Thursday, March 3, 2011

L'Africaine: A Love Triangle and a Poisonous Tree

Principals of L'Africaine 1865 premiere in costume
L'Africaine is Meyerbeer's final opera, polished and premiered posthumously.  In my quest to read up on it, I found a site for the Meyerbeer Fan Club which shows its age, but contains discographies and links to scholarly articles, not to be despised.  There's a synopsis here.  It would seem not unstageable in the twenty-first century--see this detailed review of a 2004 production by the Opera du Rhin--despite the drama deriving from encounters between Europeans and an extravagantly exotic Other.  The identity of this Other is somewhat flexible; the libretto--by none other than  Eugène Scribe--started out with the action in Africa and Spain, but later revisions placed the story in Portugal and India.  No civilization has a monopoly on stock villains in the opera, as there is both a character who invokes Indian gods against sailors, and an Inquisitor; in fact, the dagger-wielding, pagan-gods-invoking Nelusko is a fairly complex character.  The only libretto I could find was an English translation of the hilariously ornate variety.  (Also impressively ornate are the headdresses worn by Selikas of the past.)  As far as I could judge from the text, there are both subtleties and ambivalences in how the characters are presented.  These uncertainties and inconsistencies, I would argue, make this fantasy narrative about Vasco de Gama, his ambitions, and the two women who think he's just the dishiest thing, more stageable rather than less.  My cursory investigation seems to reveal a dizzying lack of consensus among scholars as to the actual natures and motivations of the characters.  Naturally this entails a certain amount of disagreement as to the Point Of The Opera as well.  The Opera Orchestra of New York skipped past the historical-philosophical debates in the tagline: Torn Between Two Lovers--How Will It End? 

My impressions are of course hampered by the fact that this was my first hearing of the music, but I was favorably impressed, if not transported.  Eve Queler was--understandably and, I think, commendably--applauded with a fervor that acknowledged her role as the OONY founder.  However, while the orchestra gained in energy over the course of the evening, I suspected that the music could have been given more variation in dynamics and tempi to communicate the emotional drama of the score.  Maybe I'm looking for something that's not there, but the orchestration, the vocal characterization, and the libretto all seemed to suggest the possibility for more intensity than I experienced.  Still, the music was interesting and evocative.  Piccolos, soft cymbals, and a triangle may seem like a musical cliché in the introduction of the Exotic Other, but if everyone else was copying Meyerbeer, one can't blame him (except for Orientalism.)  The scene where de Gama's plans are debated in council was dramatically great--factions of a male chorus shouting at each other over an orchestra, with more important characters voicing their own motivations as well!--and the music of the mysterious island was lushly sensual.  I'm not familiar enough with the score to say whether or not there were cuts; the music and drama developed smoothly, though.

The secondary roles were well-filled, with Harold Wilson (whom I feel retrospectively gratified to have noticed as the gaoler in Tosca) a standout as the High Priest of Brahma.  Also impressive was bass-baritone Djoré Nance as the Grand Inquisitor.  Daniel Mobbs--he's everywhere!--sang Don Pedro with fine melodic shaping and appropriate snakiness.  Fikile Mvinjelwa must, I think, have been having an off night.  His career is impressive, but as Nelusko, he seemed to shout through much of the role; huge swathes of his French were lost on me, and unfortunately, so was much of the nuance of the character, which is admittedly perhaps the most challenging in the opera.  In the matter of the principals, I must confess that I have a more-than-occasional problem with damsel characters. Ellie Dehn has a sweet soprano, but it was only at the end that I felt she found a core of steel for Ines, who gets a lot of sentimental music but not, perhaps, a lot of brain.  Dehn does have a pleasant timbre, though, and a staged production would certainly help the issue of individualization.

