VASCO DA GAMA (L’AFRICAINE)
Opéra in 5 acts
Libretto: Eugène Scribe (with revisions, additions and translations by Charlotte Birch-Pfeiffer, Julius Duesberg and Giacomo Meyerbeer)
First performed as L’Africaine: Académie Impériale de Musique (salle Le Peletier), Paris, 28 April 1865.
L’Africaine was the last work of the most popular and critically acclaimed opera composer of the mid-nineteenth century. Meyerbeer worked on the score for decades, and it was only performed after his death.
Like all his operas, it mixes spectacular scenes (a ship caught in a storm, a Portuguese council chamber, an Indian procession) with bel canto singing, great tunes, vivid characterization, and a liberal humanism.
The opera was an enormous success, and, like its navigator hero, travelled around the world. It was performed in London, Berlin, Brussels and New York by the end of the year. Although rapturously received, the version that reached the stage was not what Meyerbeer intended.
- SÉLIKA (soprano – forte chanteuse)
- INÈS (soprano – première chanteuse légère)
- VASCO DE GAMA (fort ténor)
- DON ALVAR (ténor léger)
- NÉLUSKO (baritone)
- DON DIËGO, admiral (deuxième basse)
- DON PÉDRO, president of the council to the king of Portugal (premier bass)
- LE GRAND INQUISITEUR (GRAND INQUISITOR) (deuxieme basse)
- LE GRAND BRAHMINE (CHIEF BRAHMAN) (première basse or baritone)
- ANNA, Inès’s maid (mezzo-soprano)
The opera is set in the late fifteenth century, first in Lisbon, then aboard a ship of the Portuguese fleet, and on an exotic island (Africa or Madagascar in L’Africaine, India in Vasco). Vasco da Gama loves Inès, daughter of the admiral Don Diégo, and is loved by the slave Sélika, who is really a princess. Thrown into prison by the Inquisition for the “heresy” of asserting that the world has more countries than those mentioned in the holy books, Vasco is released when Inès marries Don Pédro, president of the Royal Council. Don Pédro leads an expedition to conquer the new world, but the slave Nélusko, acting as pilot, steers the ship onto a reef; all aboard except Vasco are captured or killed by the natives. On the island, Sélika claims Vasco as her husband to save him from being killed. Although he swears to love her, she realises that he still loves Inès (who has survived), lets the two of them go, and takes her life by inhaling the scent of the poisonous flowers of the manchineel tree.
The prelude uses themes from Inès’s romance “Adieu, mon doux rivage,” Vasco’s song of parting. That tune recurs in Act III, describing the ship sailing over the ocean waves, and at the end of Act IV, when Vasco has succumbed to the love potion and to Sélika’s charms.
Based on Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Fayard, Paris, 2003
Portugal, end of the 15th century. In the great hall of the king of Portugal’s council, Inès, daughter of the admiral Don Diégo, is waiting for the return of Vasco da Gama, who sailed away two years ago for the southern seas and who, before he left her, swore an eternal love for her.
Horrified, she learns from her father that Gama’s fleet was lost in a storm, and that the king has promised her to his rival, Don Pedro.
During the council’s deliberations, we learn that the king hopes to conquer new lands; to general surprise, Don Alvaro proposes to entrust the mission to Vasco da Gama who, sole escapee of the shipwreck, has returned to Lisbon. His appearance, with two slaves, the beautiful Sélika and her lover, Nélusko, amazes the council members, and above all Inès. Gama asks subsidies for a new voyage by which he hopes to discover countries beyond Africa, Sélika and Nélusko being the living proof of his theories. Accused of heresy by the Inquisition, which refuses to admit the existence of lands which the Bible doesn’t mention, the explorer insults the Council members, who throw him into prison with his slaves.
In the Inquisition’s prison, Lisbon, Sélika, secretly in love with Vasco, sings a lullaby for the sleeping explorer, when she suddenly hears him murmur Inès’s name in his sleep.
Nélusko, madly jealous of Vasco, reminds Sélika of her obligations as queen.
Taking advantage of his rival’s sleep, he is about to kill him, but Sélika stops him. On a map stuck to the prison wall, she shows Vasco the surest route towards her country, a paradise island in the Indian Ocean.
