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.
For the blog post, see here.
For more information about the opera, see the dossier.
Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des opéras, 1869
The libretto of L’Africiane was proposed to the celebrated composer at the same time as that of Le Prophète, that is to say, in 1840. The latter had the preference. Nevertheless, Meyerbeer worked simultaneously on the music of the two works, and in 1849, a few days after the first performance of Le Prophète, the score of L’Africaine was entirely written, according to M. Fetis, who enjoyed the master’s intimacy and full confidence. The libretto left much to be desired, and Scribe was invited to retouch it. What then did he do, since the improvements left the libretto as pitiful as we know it? The new manuscript was delivered to Meyerbeer in 1852. He completed his work in 1860. All in all, the gestation of L’Africaine lasted twenty years, and its birth seemed to cost the author his life, for the great composer died in the midst of the preparations of the execution on Monday, May 2, 1864, the day after the copy of his score had just been completed in his very house in the Rue Montaigne and before his eyes. Vasco de Gama is the hero of the libretto; sad hero! For the two years since he left to explore the new world, Ines, his fiancée, has kept a faithful memory of him. She hopes to see him again; but Don Diego, her father, yielding to the king’s orders, orders her to renounce his love, and to accept as spouse the president of the council, the ambitious and treacherous Don Pedro. Moreover, he shows her on a funeral list the name of Vasco de Gama among those of the sailors engulfed in a recent shipwreck. The council assembles, and who appears before them? Vasco himself, escaped from the storm. However, full of confidence in the success of a new enterprise, he sets out his plans, and, in order to convince the members of the council, he asks that two slaves whom he brought be presented.
Only a moment ago, Scribe told us that Vasco was the only survivor of the shipwreck; now there are two slaves who, instead of taking advantage of the circumstance to reconquer their liberty, docilely follow their master to the swim, and even into the council hall.
Deux esclaves, qui sont d’une race inconnue,
Sur le marché des noirs avaient frappé ma vue
En Afrique. Ils sont là.
Des peuples ignorés ils prouvent l’existence.
Sous le soleil d’Afrique ils n’ont pas pris naissance,
Ni dans ce nouveau monde aux Espagnols soumis.
(Two slaves, of an unknown race, struck my sight on the slave market in Africa. There they are. They prove the existence of an unknown people. They weren’t born under the African sun, nor in the new world yielding to the Spanish. Look at them.)
Thus the navigator expresses himself without thinking that he is in contradiction with the very title of the opera. How! Sélika, this beautiful slave whose name is African, was not born in Africa? The dramatic genre includes many licenses, but this one is beyond measure.
The dramatic genre includes many licenses, but this one passes the measure.
While belonging to an unknown race, Sélika and Nélusko speak no less fluently the same language as the members of the council, and Sélika would be willing enough to claim her title of daughter of Eve if his fierce companion did not invite him to silence, reminding her that she is queen though slave:
Pour être dans les fers, n’es-tu plus souveraine ?
Par les dieux que notre île adore, par Brahma,
Ne trahis pas ton peuple, ô reine Sélika !
(To be in chains, are you no longer sovereign?
By the gods whom our island worships, by Brahma,
Do not betray your people, O Queen Sélika!)
Don Pedro used his influence to make the council reject Vasco’s request. The latter got excited, cited the example of Christopher Columbus, insulted the court and exclaimed:
Si la gloire de ma patrie
Par vous est lâchement trahie,
Tribunal aveugle et jaloux,
La honte un jour retombera sur vous.
(If you cowardly betray the glory of my homeland, blind and jealous court, shame will on day fall on you.)
Verses so flat, proposed to the music of Meyerbeer, deserve … prison. The Grand Inquisitor, therefore, immediately led the haughty and unpopular Vasco de Gama there. In spite of the faults of the libretto, and thanks to the music, this first act has greatness and interest. It’s the best in the opera.
In the second act Vasco is asleep in his prison. Sélika watches over to her master, for whom she has conceived a violent passion. Nélusko, yielding to a fit of jealousy, wants to stab Vasco. Sélika stops his arm, and thus pays to her benefactor as much for love as for gratitude. She makes no mystery of her feelings:
De sa souffrance
Je me sens mourir.
Puisse le calme revenir
Dans ton cœur agité, toi qui, voyant mes larmes,
Pour m’acheter vendis tout, jusques à tes armes.
