Music with Ease > 19th Century French Opera > L'Africaine - Meyerbeer
(English title: The African Maid)
An Opera by Giacomo Meyerbeer
Opera in five acts, by Meyerbeer; words by Scribe. Produced Grand Opéra, Paris, April 28, 1865. London, in Italian, Covent Garden, July 22, 1865; in English, Covent Garden, October 21, 1865. New York, Academy of Music, December 1, 1865, with Mazzoleni as Vasco, and Zucchi as Selika; September 30, 1872, with Lucca as Selika; Metropolitan Opera House, January 15, 1892, Nordica (Selika), Pettigiani (Inez), Jean de Reszke (Vasco), Edouard de Reszke (Don Pedro), Lasalle (Nelesko).
SELIKA, a slave
INEZ, daughter of Don Diego
ANNA, her attendant
VASCO DA GAMA, an officer in the Portuguese Navy.. Tenor
NELUSKO, a slave
DON PEDRO, President of the Royal Council
DON DIEGO Member of the Council
DON ALVAR Member of the Council
Priests, inquisitors, councilors, sailors, Indians, attendants, ladies, soldiers.
Time: Early sixteenth century
Place: Lisbon; on a ship at sea; and India.
In 1838 Scribe submitted to Meyerbeer two librettos: that of "Le Prophète" and that of "LAfricaine." For the purposes of immediate composition he gave "Le Prophète" the preference, but worked simultaneously on the scores of both. As a result, in 1849, soon after the production of "Le Prophète," a score of "LAfricaine" was finished.
The libretto, however, never had been entirely satisfactory to the composer. Scribe was asked to retouch it. In 1852 he delivered an amended version to Meyerbeer who, so far as his score had gone, adapted it to the revised book, and finished the entire work in 1860. "Thus," says the Dictionnaire des Opéras, "the process of creating LAfricaine lasted some twenty years and its birth appears to have cost the life of its composer, for he died, in the midst of preparations for its production, on Monday, May 2, 1864, the day after a copy of his score was finished in his own house in the Rue Montaigne and under his eyes."
Act I. Lisbon. The Royal Council Chamber of Portugal. Nothing has been heard of the ship of Bartholomew Diaz, the explorer. Among his officers was Vasco da Gama, the affianced of Inez, daughter of the powerful nobleman, Don Diego. Vasco is supposed to have been lost with the ship and her father now wishes Inez to pledge her hand to Don Pedro, head of the Royal Council of Portugal.
During a session of the Council, it is announced that the King wishes to send an expedition to search for Diaz, but one of the councilors, Don Alvar, informs the meeting that an officer and two captives, the only survivors from the wreck of Diazs vessel have arrived. The officer is brought in. He is Vasco da Gama, whom all have believed to be dead. Nothing daunted by the perils he has been through, he has formed a new plan to discover the new land that, he believes, lies beyond Africa. In proof of his conviction that such a land exists, he brings in the captives, Selika and Nelusko, natives, apparently, of a country still unknown to Europe. Vasco then retires to give the council opportunity to discuss his enterprise.
In his absence Don Pedro, who desires to win Inez for himself, and to head a voyage of discovery, surreptitiously gains possession of an important chart from among Vascos papers. He then persuades the Grand Inquisitor and the Council that the young navigators plans are futile. Through his persuasion they are rejected. Vasco, who has again come before the meeting, when informed that his proposal has been set aside, insults the Council by charging it with ignorance and bias. Don Pedro, utilizing the opportunity to get him out of the way, has him seized and thrown into prison.
Act II. Vasco has fallen asleep in his cell. Beside him watches Selika. In her native land she is a queen. Now she is a captive and a slave, her rank, of course, unknown to her captor, since she and Nelusko carefully have kept it from the knowledge of all. Selika is deeply in love with Vasco and is broken-hearted over his passion for Inez, of which she has become aware. But the love of this supposedly savage slave is greater than her jealousy. She protects the slumbering Vasco from the thrust of Neluskos dagger. For her companion in captivity is deeply in love with her and desperately jealous of the Portuguese navigator for whom she has conceived so ardent a desire. Not only does she save Vascos life, but on a map hanging on the prison wall she points out to him a route known only to herself and Nelusko, by which he can reach the land of which he has been in search.
Inez, Don Pedro, and their suite enter the prison. Vasco is free. Inez has purchased his freedom through her own sacrifice in marrying Don Pedro. Vasco, through the information received from Selika, now hopes to undertake another voyage of discovery and thus seek to make up in glory what he has lost in love. But he learns that don Pedro has been appointed commander of an expedition and has chosen Nelusko as pilot. Vasco sees his hopes shattered.
Act III. The scene is on Don Pedros ship at sea. Don Alvar, a member of the Royal Council, who is with the expedition, has become suspicious of Nelusko. Two ships of the squadron have already been lost. Don Alvar fears for the safety of the flagship. At that moment a Portuguese vessel is seen approaching. It is in command of Vasco da Gama, who has fitted it out at his own expense. Although Don Pedro is his enemy, he comes aboard the admirals ship to warn him that the vessel is on a wrong course and likely to meet with disaster. Don Pedro, however, accuses him of desiring only to see Inez, who is on the vessel, and charges that his attempted warning is nothing more than a ruse, with that purpose in view. At his command, Vasco is seized and bound. A few moments later, however, a violent storm breaks over the ship. It is driven upon a reef. Savages, for whom Nelusko has signaled, clamber up the sides of the vessel and massacre all save a few whom they take captive.