In loving appreciation, he takes her in his arms – at which moment Inès and Don Pédro appear, carrying the release order. To disarm all suspicion, Vasco gives Sélika as a present to Inès, before he learns that she has given her hand to Don Pedro in exchange for Vasco’s release. Furthermore, Don Pedro has appropriated Vasco’s plans, obtaining from the king the funds that were refused Vasco. On his expedition, Don Pedro will be guided by Nélusko, drunk with revenge.
Don Pedro’s ship is heading towards the Cape of Good Hope, with Inès, Sélika, Nélusko and Don Alvaro aboard. While the Portuguese sailors pray, Nélusko invokes the evil powers of the ocean, to whom he entrusts the ruin of the Christian conquerors.
Only Don Alvaro mistrusts Nélusko, whose advice has already cost the voyage three boats, but Don Pedro, consumed by ambition, ignores his warnings. Surprised by the arrival of Vasco da Gama, who has followed them on another ship, Don Pedro has him arrested. Sélika saves his life by threatening to kill Inès. Don Pedro yields, but orders Nélusko to kill Sélika, which he refuses to do. Before the two slaves can be punished, a storm hits, casting the vessel onto reefs where it is soon captured by Indians. Nélusko orders all the whites killed, while Sélika, fainting, is hailed as queen.
The High Priest of Brahma and all the people pay homage to Sélika.
The queen must swear to kill all strangers. The Portuguese women, who survived the battle, must be tied to poisonous manchineel trees, under whose shadow they will die. The only man left alive is Vasco da Gama, who admires the splendours of this new land.
Before they can sacrifice him, Sélika claims him as her husband. To save Sélika’s life, Nélusko is forced to agree to the lie. The marriage is celebrated according to Hindu rites. After drinking a potion in the sacred cup, Vasco swears constancy to Sélika who promises to help him escape quickly. Shaken by her love, Vasco gladly accepts it, particularly since he doesn’t know if Inès’s agonised song which he can hear in the distance is real or a dream.
Inès, saved from the poisonous emanations, confronts Sélika in a dramatic face-to-face which makes the queen realise how faithful Vasco is to his Portuguese fiancée. She orders Nélusko to take Vasco and Inès to their vessel, and then to meet him on the promontory from where she can see her lover depart. Nélusko warns her against the manchineel that grows on the cliff, but Sélika has foreseen all. Lying under the fatal tree, she watches the sea, sunk into a sweet torpour where she seems to see Vasco coming towards her. Brought back to her senses by the cannonshot that signals the vessel’s departure, she sees Nélusko lying near her in the fatal shadow. The people do not dare to approach their entwined corpses.
Meyerbeer began work on the project in 1837, after Robert le Diable (1831) and Les Huguenots (1836), both smash hits worldwide. The “vecchia Africana”, the original version, is a love story about a Portuguese sailor who rescues a slave girl from an African market. The African princess Gunima (or Sélica) falls in love with the Spanish (or Portuguese) naval officer Fernand, who loves the governor’s daughter Estelle. At the end, Gunima kills herself by breathing in the poisonous blossoms of the manchineel tree (as Sélika does in the later opera). Meyerbeer wasn’t happy with the draft, which he thought conventional after Robert and Les Huguenots. He put the opera aside after Cornélie Falcon (intended for the lead soprano role) left the stage, but composed some music for it in 1843.
In its final conception, the subject is Vasco da Gama’s 1497–99 voyage to India, which opened the way for European colonization. Meyerbeer suggested reworking the opera, with Vasco as the main tenor role, in 1851, and librettist Eugène Scribe’s second draft (1852) calls the opera Vasco da Gama. Meyerbeer started to compose the opera, but was interrupted by two opéras-comiques, L’étoile du Nord (1854) and Le pardon de Ploërmel / Dinorah (1859). He concentrated on the opera from 1858, completed the score in November 1863 and died in May 1864, the day after completing the copying of the full score – but before he could revise the work in rehearsals. His widow Minna charged François-Joseph Fétis, Belgian musicologist and composer, and Camille du Locle, librettist, with editing the work. Their edits don’t reflect Meyerbeer’s intentions and weaken the opera. Fétis cut, rearranged and reorchestrated passages, often clumsily. They restored the original title of L’Africaine (because the public expected it); and moved the action to Madagascar (trying to reconcile the “African” title with the Hindu elements). “Much of the music and action,” Meyerbeer expert Robert Letellier says, “was suppressed, in spite of the damage this inflicted on the internal logic of the story.”