(His suffering makes me feel like I’m dying. May the calm return to your troubled heart, you who, seeing my tears, sold everything to buy me, even your weapons.)
This is badly written in French. When one is a member of the Académie Française, one should have more concern for one’s glory.
There is a map hanging on the prison wall, and the savage Sélika seems to have studied it thoroughly. She proves to the Portuguese navigator that he is only an ignorant one, that he must follow such a course and arrive at a great island. Vasco, touched by the lesson of geography even more than the teacher’s charms, swears an eternal love to Sélika. He is surprised in the midst of his declaration by the visit of Ines, who, in order to save him, consented to marry the president of the council; which is of a shocking improbability. Vasco realizes that Ines is jealous of Sélika. What does he do to calm her suspicions? He has the baseness to give her to him as a slave, as well as Nélusko. Here is an opera hero in the manner of M. Scribe.
The third act takes place on the famous vessel, the construction of which delayed the first representation of the work for several months. Don Pedro, accompanied by Inès, commands the expedition; but in reality he follows the advice of Nélusko, who, in order to satisfy his thirst for vengeance, causes false manoeuvres to be made, and sends the ship to break against the reefs. Vasco rented a boat at his own expense; he followed Don Pedro; afraid of the peril that threatened his rival, he boards the ship and warns him. Don Pedro misunderstands the feeling that makes him act, and orders Vasco to be attached to the mainmast and shot. At the moment when he gives this order, the ship breaks on the rocks, and a troop of savages invades it at once. Where do these savages come from? How could they have reached the boat without any suspicion of their presence? This is what we have not been able to explain.
Sélika has resumed, in the fourth act, the attributes of her island royalty. All the prisoners, including Vasco de Gama, were to be slaughtered. To save a lover as cowardly as faithless, Sélika declares that he is her husband. To prove it, both perform the ceremonies in use in these barbarous tribes. Not only does Vasco submit to it; he adds to his protestations of love in the second act:
Vers toi, mon idole,
Tout mon cœur s’envole,
Et pour toi j’immole
Ma gloire à venir.
Mon âme est brûlante,
L’espoir et l’attente
Me font tressaillir.
(To you, my idol, all my heart flies away, and for you I immolate my glory to come. My soul burns with quivering love; hope and expectation make me tremble.)
The verses are no better, nor are the oaths more sincere. Inès’ voice is heard, and Vasco’s fires change direction for the fourth time.
As for poor Sélika, all that remains for her is to die. Like Dido, a real African at least, she does not pierce a sword on a pyre, cursing the perfidious Trojan who abandons her; she chooses a kind of death more bizarre and impossible than the circumstances that brought about this tragic denouement. She orders Nelusko to favor the departure of Ines and Vasco. As soon as she sees the ship reaching the open sea, she lies down under a manchineel, and, abandoning herself to her amorous despair, dies. The faithful and misunderstood Nelusko rushed to collect the last sigh of his sovereign adored. In his turn, he inhales the flowers of the manchineiller and suffers the same fate. Is the shadow of this tree fatal? M. Scribe said yes, the naturalists say no. If the analysis we have just made of L’Africaine libretto shows the most salient defects of the play’s literary conception, what would it be if we raised the ridiculous thoughts emitted by each character, the grotesque expressions, and the mistakes in French?
Meyerbeer more than any other was involved in the composition of the libretto. He gave indications, asked for scenes, changes, even words appropriate to his musical thoughts. He was not always happy; for the literary sense was not very strong in him; but it is to this independent and firm will that we owe the magnificent scene of the conspiracy, in Les Huguenots, the duet in the fourth act, composed at the musician’s request by M. Emile Deschamps instead of Scribe. In general, the solidarity of the poet and the musician cannot be declined by the latter. This was Weber’s opinion, who expressed himself in one of his letters: “A composer is responsible for the subject he deals with: you may not imagine that you put a libretto in a composer’s hand, as you put an apple in a child’s.”
Once these reservations have been made, we have only to admire this marvelous effect of the two forces of art: rhythm and melodious harmony. The nature of ideas more readily brings us back to the time of Les Huguenots than to that of Le Prophète; but the style has become supremely clear under the pen of the indefatigable master, and in this respect we observe the same relationship between the Huguenots and L’Africaine as between Mozart’s Don Giovanni and his Magic Flute. In the first works, more dramatic force, more inspiration; in those of the last hour, a more masterly exercise of the faculty of writing, an immediate and limpid expression of thought, the perfection of form in a word. The proofs of this thesis would lead us too far. The kindly reader will supplement what we can only indicate here by studying the score.
