Giacomo Meyerbeer

The African Maid

Giacomo Meyerbeer, original name Jakob Liebmann Meyer Beer, (born Sept. 5, 1791, Tasdorf, near Berlin—died May 2, 1864, Paris), German opera composer who established in Paris a vogue for spectacular romantic opera.
 

Born of a wealthy Jewish family, Meyerbeer studied composition in Berlin and later at Darmstadt, where he formed a friendship with C.M. von Weber. His early German operas, produced at Munich, Stuttgart, and Vienna, were failures, and after a journey to Paris and London he settled in 1816 in Italy, where he produced five operas in the style of Rossini. The best of these was Il crociato (Venice, 1824), given the following year in London and Paris. His first French opera, written in association with Eugène Scribe, was Robert le Diable (Paris, 1831), produced on an extremely lavish scale and calculated to appeal to the current romantic taste for medievalism, the supernatural, and the macabre. Its success was immediate, establishing this work as the model of French grand opera. Les Huguenots was similarly successful in 1836.

In 1842 Meyerbeer temporarily returned to Berlin, where he became music director to the King of Prussia and where he prompted the production of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer. During this period he wrote a German opera, Ein Feldlager in Schlesien (1844), in which Jenny Lind took the principal part. His third romantic opera on a libretto of Scribe, Le Prophète, was given in Paris in 1849. He then turned to a lighter style and produced two works in the tradition of the opéra comique, L’Etoile du nord (1854) and Le Pardon de Ploërmel (1859). His last opera, L’Africaine, was in rehearsal at the time of his death.


Grand opera is a genre of 19th-century opera generally in four or five acts, characterized by large-scale casts and orchestras, and (in their original productions) lavish and spectacular design and stage effects, normally with plots based on or around dramatic historic events. The term is particularly applied (sometimes specifically using in its French language equivalent grand opéra, pronounced [ɡʁɑ̃t‿ɔpeˈʁa]) to certain productions of the Paris Opéra from the late 1820s to around 1850; 'grand opéra' has sometimes been used to denote the Paris Opéra itself.

The term 'grand opera' is also used in a broader application in respect of contemporary or later works of similar monumental proportions from France, Germany, Italy and other countries.

It may also be used colloquially in an imprecise sense to refer to 'serious opera without spoken dialogue'.

Teatro la Fenice de Venise - Meyerbeer
26 ou le 29 novembre 2013

Inès - Jessica Pratt
Sélika - Veronica Simeoni
Vasco de Gama - Gregory Kunde
Don Alvar - Emanuele Giannino
Nélusko - Angelo Veccia
Don Pédro - Luca Dall'Amico
Don Diego - Davide Ruberti
Le Grand Inquisiteur de Lisbonne - Mattia Denti
Le grand prêtre de Brahma - Rubén Amoretti
Anna - Anna Bordignon
Un huissier - Giovanni Deriu (?)
Un marin - Carlo Agostini
Un marin éclaireur - Ciro Passilongo
Un prêtre - Domenico Altobelli


 

Every once in a while in the history of opera there comes a composer whose work seems to dominate the whole repertoire. So it was with Handel in England; so it was with Spontini in Germany; so it was with Meyerbeer in all Western Europe and in America. Then, virtually in one season, with Handel and Spontini, their works disappear from the stage, seldom if ever to be resurrected. Meyerbeer's work has disappeared more slowly. It was at its height in popularity when the composer died (his last opera, L'Africaine, having its premiere a year after his death); and a season without Les Huguenots, Le рrophete, Dinorah, or L'Africaine was still all but unthinkable for a great opera house in the time of our grandparents. By the middle thirties, however, he had completely disappeared from the stage of the Metropolitan and many other houses; and while he still is performed m the French opera museums and given an occasional revival in Germany, his vogue is long past. The operas of many far more obscure composers have been accorded semi-permanent immortality by grace of complete recordings; but as of this writing, not a single one of Meyerbeer's once extremely popular works can be purchased in this form.