Act IV. On the left, the entrance to a Hindu temple; on the right a palace. Tropical landscape. Among those saved from the massacre is Vasco. He finds himself in the land which he has sought to discover -- a tropical paradise. He is threatened with death by the natives, but Selika, in order to save him, protests to her subjects that he is her husband. The marriage is now celebrated according to East Indian rites. Vasco, deeply touched by Selikas fidelity, is almost determined to abide by his nuptial vow and remain here as Selikas spouse, when suddenly he hears the voice of Inez. His passion for her revives.
Act V. The gardens of Selikas palace. Again Selika makes a sacrifice of love. How easily she could compass the death of Vasco and Inez! But she forgives. She persuades Nelusko to provide the lovers with a ship and bids him meet her, after the ship has sailed, on a high promontory overlooking the sea.
To this the scene changes. On the promontory stands a large manchineel tree. The perfume of its blossoms is deadly to any one who breathes it in from under the deep shadow of its branches. From here Selika watches the ship set sail It bears from her the man she loves. Breathing in the poison-laden odour from the tree from under which she has watched the ship depart, she dies. Nelusko seeks her, finds her dead, and himself seeks death beside her under the fatal branches of the manchineel.
Meyerbeer considered "LAfricaine" his mansterpiece, and believed that through it he was bequeathing to posterity an immortal monument to his fame. But although he had worked over the music for many years, and produced a wonderfully well-contrived score, his labour upon it was more careful and self-exacting than inspired; and this despite moments of intense interest in the opera. Not "LAfricaine," but "Les Huguenots," is considered his greatest work.
"LAfricaine" calls for one of the most elaborate stage-settings in opera. This is the ship scene, which gives a lengthwise section of a vessel, so that its between-decks and cabin interiors are seen-like the compartments of a huge but neatly partitioned box laid on its oblong side; in fact an amazing piece of marine architecture.
Scribes libretto has been criticized, and not unjustly, on account of the vacillating character which he gives Vasco da Gama. In the first act this operatic hero is in love with Inez. In the prison scene, in the second act, when, Selika points out on the map the true course to India, he is so impressed with her as a teacher of geography, that he clasps the supposed slave-girl to his breast and addresses her in impassioned song. Selika, being enamoured of her pupil, naturally is elated over his progress. Unfortunately Inez enters the prison at this critical moment to announce to Vasco that she has secured his freedom. To prove to Inez that he still loves her Vasco glibly makes her a present of Selika and Nelusko. Selika, so to speak, no longer is on the map, so far as Vasco is concerned, until, in the fourth act, she saves his life by pretending he is her husband. Rapturously he pledges his love to her. Then Inezs voice is heard singing a ballad to the Tagus River -- and Selika again finds herself deserted. There is nothing for her to do but to die under the manchineel tree.
"Is the shadow of this tree so fatal?" asks a French authority. "Monsieur Scribe says yes, the naturalists say no." With this question and answer. "LAfricaine" may be left to its future fate upon the stage, save that it seems proper to remark that, although the opera is called "The African," Selika appears to have been as East Indian.
Early in the first act of the opera occurs Inezs ballad, "Adieu, mon doux rivage" (Farewell, beloved shores). It is gracefully accompanied by flute and oboe. This is the ballad to the river Tagus, which Vasco hears her sing in the fourth act. The finale of the first act -- the scene in which Vasco defies the Royal Council -- is a powerful ensemble. The slumber song for Selika in the second act, as she watches over Vasco, "Sur mes genous, fils du soleil" (On my knees, offspring of the sun) is charming, and entirely original, with many exotic and fascinating touches. Neluskos air of homage, "Fille des rois, a toi lhommage" (Daughter of Kings, my homage thine), expresses a sombre loyalty characteristic of the savage whose passion for his queen amounts to fanaticism. The finale of the act is an unaccompanied septette for Inez, Selika, Anna, Vasco, dAvar, Nelusko, and Don Pedro.
In the act which plays aboardship, are the graceful chorus of women, "Le rapide et leger navire" (The swiftly gliding ship), the prayer of the sailors, "O grand Saint Dominique," and Nelusko"s song, "Adamastor, roi des vagues profondes" (Adamastor, monarch of the trackless deep), a savage invocation of sea and storm, chanted to the rising of a hurricane, by the most dramatic figure among the characters in the opera. For like Marcel in "Les Huguenots" and Fides in "Le Prophète," Nelusko is a genuine dramatic creation.
The Indian march and the ballet, which accompanies the ceremony of the crowning of Selika, open the fourth act. The music is exotic, piquant, and in every way effective. The scene is a masterpiece of its kind. There follow the lovely measures of the principal tenor solo of the opera, Vascos "Paradis sorti du sein de londe" (Paradise, lulled by the lisping sea). Then comes the love duet between Vasco and Selika, "O transport, ô douce exstase" (Oh transport, oh sweet ecstasy). One authority says of it that "rarely have the tender passion, the ecstasy of love been expressed with such force." Now it would be set down simply as a tiptop love duet of the old-fashioned operatic kind.
The scene of Selikas death under the manchineel tree is precede by a famous prelude for strings in unison supported by clarinets and bassoons, a brief instrumental recital of grief that makes a powerful appeal. The opera ends dramatically with a soliloquy for Selika "Dici je vois la mer immense" (From here I gaze upon the boundless deep).