No one has more constantly guarded than M. Fetis a robust faith in the genius of Meyerbeer, and no one has contributed more than him to consolidate his glory. It was he that the composer’s family asked to direct the study of the masterpiece and preside over its performance. The old musical athlete devoted himself for many months to this arduous task with an energy which his friendship for the illustrious master and his eighty years made admirable and touching. The principal interpreter chosen by Meyerbeer, the tenor Naudin, almost compromised the success of L’Africaine by his bad acting, his foreign accent, his ridiculous declamation.
The tenor Villaret replaced Naudin towards the end of 1866, and the role of Vasco gained. His character, badly drawn by Scribe, prevents him from becoming better.
If we wanted to point out the musical beauties of this beautiful score, we should quote almost everything. We must confine ourselves to recalling the main pieces. In the first act, the romance of Ines: “Adieu, mon doux rivage”, gracefully accompanied by the flute and the oboe; the grand finale, which contains five developed scenes, the powerful effect of which can be compared with that of the blessing of the daggers in the Huguenots. The air of sleep, which opens the second act: “Sur mes genoux, fils du soleil”, is delightful. It is an original lullaby, full of abandon, and yet interspersed with very dramatic accents. Faure’s aria: “Fille des rois, à toi l’hommage”, has the dark character that suits this savage fanatic. The finale of this second act is unparalleled in the theater. It is a vocal septet without accompaniment, whose effect is as new as unexpected. In the act of the vessel, we notice only three pieces: the graceful chorus of women: “Le rapide et léger navire”; the prayer: “O grand saint Dominique”, and the ballad sung by Faure: “Adamastor, roi des vagues profondes”, which is much superior to the Piff paf of the Huguenots, and to the similar song in the Prophète: “Aussi nombreux que les étoiles”.
The great Indian march, which accompanies the ceremony of Sélika’s coronation, opens the fourth act. By the originality of the rhythm, the disposition of the instrumental masses, the taste with which the various sonorities of the orchestra are grouped, this Indian march is Meyerbeer’s masterpiece of Meyerbeer, and does not yield to the effect of the admirable opening of Struensee. We pass quickly onto Vasco’s aria: “Paradis sorti du sein de l’onde”; the melodic phrases are delightful; but the situation of the hero in the midst of the savages, the words he addresses to them: “Eh! Par pitié pour ma mémoire, laissez-moi la vie; me priver de gloire d’avoir découvert votre île ! Vous ne le voudrez pas !” (“Eh! Out of pity for my memory, let me live; deprive me of the glory of having discovered your island! You will not want to!”) All this is ridiculous. The ear is charmed; but the smile is on the lips. We arrive at the great duo: here, everything is admirable, intoxicating, sweet. The tender passion, the ecstasy of love, has rarely been expressed with this force. One is wrong to compare it with the duet of the fourth act of the Huguenots. There is an analogy only in the sentences: “Nuit d’ivresse”, and “Tu l’as dit; oui, tu m’aimes!” Everything else [in Les Huguenots] is as dramatic as the duo of L’Africaine is not. At the beginning of the fifth act, the arioso sung by Miss Battu: “Fleurs nouvelles, arbres nouveaux”, was deleted, as well as a third of the original score. The deleted parts are not less well treated and less interesting than the pieces conserved. The impossibility of making a performance last for seven or eight hours caused this sacrifice to be consummated. The great scene of the manchineel is announced by the famous prelude in unison that electrifies the room. This vigorous phrase is spoken by violins, violas, cellos, clarinets and bassoons. The nature of the effect produced is more due to sonority and good performance than to the melodic invention; the result is a sensation more acoustic than musical. Sélika sings, during this last scene, melodies in turn suave, vehement, full of caresses and passion. The orchestration converses admirably with this savage who wants to die not of despair, but of love. This situation, imagined by the authors, is so forced that the spectator is unmoved. Why did not you simply give to abandoned Sélika the feelings of sorrow, misery, desperate passion of Dido, Sappho, Ariadne? Meyerbeer would not have been less powerful, less inspired, and this last scene, treated by him, would certainly have outshone the fifteen or twenty operas devoted to painting a pain always sympathetic, because it is natural and legitimate.