One can only speculate on the reason for this neglect. Is that Meyerbeer was so much a man of the theater, so much a showman, that once the fashion for his elaborate spectacles had worn out, they seemed too tinselly and artificial for even the broad and tolerant tastes of opera lovers.

His scores are full of fine, effective numbers; but they are spotty, calculated for stage effect; and one or two real gems, like L'Africaine's О paradis, are not enough to make them viable as a whole. Perhaps at some future date they will seem old and interesting enough to warrant resuscitation in some form. The glories of Handel's operatic scores are gradually being rediscovered through concert and phonograph performances, though his stage style is still too classically stiff to be successfully employed. Even Spontini is listened to with interest on phonograph records. Men who appealed strongly to their own age must have some vitality for ours, and that Meyerbeer's unquestionably great gifts will one day again be appreciated in some form or other.

 

Vasco da Gama, 1st Count of Vidigueira (c. 1460s – 24 December 1524), was a Portuguese explorer and the first European to reach India by sea. His initial voyage to India (1497–1499) was the first to link Europe and Asia by an ocean route, connecting the Atlantic and the Indian oceans and therefore, the West and the Orient.

Da Gama's discovery of the sea route to India was significant and opened the way for an age of global imperialism and for the Portuguese to establish a long-lasting colonial empire in Asia. Traveling the ocean route allowed the Portuguese to avoid sailing across the highly disputed Mediterranean and traversing the dangerous Arabian Peninsula. The sum of the distances covered in the outward and return voyages made this expedition the longest ocean voyage ever made until then, far longer than a full voyage around the world by way of the Equator.

After decades of sailors trying to reach the Indies, with thousands of lives and dozens of vessels lost in shipwrecks and attacks, da Gama landed in Calicut on 20 May 1498. Unopposed access to the Indian spice routes boosted the economy of the Portuguese Empire, which was previously based along northern and coastal West Africa. The spices obtained from Southeast Asia were primarily pepper and cinnamon at first, but soon included other products, all new to Europe. Portugal maintained a commercial monopoly of these commodities for several decades. It would be a century later before other European powers such as the Netherlands and England, followed by France and Denmark, were able to challenge Portugal's monopoly and naval supremacy in the Cape Route.

Da Gama led two of the Portuguese armadas destined for India, the first and the fourth. The latter was the largest and departed for India four years after his return from the first one. For his contributions, da Gama was appointed the Governor of India in 1524, under the title of Viceroy, and given the newly created County of Vidigueira in 1519. Vasco da Gama remains a leading figure in the history of exploration. Numerous homages have been made worldwide to celebrate his explorations and accomplishments. The Portuguese national epic, Os Lusíadas, was written in his honour. His first trip to India is widely considered a milestone in world history, as it marked the beginning of a sea-based phase of global multiculturalism.

Vasco da Gama leaving the port of Lisbon, Portugal

Roles

L'Africaine 
(The African Woman)

 

Grand opera in five acts, composer Giacomo Meyerbeer.
The French libretto by Eugène Scribe deals with fictitious events in the life of the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama – Meyerbeer's working title for the opera was in fact Vasco de Gama.


 

Sélika, a slave                                                          - soprano
Vasco de Gama, a naval officer                         - tenor 
Inès, daughter of Don Diego                                - soprano 
Nélusko, a slave                                                     - baritone  
Don Pédro, president of the Royal Council    - bass 
Don Diégo, an admiral                                        - bass 
Anna, Inès's confidante                                        - mezzo-soprano  
Don Alvaro, council member                            - tenor  
Grand Inquisitor of Lisbon                           - bass  
High Priest of Brahma                                     - bass 
Councillors, naval officers, bishops,
Brahmins, Indians, soldiers, sailors


 

Time: late 15th century

Place: Lisbon

Premiere cast, 28 April 1865, Paris

Synopsis

ACT I
 

Shortly before a meeting of the Royal Council of Portugal at Lisbon, fhe daughter of one of the councilors, Inez, confides, in an aria, her hopes to her attendant, Anna, that the fleet of the explorer Bartolomeu Diaz may return soon in safety, for she is in love with Vasco da Gama, a young officer on this voyage.