Marcello Giordani's amiable stage presence went a good way towards dulling my need to twitch or cringe when Vasco de Gama says that posterity will vindicate his enlightened ideas and make him immortal.  Twitch, twitch, cringe!  I do not think that he can be exonerated from a charge of Tenor Caddishness in his vacillating behavior towards the women in his life.  However, de Gama gets a lot of good music, and is an interesting and complex character, capable of generosity and thoughtless cruelty, visionary ideas and narrow selfishness.  Giordani was far more cautious and less subtle this evening than when I heard him as an excellent Dick Johnson.  Having saved himself for the Act IV "O Paradis!" he sang it generously... and then relaxed.  It was a competent and even ardent performance, but far from his best, I thought.  This left soprano Chiara Taigi, in her U.S. debut, to steal the show, and steal it she did.  (She also wore no fewer than three gowns and confirmed my stereotyped idea that all Roman women look fabulous and know how to dress themselves fabulously. Sigh.)  Where has Taigi been all my life?  All over the Italian peninsula, apparently, but not on my radio, and this is my loss.  She has a huge, gorgeous dramatic soprano.  If I were going to nitpick, I could say that it was only after her first scene that her range sounded effortlessly integrated and her top notes had the fullest sweetness.  But then they did; I thought she was excellent, and she owned the stage and the role.  Her dramatic commitment and ability were striking, and gave Selika the queenly dignity of a Dido.  Her understanding of her own passion was poignant; her shame and pride, anger and generosity equally so.  And her death scene was almost unbearably beautiful; when the sentimental chorus came in I almost wanted to tell them to shut up, as I was having a moment. Sniff! Stupid tenor... he didn't deserve her anyway.


  1. I read somewhere that it was wildly successful in its time and influenced Verdi before he started working on Aida. Apparently, Patria mia resembles a similar aria in L'Africaine somewhere.

  2. @DTO It was wildly successful... as were, indeed, Meyerbeer's other works. Robert le Diable even gets a Degas painting and an Alexandre Dumas reference. I came across an interesting suggestion in my reading that Meyerbeer's ability to assess public taste and write for it may have actually hampered his works' success in subsequent generations, as their drama was designed to appeal to tastes which, inevitably, changed.

    I hadn't found that about the Aida influence! I'm guessing that they might be referring to Selika's final scene: The bit that reminded me of Aida was the duet for the women, "O Longue Souffrance." Here's a clip with two versions:

  3. Yes, in Count of Montecristo - the big scene at the opera in Paris. I've been desperate to see it ever since I first read it - and this was way before I got into Opera generally (I've also wanted to go to the opera in Rome since reading that novel and hopefully will get that chance in the very near future - I don't remember what they listened to in Rome - there was talk of a famous tenor or soprano and my guess would be Rossini but I'll have to check).

    In the meantime this is fascinating and thanks for the fastidious preparation and review. Wish I could have made.

  4. The historical background is fascinating of course as RlD explores the (mis)adventures of Bill's dad. Les Huguenots is also interesting (also if not quite mentioned by Dumas than at least it shares a theme with one of his novels. I think its being staged in Brussels later this year.

  5. @marcillac I had a similar experience... feeling both frustrated and fascinated by Dumas' (as I recall) fairly detailed descriptions of what was going on musically and dramatically on stage as the various personages of the novel intrigued so actively in their boxes! I've actually never read La Reine Margot (shame, shame.)

    I hope you can get to the opera in Rome, and have fun! Beware bad sightlines in the very back of the house. Hope your travels are going well... will look forward to Fidelio news, as well!

  6. Hi Lucy,

    I didn't see you comment above but your point about Meyerbeer writing to conform to contemporary fashion and the lamentable consequences of that tendency is especially excellent. Indeed Dumas works pretty hard to try and portray "the Fashions of Paris" and his choice of RLD seems rather telling in that context.

    The Rome sequence in The Count of Monte Cristo is one of my absolute favorite passages in literature and even if the operatic component is so much "background noise" it is very compelling background noise and makes a visit a must.

    Unfortunately my trips to Rome have been too few and too brief (one could really use a month for a thorough going over), the sightseeing too exhausting, the operatic faire too uninteresting to admit of a visit heretofore. I hope to go to a conference later this year and will try to make up for the deficiency at that time. Judging by you comment about sightlines I'm guessing you've been.

    LRM is a must if you get a chance and I believe there are two other parts of a "late Valois trilogy", La Dame Monsoreau and Le Quarant Cinq although the letter are awful hard to get in English.

    My travels have actually been quite scarce and the work abundant but I did manage to stumble into a rather interesting operatic event (and and an as yet undiscovered Dumausian landmark). More on that a bit later.


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