The public will probably prefer Robert and the Huguenots, perhaps even the Prophète to L’Africaine; but this last score offers musicians such an abundance of rhythmic riches, harmonious and instrumental combinations, that in their eyes it will be the most imperishable monument of Meyerbeer’s glory.
(Henri Blaze de Bury)
Revue des Deux Mondes, 1865 (pp. 424–446)
“A musician is responsible for the subject he deals with, and you do not imagine that you could put a libretto into the hands of a composer like you put an apple into a child’s.” Already, in the time of Weber’s pronouncement, music alone was no longer enough to make the interest and fortune of an opera. We were not yet at this very recent prescription of [Wagner’s] school of the future, namely, that in good order and form an opera should only have a single text, with both words and music coming out of the same hand; but the precept was every day asserting itself in Germany, and while our neighbors exploited it in their own way by seeking the absolute, the system, we invented it, we contented ourselves with using it freely. It has been said that Scribe, even more than Auber, Rossini, and Meyerbeer, was the author of modern opera; it’s saying a lot. I cannot deny, however, that this mind so researched, so skilful, so inventive in its genre comedies, has brought into the combinations of his great works destined for music a sense of the most dramatic romanticism, an art hitherto unknown to speak to the masses, to sweep them away. Scribe, in the literary sense of the word, did not perform: in his most successful dramas of the Théâtre-Français, le Verre d’eau, une Chaîne, an impossible style often spoils the best scenes; but in an opera the drama is worth only by design, and, as to the style, the musician undertakes it for everybody. It is not in vain that one says: “the master”. What does verse mean, prosody? Elements by which poetry elsewhere lives – images, numbers, rhymes – he makes a pyre out of the ashes of which, like a phoenix, music is born. Metastasio, who was the Scribe of his time, gave everything to the form and plasticity of the poem, a sort of scaffolding for the composer’s edifice. In Scribe, on the contrary, it is the situation that dominates, the form does not count, the work does not succeed either by style or color; but as a matter of contrasts, as a musical program, it is sometimes admirable. There you can find even the political trends of the moment. It is easy to imagine what immense party the genius of a Meyerbeer with his double vocation of criticism and artist had to derive from such a workman. Meyerbeer was never a mere musician. Neither his conditions of birth and fortune, nor the mode of his education, were such as to make of him what is called a specialist. He came to music by the highway of life and not by the way to school, hence his different aesthetic styles, his cosmopolitanism, hence certain contradictions painfully felt in the depths of being which were like the tragic claims of destiny in his Olympian existence. I do not think that a great artist should be judged solely by the absolute measure of his art. If he were the least naïve of the inventors, his high reason, the vast culture of his mind, enabled him to do for this art more than any other had done, and to raise, as it were, the social level of music, by allowing her to enter this magic circle where she would meet with poetry, literature and the political life of her time. By what art lost, the cause of the intelligence profited by it. It is certainly permissible in our age to deplore that we can no longer paint it as naively as a Giotto; but, while deploring this great misfortune, we may also rejoice in it.
Scribe suited Meyerbeer. It was not, as with Auber, an association of two spirits of the same family complementing one another; it was a kind of independent trade between consumer and manufacturer. Poet as much as one could be, Meyerbeer needed only a skilful artist to give force of situation to the idea that he brought. Scribe did not always understand this idea at first; he demoralised it, gave it a bourgeois color, and it was Meyerbeer’s turn, taking it back with his hands, to restore its virtuality to him. One might have thought it a precious stone, emerald, ruby, or diamond, which had become dull under the breath of the lapidary, and whose natural brilliance the art of this Cellini rekindled.