Inez’s father, Don Diego, brings her her first bit of bad news: the King has decided that she is to marry Don Pedro, President of the Council,a man she thoroughly detests. Furthermore, Don Diego likes the match. The second bit of bad news comes from Don Pedro himself, who reports that the fleet of Diaz has been lost with virtually every member of the cruise. And the worst news of all comes when, in answer to the lady’s inquiry, he scans the list of missing officers and says that Da Gama is one of those who perished. A trio follows in which, on one side of the stage, Don Diego tries to comfort his sorrowing daughter while warning her not to arouse her new fiance's suspicions, while Don Pedro, on the other side of the stage, gives voice, to those very suspicions.
 

Now, in full panoply, the Council enters the chamber and, as a sort of opening ceremony, sings a vigorous male chorus in honor of the Grand Inquisitor, leader of conservative thought in Portugal. The first business of the Council is to decide whether, after the failure of the great Diaz expedition, any more should be undertaken. The Grand Inquisitor is scornfully opposed to any further such waste of money and effort; Don Pedro, claiming the King’s backing, argues for an effort to find the remains of the Diaz company; and Don Alvar, one of the younger councilors, creates a sensation by reporting that a member of that company waits without.
 

This survivor turns out to be the intrepid young Vasco da Gama, who demands that he be allowed to lead an expedition for the honor of Portugal. The argument continues, with the negative approach of the Grand Inquisitor about to get the upper hand when Vasco plays his trump cards. These are introduced in the shape of two very dark and dignified handsome young foreigners, Selika and Nelusko. Actually, despite the title of the opera, Selika is an Indian queen, Nelusko a member of her court who is in love with hex. They have been taken as captive slaves in the neighborhood of the Cape of Storms, but beyond this bit of information Selika will vouchsafe nothing. Yet her glances at Vasco, and Nelusko's rage when he notices them, inform the audience clearly enough who is in love with whom. Meantime, Vasco makes the telling point that these captives prove the fact that there is a land beyond Africa, and that it is worth an expedition.
 

The Council continues its angry deliberations, quiets down with a prayer for divine guidance, and finally comes to the conclusion, as announced by the Grand Inquisitor, that Vasco is mad, and his request is turned down. Vasco’s angry answer is that Columbus was also considered mad, and die argument waxes furious all over again. Finally the Grand Inquisitor can take no more. In the name of the Pope, he sends Vasco to prison. The two Indians are taken along with him.

Giacomo Meyerbeer “L'Africaine, ‘Vasco de Gama’” (Bernhard Berchtold & Frank Beermann, 2013)

ACT II
 

In the Inquisition prison to which Vasco and his two Indian slaves have been consigned he lies asleep, while Selika sings a lovely aria that begins as a lullaby but develops into a passionate avowal of love before it ends (Sur mes genous -"On my knees"). Nelusko slinks in at the end of the aria and attempts to murder the sleeping man, only to have Selika hold back his dagger hand. She points out that Vasco had saved their lives by buying them in the slave market, and that, furthermore, a man of such a proud race as Nelusko's should never stoop to murdering a defenseless sleeper. In an aria of considerable power (Fille des rois - "Daughter of kings") he acknowledges his loyalty, but his hatred of Christians and his love for Selika overpower him. It becomes necessary, then, for Selika to save Vasco's life from a second attack, waking him up.
 

A lesson in geography follows. There is a large map conveniently located on the wall of the cell, and as Vasco tries to trace a route to India upon it; Selika shows him the proper way to get there. So delighted is Vasco with this information (it was just what he suspected all along, he says), that he embraces the Indian girl, inspiring in her great satisfaction, not unmixed with fear.
 