Which is it: L’Africaine or Vasco?
The first two acts are Vasco, a realistic historical drama about the fifteenth century explorer and European colonisation. This sets up two overlapping romantic triangles: Vasco/Inès/Don Pédro and Vasco/Inès/Sélika.
The ship is a midway point; it takes the action not just to a new place, but to a new opera and a new approach. The opera about the historical figure of Vasco effectively ends here, as does the Vasco/Inès/Don Pédro triangle.
The last two acts, as Letellier argues, return to the Vecchia Africana; the focus changes from the historical drama to the personal drama and Sélika’s selfless love. It moves from history into myth, and away from world historical drama to something more intimate.
Meyerbeer’s opera is set at a historically significant time: the Age of Discovery, when Vasco da Gama, Columbus and Magellan made their world-changing voyages, and when Europe started its conquest and colonization of other continents.
Vasco da Gama’s voyage of 1497–99 discovered the sea trade route from Europe to India, allowing Portugal first to trade with and then to conquer Mozambique and Goa. The man was violent and greedy. He sank a ship carrying Muslim pilgrims returning from the Hajj, and mutilated a Hindu priest. He was more concerned with profit and plunder than with his master Manuel I’s dream of a global Christian empire. Contemporary historians saw him as haughty and cruel, although Camoens’ Lusiads glorify him. He is revered as a national hero in Portugal, but often despised in India.
The events of the opera are largely fictitious. Da Gama wasn’t obscure; he didn’t sail with Bartolomeu Dias; the king of Portugal commissioned him to discover the trade route; Columbus, not Vasco, was imprisoned, and that after his third voyage, for crimes against humanity (misrule of Hispaniola and mistreatment of its natives). (Tommaso Sabbatini has an intriguing article discussing why Meyerbeer and Scribe made these changes.)
Meyerbeer uses the fictionalized events to critique imperialism. To explore is admirable and heroic, but a present-day audience can’t sympathize with his dreams of conquest – and Meyerbeer didn’t intend his nineteenth century audience to, either.
His Vasco is far more sympathetic than the historical Da Gama. He is an Enlightenment man in a Renaissance society, who admonishes the inquisitors for their blindness and fear of light. He’s the free-thinker, the explorer and the rebel, confronting the monolithic power of theocracy. He’s courageous and inquisitive; he challenges orthodoxy and accepted views of the world. He looks to the future and to posterity. This is the West at its best: bold, courageous, rational, expansive. But he also dreams of glory and conquest. In the most famous aria from the opera, he moves rapidly from admiring the Indian island’s beauty to wanting to claim it:
Ô moment rêvé, ô nouveau monde, salut!
Je t’ai conquis, tu m’appartiens,
Sois donc à moi, o beau pays !
Sois donc à moi !
(O dreamed moment, O new world, hail !
I have conquered thee, thou belongst to me,
Be mine, O beautiful land!
This beautiful new world is a prize to be conquered, which is how many Europeans of the fifteenth century, and in Meyerbeer’s own, often saw non-European countries. They are the Other, ripe for conquest.
To his credit, Meyerbeer’s approach is culturally relativist. He doesn’t hold up Portugal as an example of superior European culture or exalt the Indians as noble savages. They’re mirror societies, more similar than different. Both are xenophobic theocracies. The Christian priests refuse to countenance the idea of another country, and condemn Vasco to life imprisonment; the Hindu priests believe the soil of their island is sacred, and cannot be polluted by profane feet. “Mort à l’étranger!” cry the sacrificers, to almost the same phrase as the Portuguese priests. Sélika is a slave at the start of the opera, and Vasco gives her to Inès; in her own country, she is queen, and Inès is her slave. Nélusko and Sélika are exotic, true, from a European viewpoint, but Nélusko also judges the Europeans by his standards; they are pagans, and he despises them all.