Thus were made Robert le Diable, les Huguenots, thus was shaped l’Africaine. This great mind, incessantly in the process of research, loved to pose problems apparently unaffordable to music. E pure si muove; it seems that from this speech of Galileo in prison came his Vasco de Gama, the man of the implacable idea, of the demoniac protest, the inspired, the hallucinated, who on the straw of the dungeons hears voices which call him from the other side of the oceans. It goes without saying that this character, entirely conventional, is not connected by any point to history. The figure, as at first it is represented, would rather offer some resemblance to Christopher Columbus. Scribe, to be sure, could confound, and, for the sake of the play, pass to the account of his hero the persecutions of which the illustrious Genoese navigator was the object. That Vasco de Gama, who until death knew only the favors of men and fortune, endured here a thousand disasters, that the Inquisition and the temporal power overwhelm him with their anathemas and their tortures each time that he wishes to open his mouth for the future glory of his country, heaven forbids me to pretend to recriminate, in the name of a ridiculous pedantry, against such licenses as would have to be invented at the Opera, if they had never existed. However, if with Scribe I willingly refuse to discuss a point of history, I mean, when I am dealing with Meyerbeer, that the law of character is respected. Thus, as we advance in the work, the character of Vasco is complicated with elements too foreign to his nature; there is, allow me the word, bifurcation. Never has this martyr of his discovery, that sublime madman whom we have known in the first acts, open his soul to the burning ecstasies of the last two. The intensity of the idea excludes here the domination of a feeling. A Christopher Columbus, a Galileo, and a Vasco de Gama, placed in the theater, can interest only in the particular conditions of their struggle with destiny. When Meyerbeer places between two women the hero whom he has just painted in such magnificent features in the magnificent scene of the council, Meyerbeer lacks the logic of the character of his Vasco, and the musician, dominating the aesthetician in his house, yields to this fascinating law that says that in an opera the hero is always a tenor and that the tenor is always in love.
It is not just with a woman, but with two, that Vasco de Gama is in love. From the white to the black, and from the black to the white, a lightness of evolution is made to disconcert the interest which attaches itself to a jeune premier, which is moreover incompatible with the grandeur of the type proposed at the start. “Sire, you are yourself a ceremony!” Without going so far as this apostrophe that the brush of a Titian seems to address to the face of a Philip II, I would have liked more spirit in the attitude of this character, I expected more fanaticism in the idea. The man who braves the anathema to give a world to his country has none of these inclinations to the Faublas. It is true that if the historical portrait loses much to this circumstance, the score gains in it incomparable treasures of melody. Obviously, without this splitting of the systematic composition of the character of Vasco, the splendid duo of the fourth act would not have been born, a brilliant page that, from the start, is a masterpiece, and is developing in such a range that when the end comes, you say to yourself: The duet of Valentine and Raoul in the Huguenots has found its counterpart, if it is not surpassed! Besides, let us proclaim it at once, the melodic richness makes this opera a work apart from the master’s best. The tide here overflows the banks; it is inspired, powerful to exuberance, of an abundance, a plenitude of forms, color and life that recalls Veronese. I heard beforehand that Meyerbeer had modified his manner this time, given more to the voice of the singers. What was said of a change of style before Guillaume Tell was published about L’Africaine. The opinion and the disposition of the staff of a theater, when this theater is the opera, count for a great deal in the effect which the work which is performed must produce. From the stage and the orchestra, this opinion spread in the city, and often it was it who decided the first applause, which in turn decides the success of the evening. I know that all these people usually judge individually, and that the question of art influences it less than the question of its particular tastes. This time, however, these dispositions could only speak in favor of the work, for with Meyerbeer it was quite certain that they would not be bought at the price of reproachable concessions.
It is not only from his strengths, but also and above all from his weaknesses that a truly progressive mind takes advice. He had been told so often: “You are not a melodist,” that at last he grew weary of the objection, and wished to reply with one of those evolutions of the last hour that are made to confound the critic by showing under an entirely new point of view the artist whom he imagined to have once and for all characterized. Who would ever have believed before Guillaume Tell that the Rossini of Tancredi and Otello would be able to rise to this feeling of dramatic truth? In the same way the Meyerbeer of L’Africaine opens the lock to floods of melody that never cease. Magnitude, elegance, a variety of rhythms, a luxury of timbres in the orchestra to dazzle you! Usually the melodies of a master are recognized by a certain disinformation; without resembling each other, they have the air of a family, like those daughters of great houses, all beautiful and charming, whose type, with a few modifications, is to be found in a portrait of an ancestor painted in the fifteenth century. Here, however, the melody affects other turns, other forms; without turning to Italianism, it becomes vocal. One feels that Meyerbeer must have said to himself that if the orchestra has taken gigantic proportions today, the human voice remains what it was in the time of Mozart, and on the other hand this special interest is never at the expense of the idea. To occupy a greater place in the master’s work, the musical beauty does not exclude, far from it, the beautiful aesthetic. The African and Nélusko are two figures who already rank next to the most lively creations of this Titian of music. If, in Vasco’s character, different traits contradict each other, if the musician’s overflowing imagination puts into error the thinker’s logic, what truth of expression, movement, and attitude is not to be found in the secondary characters, always so curiously studied, so clearly presented at Meyerbeer’s! Take the Portuguese inquisitor and the high priest of Brahma, and see how the two heads stand out on the bottom of the picture, each marked with a kind of individuality of fanaticism. The antithesis, as we advance, broadens its domain. Two religions, as in the Huguenots, no longer suffice him, he needs two worlds. If anything in this work of so much life and force could betray the old age of a master, it would be the crowding of beauties that one meets there. The ideas wind up there with a luxuriance of virgin forest. Do not expect the ne quid nimis of Horace, but rather all kinds of development, in addition. This genius, forgetting death, hoarded himself by saying that, after all, it would be at a given moment to throw a few handfuls of gold into the sea.