At this moment they are interrupted by four visitors—Don Pedro, Don Alvar, Inez, and Anna—and the stage is set for a long, effective, and partially unaccompanied septet. What transpires from the singers is that Inez has purchased Vasco's freedom through marrying Don Pedro, that Pedro has received permission to lead the expedition which Vasco had hoped to undertake, that Selika and Nelusko will be taken on the expedition along with Inez, and that everyone excepting Don Pedro couldn't be unhappier about the way things have turned out.

Meyerbeer: DIE AFRIKANERIN (Berlin, 8. Mai 1992) 
Dirigent: Wolfgang Rennert
Selica: Uta Priew
Ines: Susan Anthony
Anna: Kristina Clemenz
Vasco da Gama: George Gray
Nelusco: Jürgen Freier
Don Pedro: René Pape
Don Diego: Bernd Zettisch
Don Alvar: Peter-Jürgen Schmidt
Großinquisitor: Fritz Hübner
Oberpriester des Brahma: Hans-Joachim Ketelsen

ACT III
 

An unusually elaborate set is called for in (his act, which takes place aboard the flagship of Don Pedro's flotilla in search of an Eastern passage to India. On top, where almost all the action takes place, is the main deck; below is shown a cross- section of the ship, with the cabins of the various passengers.
 

Early in the morning of a fine day in mid-ocean Inez is lolling оn a couch, sunning berself, as Selika and the rest of her female attendants entertain her with a chorus about their swift and easy-sailing vessel. Don Pedro makes some fatuous

comments on his own talents as a navigator; the male chorus of sailors obliges with a chanty; and all ihe vocal and orchestral forces join in a fine prayer to St Dominic, patron saint of sailors.
 

Nelusko has been taken along on this trip in the role of pilot: it was he who stole Vasco da Gama's maps and presented them to Don Pedro. Dan Alvar warns Pedro that the Indian is apparently not to be trusted, reminding him that two ships have already been lost; but the blustering captain insists on permitting Nelusko to change the course. It was Adamastor, the god of storms, who destroyed those two ships, explains the Indian, and be describes the doings of this dread deity in a ballad sung for the benefit of the crew (Adamastor, roi des vogues profondes - "Adamastor, king of the depthless waves”).


As a matter of fact, Nelusko is steering a course directty for the reefs Biat had destroyed the ships of Diaz, and he fears that his plans may be upset when a ship bearing the Portuguese flag is sighted and a boat is sent with a messenger. This messenger turns out to be Vasco himself with precisely the warning that Nelusko had feared. Furthermore, he warns Don Pedro, once the vessel has been beached, a horde of savages is waiting to complete tlie disaster for the Portuguese. Pedro, however, suspects that Vasco's motives may have something to do with the presence of Inez aboard the ship; and when Vasco admits it, he is ordered to be bound to a mast at once and shot.
 

Inez and Selika, hearing the noise above, rush from their cabins and beg for the life of the man they love, Selika even threatening Pedro with a dagger. In a passage that is customarily cut in performance, Pedro then orders the Indian girl bound to the mast and flogged, a fascinating bit of stage business that is interrupted with warnings of an approaching storm. Before Pedro can get his rival executed, the winds blow the ship on the reef and, almost at once, Indian warriors board her and begin to butcher the men as the women engage in futile prayer. With the male chorus of Indians singing a triumphant chorus in praise of Brahma, the action-packed scene comes to an end.

