home     authors     titles     dates     links     about


7 january 2020

L'Africaine is one weird opera, starting from the fact that it contains no Africans. Librettist Eugène Scribe and composer Giacomo Meyerbeer worked on the project for over 20 years, both dying in the process. In some early versions, the opera was supposed to be set partially in Africa. Meyerbeer and Scribe were big names in 19th-century Paris, the Rodgers and Hammerstein of their milieu. When word got around that they were working on a show called L'Africaine, L'Africaine it would remain, even though Meyerbeer tried to rename the opera Vasco da Gama.

Vasco da Gama does appear in L'Africaine. Although, to use the terminology of theorist Terence Parsons, this Vasco da Gama is not so much a "immigrant" from real life into Scribe's original story, as he is a "substitute," a character of the same name who has sweet-all to do with the historical Vasco. Meyerbeer's Vasco is a pleasant-enough role for a tenor, but as an actual explorer, he would have trouble finding his derrière with a carte routière.

In fact Vasco, though the nominal leading tenor in L'Africaine, is somewhat less effectual than his antagonists Don Pedro (bass) and Nelusko (baritone). Vasco has a nice aria ("O paradis!"), but he spends much of the opera in the clutches of various persecutors, including Don Pedro on the Portuguese side and Nelusko on the side of some unspecified natives. Both are intent on condemning him to death. Don Pedro is cheerfully megalomaniac, while Nelusko has a kinder, gentler side to his murderousness. Nelusko genuinely loves the exotic queen Selika, and he has an incipient decolonial mindset that positions him well to struggle against Portuguese exploitation.

Though I can't quite agree with critic Tim Ashley that Meyerbeer and Scribe conduct a "clear-minded examination of the complex relationship between colonial and sexual exploitation." The whole opera is confused both geographically and ideologically. It doesn't seem to me as conscious of the colonial nexus as an earlier work like John Dryden's Amboyna, similarly set among noble savages on exotic islands. I think the effect of L'Africaine works out to be more that of generic Romantic fantasy, its island and its natives just window dressing for a lurid love plot. Hence the confusion about the title: when we get to Selika's island, where are we exactly: India, Africa, Madagascar, none of the above?

Meyerbeer's music consists of serviceable passages and highlight arias. He also likes duets, trios, up to septets, where each person sings something slightly different while landing on similar rhyme-words; Scribe is very clever at supplying the text. There's nothing wrong with any of this, but we're not talking about a level of musical or dramatic interest comparable to Verdi or Wagner. In the exciting shipwreck scene that ends the third act, though, Meyerbeer's score anticipates cinematic music, giving just the right kinetic accompaniment to all the lurching around on deck.

But the real interest is the many-layered love polygon. Ines and Selika both love Vasco. Vasco loves Ines but can be persuaded to appreciate Selika, especially if she intervenes to save him from one of his many scheduled executions. Don Pedro doesn't love anybody but himself, but he wants to possess Ines. Nelusko loves Selika, but he is a self-sacrificing type. These complications sometimes make character motivation difficult to read. Selika at one point pressures Nelusko into perjuring himself to help her save Vasco by threatening suicide, but if Nelusko helps her he'll lose her anyway. At another point, Nelusko kills Don Pedro, which widows Ines, which … help me out here … I guess frees up Ines to get Vasco away from Selika so that Nelusko has another shot at her, but there's still the suicide plan, and a convenient poisonous tree … frankly it all doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense.

But L'Africaine is a tuneful opera, even if some of the tunes go on a bit long, with more vocal gymnastics than dramatic involvement. And it's potentially spectacular. Though I say that never having seen L'Africaine on stage, only on video. I almost saw it live last year. The Dallas Opera was planning a blowout revival of L'Africaine, with massive sets and choruses. Kristin Lewis and Gregory Kunde were signed to play Selika and Vasco – and then somewhere along the way, the funding collapsed. The Dallas management had to find a substitute opera that Lewis and Kunde were both ready to sing, and they settled on Puccini's Manon Lescaut. Since the piggy bank was empty, they didn't even build sets, opting for a semi-staged version, in costume but using a couple of sketchily-defined acting areas for the principal singers. This Manon Lescaut turned out to be really good, all the more moving for its lack of spectacle, but I guess that's another story.

Basically, not many people get to see L'Africaine anymore. In the past year or two, it seems to have been performed in a couple of venues in Germany (Halle and Lübeck) and one in Bulgaria (Stara Zagora). For all I know it was the same production in all three. There's really no reason for anyone to revive L'Africaine, but I enjoyed studying it.

Scribe, Eugène. L'Africaine. 1865. Paris: Librairie Stock, 1924.