Giacomo Meyerbeer - L'Africaine
Teatro La Fenice, Venice - 2013
Emmanuel Villaume, Leo Muscato, Jessica Pratt, Veronica Simeoni, Gregory Kunde, Emanuele Giannino, Angelo Veccia, Luca dall’Amico, Davide Ruberti, Mattia Denti, Ruben Amoretti, Anna Bordignon
Medici Live Internet Streaming - November 2013
Just when it looked like no-one had the resources, the singers or the sheer nerve to take on another grand Meyerbeer opera and succeed in putting it across with any measure of success, along come La Fenice with L'Africaine. First performed posthumously in 1865, a year after Meyerbeer's death, La Fenice selected L'Africaine to mark that 150th anniversary, and it proves to be a good choice. Meyerbeer's final opera is a fascinating work that is not quite as richly elaborate in melodies and set-pieces as some of his more famous grand operas (Les Huguenots, Robert le Diable), but it retains the glamour in a number of key scenes even as it shows some influence of a more modern style elsewhere. By and large, with only some minor reservations, La Fenice mirror that approach in their new production and in the process prove that a Meyerbeer opera can still work on the modern stage on its own terms.
Although it has a title that makes little sense to anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of geography - the African woman of the title actually comes from India or from an Indian island - the chief attraction of L'Africaine for audiences of the day was the foreign exoticism of its setting. For modern audiences, if the work is known at all, it's for how Meyerbeer expresses that exoticism in the opera's most famous aria, 'O Paradis', sung by Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama on his arrival at the New World of his dreams. That revelation in Act IV doesn't come as easily as it seems and there are various trials and tribulations in the first three acts that make it all worthwhile, if not unexpectedly somewhat conventionally drawn out.
Inevitably this is mainly to incorporate romantic complications. Although she has been engaged to marry Don Pédro, Inès is in love with Vasco de Gama. Awaiting his return from sea, the news arrives that her beloved has died in a shipwreck, but this proves untrue. Vasco de Gama is actually the sole survivor of the crew, and has brought news of a new world out there somewhere. If given a ship, he promises the council an empire, "new climates, rich treasures, prosperity". As proof that this new land exists, he shows the council two examples of an unknown race of copper-skinned people, Sélika and Nélusko, who have been bought as slaves in Africa. As there is nothing written of such a land and the slaves refuse to divulge where their land lies, the council reject Vasco's claims and he is rather harshly anathemised and thrown into prison.
Languishing in his cell, poor Vasco de Gama also has woman trouble to contend with. Unknown to him, Sélika, who is actually the Queen of her island kingdom, is in love with the Portuguese sailor and furious when he mentions the name Inès in his sleep. For her part, Inès is jealous of the beautiful woman that de Gama has brought back with him, even though he denies that there could possibly be anything between them and even offers her Sélika and Nélusko as slaves. That obviously doesn't go down well with Sélika either. Of more pressing concern however is rescuing her beloved from prison, and the only way Inès can do that is by agreeing to marry Don Pédro.
Strange as it might seem since they rejected Vasco de Gama's claims, the ruling council have decided to let Don Pédro lead an expedition instead. Even stranger, the released Vasco de Gama has managed to get a ship, follows them and boards Don Pédro's ship only for it to be attacked by Indian pirates, the ship burnt and all the crew killed. The only survivors are Inès, her maid and Vasco de Gama, who has been found in chains in the depths of the captured ship. A prisoner still, Vasco de Gama is nonetheless enraptured with the discovery of the land of his dreams. His delight is short-lived however, as the Brahman priest commands that a foreigner cannot be allowed to live. Now crowned Queen again, Sélika, much to Nélusko's anger, saves him by claiming that she and the explorer are married. Discovering for the first time that she loves him de Gama rejoices in their union, but only until he discovers that his beloved Inès is not dead. Rejected again, Sélika inhales the poison of the Manchineel tree and is joined in death by her ever faithful Nélusko.
Already ahead of the fashionable French love for exoticism that would be expressed later in Delibes' similarly themed Lakmé, (although it can even be seen as far back as Rameau's Les Indes Galantes), Meyerbeer's L'Africaine revels in the colour, the richness of melody and the drama suggested by the romance and the danger of the Asian setting. Surprisingly however, although it is a 5-Act grand opera, there is little of the extravagance of melody, airs and ballets in set-piece numbers that usually characterise the genre of which Meyerbeer was the master. All those elements are in place of course but to a lesser degree here, with only one Grand Air, a short ballet in Act IV and a couple of set-piece spectacles - one of the boarding of the ship and the other of splendour of the New World paradise. Showing perhaps some Wagnerian or Germanic influence, there is more through composition in this Meyerbeer work, less stop-starting for arias, and some cutting back on repetition.
Emmanuel Villaume presents a thoughtful account of the score here with the orchestra of La Fenice. Running to three-and-a-quarter hours there are evidently trims applied, but as they are mostly towards the end of the work they seem to be made out of consideration for the performers rather than really moving the drama forward. There's nothing substantial missing from the first three acts. The first ensemble of Act II is cut, but the all-important closing ensemble is there. Act III opens with the sailor's prayer, but that seems more logical than opening the act at sea with a female chorus. There are a greater number of the small trims in Act IV and there's a major cut in the removal of the confrontation between Inès and Sélika at the start of Act V, but in both cases it tightens the focus of the drama on the highlights of these acts.
Leo Muscato's stage direction and basic period setting strips the presentation for La Fenice back even further in a way that emphasises the dramatic element of the work without necessarily losing any of its musical colour. Those key scenes could certainly be a little more colourfully decorated - the New World Paradise shown for example as merely warm diffused light and some lightly floating blossom leaves, but reducing the excess works well enough in this case when you have the aria 'Pays merveilleux... O Paradis' to say all that needs to be said, particularly when it's given a fine rendition, as it is here by Gregory Kunde singing Vasco de Gama.
It's in this kind of casting then that La Fenice truly proves that it is possible to successfully stage a Meyerbeer opera. Clearly, despite weaknesses seen in this area in other productions, there actually are good Meyerbeer singers out there, and their lineage would seem to come from the more heavy dramatic Rossini operas. Gregory Kunde is certainly one of them. He handles the principal tenor role marvellously, with a strong, confident delivery and he has the stamina to maintain it right through to his Act IV Grand Aria. He makes his exit at this stage, but Sélika has to carry right through all five Acts while keeping enough in reserve to almost single-handedly deliver the whole of Act V, and Veronica Simeoni keeps the dramatic intensity there throughout. She seems to flag slightly with some pitch inconsistency at the start of Act IV, but only briefly, rallying through to a beautiful duet with Kunde and managing to bring about that essential conclusion with all the necessary feeling and impact.
The challenges of having the right type of voice to sing Meyerbeer are evident in the casting of Jessica Pratt for Inès. Pratt is a coloratura singer of immense range and ability, well-suited and even greatly impressive in those intense Rossini bel canto roles, but the dramatic force of Inès is a different challenge altogether. It's a relatively small role, cut back even further here, but the strain shows on the Australian soprano. She plays the part with considerable personality however and comes into the role well after a slightly shaky opening. The baritone roles of Nélusko and Don Pédro are handed well by Angelo Veccia and Luca dall’Amico.
La Fenice's 2013 production of Meyerbeer's L'Africaine can be viewed free for a limited period via internet streaming on the Medici web site. The work is performed in the original French without subtitles.