 

Meyerbeer: LA AFRICANA
Teatro Municipal de Caracas. Enero 18, 1981
Director Musical: Giuseppe Morelli

Selika: Adelaide Negri
Inés: Mietta Sighele
Vasco da Gama: Veriano Lucheti
Nelusko: Antonio Salvadori
Don Pedro: George Pappas
Don Diego: Louis Lebherz
Don Alvaro: José Luís García
Gran Inquisidor: Erik Halvarsson
Gran Sacerdote: Louis Lebherz
Anna: Rosa Savoini

ACT IV
 

Before a Hindu temple in Hindustan, a procession of the priests of Brahma passes, a ballet is danced, and Selika, the Queen, is welcomed home. Instructed by the High Priest, she swears to uphold the local laws and allow no foreigner on the sacred Hindustani soil. But off-stage the Portuguese women are being tortured, and Selika wonders fearfully over the fate of Vasco.
 

Nelusko does not add to his beloved Queen's cheer by telling her that all the Portuguese men have been slain; but a moment later news comes that there is one who has survived, and Nelusko, fearing it may be Vasco, orders him executed forthwith. With practically everyone else in the temple, Vasco is led in by the soldiers but seems to be quite unaware of his sentence. Instead, he is rapturously impressed with the beauty of the land he now sees, and he sings by far the most familiar number in the opera, the tenor aria О paradis. It is not merely the nature-lover in him that draws forth this eloquent melody: Vasco dreams of the glory that will be Portugal's when she has gained this earthly paradise—and be shall be the donor.
 

Even when the soldiers terminate bis reverie with the unwelcome information that be is to die, he demands instead that he be given a ship-or at least a messenger—to tell Portugal die great news. The soldiers raise their weapons threateningly, and at that point the services in the temple are over. As Selika emerges, be calls her by name; and when Nelusko, the High Priest, and the others demand his immediate execution, she declares that Vasco is her husband, and that be saved her at a slave market and gave her her freedom, Nelusko, of course, knows that this story is partly untrue; but in an aside she tells him that unless be vouches for the marriage, she shall die along with her beloved Portuguese officer. In a stormy aria, with choral background, Nelusko expresses his despair (L'avoir tant adoree - "To have adored her so much"), but he finally swears the great falsehood on the holy Brahman Goldea Book. As this marriage must be duly solemnized, the priests now return to the temple to prepare for it and leave their Queen alone with the man who is to be their King.
 

Selika tells Vasco of the sentence of death that has been passed on Inez and the other women, and she fears now that be will leave her, as he is free to do. Vasco, however, appears to be almost in a trance, and as be returns to his senses, he falls in love with Selika. After a passionate love duet, the High Priest and others return and invoke the blessings of the gods on the happy couple. But heard off-stage, during the chorus of rejoicing, are the sad voices of 1пек and the other doomed women intoning a mournful farewell to the beautiful Tagus River of Portugal. As Vasco hears the voice of Inez singing the melody of her first-act aria, he attempts to rush off to her, but he is pushed toward the temple and his Indian queen by all the singers and the dancers.

 

Meyerbeer: LA AFRICANA
Arroyo Casellato
Lamberti Milnes

ACT V
 

Scene 1  (which is often omitted) is devoted chiefly to a duet, in Selika's garden, between her and Inez. Although she had originally planned to have Inez slam, Selika gradually realizes that their loves for Vasco are equally great and that he prefers his countrywoman. Thereupon Selika calls Nelusko and the soldiers, orders that Vasco and Inez be put on a ship bound for Portugal, and tells Nelusko to meet her at the end of a certain promontory to watch the departing sails.
 

Scene 2 On that promontory Selika addresses first the sea, which is no deeper than her misery, and then the manchineel tree, whose poison is to bring her misery to an end. She gathers up a few blossoms, inhales the deadly perfume,and in a trance imagines herself once more in Vasco's arms. Nelusko, arriving too late, sees what has happened, seizes some of the poisonous blossoms for himself, and dies contentedly in the arms of the woman he loved. Off-stage a chorus intones the beauties of love in the afterlife.

Meyerbeer: LA AFRICANA

Placido Domingo & Shirley Verrett in L'Africaine

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