonie
- Huebner 1992.
- Letellier 2006, p. 246.
- Arsenty & Letellier 2006, p. xiv (Introduction by Letellier).
- Letellier 2006, pp. 247–248. Letellier and Huebner both give the spelling of the working title as Vasco da Gama, however, Neppi 2014 states: "in its French form it was now supposed to be called Vasco de Gama."
- Letellier 2006, p. 248.
- Camille Saint-Saëns, (Trans. Edwin Gile Rich),"Meyerbeer", Musical Memories, Chapter XX. Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1919
- Letellier 2006, pp. 248–249.
- Letellier 2008, p. 160. Letellier spells the name altered by Fétis and his collaborators to Nélusko as "Yoriko" on p. 159, but as "Yoricko" on p. 160. The latter spelling may be a misprint.
- 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)
- Tim Ashley, "Meyerbeer: Vasco de Gama review – markedly uneven", The Guardian, August 6, 2014.
- Letellier 2008, p. 158.
- Letellier 2008, p. 172.
- Pitou 1990, p. 13; Wolff 1962, p. 25.
- Press release of Teatro La Fenice
- "Vasco de Gama". Die Theater Chemnitz. Archived from the original on 2014-07-14.
- "Giacomo Meyerbeer – Vasco de Gama". Kulturradio. Archived from the original on 15 June 2014. Retrieved 15 June 2014.
- "Opernhaus des Jahres". Kultiversum.de. Retrieved 15 June 2014.
- Solare, Carlos Maria. Report from Berlin. Opera, Vol 67 No 2, February 2016, pp. 193–4.
- Irurzun, José M. "An Often Entertaining New Production of L'Africaine at Oper Frankfurt : Seen and Heard International". seenandheard-international.com. Retrieved 20 December 2018.
- "L'Africaine/Vasco de Gama". operaonline.com. Retrieved 21 December 2018.
- Selk 2018, p. 13. See also "Meyerbeer, Giacomo", Ricordi website, accessed 26 March 2019.
- Selk 2018, pp. 13–15 ("Source Valuation and Usage").
- Roles and voice types are listed according to Huebner, p. 31.
- Premiere cast and conductor are from Letellier 2008, 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. Archive copy of 22 July 2011 at Internet Archive.
- Letellier 2008, p. 174.
- Arsenty & Letellier 2013, pp. 48–51.
- Recordings of L'Africaine on operadis-opera-discography.org.uk
- "Vasco de Gama". Presto Classical. Retrieved 15 June 2014.
- Arsenty, Richard, editor, translations; Letellier, Robert Ignatius, editor, introductions (2008). The Meyerbeer Libretti, Grand Opéra 4, L'Africaine, second edition. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. ISBN 9781847189714.
- Arsenty, Richard; Letellier, Robert Ignatius (2013). Giacomo Meyerbeer: A Discography of Vintage Recordings 1889 - 1955. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. ISBN 9781443864336.
- 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 (2006). The Operas of Giacomo Meyerbeer. Madison/Teaneck: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. ISBN 9780838640937.
- 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.
- Neppi, Carla (2014). "The Composition of the Opera", translated by Susan Marie Praeder, pp. 18–19, in the CD booklet accompanying the CDs of the performance conducted by Frank Beermann. Georgsmarienhütte: CPO. OCLC 880851882, 886827216.
- Pitou, Spire (1990). The Paris Opéra: An Encyclopedia of Operas, Ballets, Composers, and Performers. Growth and Grandeur, 1815–1914. New York: Greenwood Press. ISBN 9780313262180.
- Sadie, Stanley, editor (1992). The New Grove Dictionary of Opera (4 volumes). London: Macmillan. ISBN 978-1-56159-228-9.
- Selk, Jürgen (2018). Giacomo Meyerbeer Werkausgabe, Abteilung 1, Bühnenwerke. Band 17: Vasco de Gama, Opéra en cinq actes, Paroles d'Eugène Scribe, Kritischer Bericht [Critical Report]. Berlin: Ricordi. OCLC 1083902235, 1080901564.
- Wolff, Stéphane (1962). L'Opéra au Palais Garnier (1875–1962). Paris: Deposé au journal L'Entr'acte OCLC 7068320, 460748195. Paris: Slatkine (1983 reprint) ISBN 9782050002142.