Nélusko is one of Meyerbeer’s most complex characters – fanatical, like Marcel in Les Huguenots, devoted to Sélika, but admirable in his refusal to be cowed by the Portuguese court and in his resistance to Don Pédro at the end of Act III. Through him, Meyerbeer challenges the institution of slavery. Slaves, Nélusko says angrily, don’t have a country or an identity of their own; what does it matter so long as they work, like cattle? They’re property, not people.
Vasco can treat his slaves as people and as property. He sold his weapons and jewels to buy Sélika from an African slave market because her tears moved him. But he later gives her to Inès, reducing her to property – minutes after singing that they’ll see happier times together; his action is absurd in its suddenness. (Sabbatini ascribes it to a failure of empathy.) “Ah! le cruel! Ah! l’ingrat!”, Sélika says. She has, after all, just saved his life; Nélusko tried to stab him while he slept.
Vasco’s heroism becomes increasingly ridiculous. In Act III he makes a dramatic, Errol Flynn-type entrance onboard Don Pédro’s ship, determined to rescue the Portuguese crew from sailing onto certain doom. Don Pédro refuses to listen and tells Vasco to get off. Vasco loses his temper, draws his sword – and Don Pédro orders him to be tied to the mast and executed. It takes Sélika and a storm to save him from that predicament. In Acts IV and V he gradually loses power, and becomes a passive character. He’s entranced by the new world (even if he wants to conquer it), and walks blithely into a chorus of sacrificers who don’t care a fig for his immortality. “Mourir en héros, en chrétien!” Vasco resolves. Sélika saves his life by claiming him as her husband. He’s drugged, and then, in one of the most ignominious exits for any tenor, he walks offstage, never to appear again. No grand trio, no explosive finale; thenceforward the opera is Sélika’s, and it ends with her 24-minute aria.
Meyerbeer does something astonishing. Vasco is gradually pushed out of the opera that bears his name, and a non-white woman becomes the protagonist.
Sélika has gradually assumed agency through the course of the opera. She’s a slave in Act I, subservient to her master Vasco; she saves Vasco’s life three times; by Act IV, she’s queen, and Vasco is, by her country’s laws, her husband. Vasco is caught between the two women: he loves Inès, but he married Sélika, owes her his life, and is prepared to let Inès return to Portugal without him. When Sélika discovers Vasco and Inès together at the start of Act V, she is furiously jealous at first; she then sends Vasco offstage, and she and Inès discuss the situation. The women understand each other’s predicament; the women’s voices harmonise and overlap, Inès echoing Sélika’s lines.
Sélika lets Vasco leave with Inès. She isn’t a Madama Butterfly, an innocent girl abandoned by a man, or even a Didon (in Berlioz’s Troyens), a mature woman abandoned by a man. Like the Empress in Strauss’s Frau ohne Schatten, she refuses to become happy at another’s expense. It’s the act of a mature, courageous person. She realizes that love is selfless and sacrificing. Whatever it may cost her, she gives Vasco up. Under the manchineel tree, she declares that hatred has left her; she forgives Vasco; and she has a vision of a heaven of eternal love – reward for her constancy. Refreshingly, her act of sacrifice and her death are separate events; she could have made the sacrifice and lived, whereas in Wagner death itself is often the act of sacrifice.
Sélika’s decision to release Vasco is an act of supreme selflessness, a renunciation of possessiveness. Vasco, for all his honourable willingness to stay with Sélika, is possessive. Vasco the opera might criticize colonialism, but criticism isn’t enough; Sélika’s decision offers an example of love.
- Vasco da Gama. Sung by Claudia Sorokina, Bernhard Berchtold, Guibee Yang and Pierre-Yves Pruvot, with the Chor der Oper Chemnitz and Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie, conducted by Frank Beermann. CPO 777 828-2, recorded Chemnitz 2013. This is the only complete recording that respects Meyerbeer’s intentions.
- L’Africaine. Sung by Martina Arroyo, Giorgio Lamberti, Sherill Milnes and Alexander Malta, conducted by Gerd Albrecht. Recorded Munich 1977.
A DVD stars Placido Domingo and Shirley Verrett, but it is a heavily cut version of the already abridged Africaine, and cannot be recommended.
Liszt – Illustrations de L’Africaine, S. 415
Johann Strauss II