La sève, débordant d’abondance et de force,
Sortait en gouttes d’or des fentes de l’écorce.
(From Alphonse de Lamartine’s Jocelyn:
The sap, overflowing with abundance and strength,
Left in golden drops from the cracks in the bark.)
Sap too powerful, too vigorously productive, and at the same time that the superb oak was feeding the mistletoe. The last hour’s poulter was missing. There is the evil. Do not exaggerate it.
It is very soon done. One looks at one’s watch, it is midnight, and the fifth act hardly begins: therefore there are longueurs. The longueurs should go; but how to shorten it? Meyerbeer alone could have shortened, cut, because he alone could stitch. Would he have done so if he had lived? One would almost doubt it, when one thinks of the conditions of a work so thoroughly meditated, calculated, elaborated, in which the skilfully combined effect of a passage thought sublime often emerges from a whole system of gears whose work, object of admiration for the true judge, escapes the eyes of the vulgar. Like Molière preparing his great scenes by short scenes, Meyerbeer has in the economy of his dramatic architecture juxtapositions that are the secret of genius. It is best, therefore, to speak with reserve, and to take patience in those pretended lengths, which, in order to become beauties of the first order, need only be heard many times. You do not understand, it is possible; in this case, open your ears, especially open your minds, and learn to understand. “The devil is old,” said the Mephisto of the second Faust to his little friends of the audience, and advised them to try and age themselves in order to understand him. Indeed, it would be too magnificent to enter the sanctuaries of thought on the same level. It seems, to see the haste of certain people, that it is only necessary to pay one’s stall to the orchestra to be entitled to the immediate revelation of all that a score contains. It is time, let us not forget, which makes the masterpieces. The spirit of a generation must be mixed up in their minds, who, attending them, explaining them, imbibe their lives and communicate their own. It will be surprising, no doubt, in fifteen years, that the partition of L’Africaine may have appeared obscure to many critics, just as to-day we are astonished that such a reprimand might have been addressed to the Huguenots. The more the work is magisterial, the less it escapes this destiny. The consciousness of their value, of their authority, henceforth undisputed, inspires energetic natures with a taste for difficult attempts. The possible is no longer enough for them; it is in their eyes now something too quotidian, earthly. The vulgar, who by always advancing towards the mysterious ideal, have finally lost sight of everything, soon ceases to understand them. The second Faust, Beethoven’s ninth symphony, L’Africaine, works of old! cried he. The works of masters, who, by the right which they have acquired by twenty masterpieces consecrated to command the crowd, disdain to inquire into his wants and caprices. What would become of it, and what would become of the cause of progress in art, if those whom their genius permits made use of an exceptional situation to act as initiator, and by new, bold, and sometimes even dubious attempts, were preparing for the future?
I still do not know whether L’Africaine is Meyerbeer’s masterpiece, but I feel it is a masterpiece. At the end of the first act, the master’s friends knew what to do with the scope of this music, and also his enemies, those who, with ten or twelve lost children of German reasoning and reasoning Germany, affect to disregard the importance of this name and stupidly say “Wagner-Liszt period” to characterize an era when the Huguenots and the Prophète were born. There are at the theater of these demonstrations, to which, whether willingly or not, they must yield. You enter, and at once, after some measurements of a broad introduction established on two themes of the work, one borrowed from the romance of Ines, the other from the septuor, – after this pleasant romance and a well conducted terzettino, of a high style, content, – you swim in the atmosphere of genius. Ask Scribe, he will reply that this is the cargo of a ship. Will the Council of the King of Portugal admit or reject the offer of Vasco de Gama? Will the state provide subsidies to the navigator’s hypothesis? A simple matter of budget. Now listen to Meyerbeer and see this show: you attend the movement of a great assembly, they deliberate, they judge, they vote. The heads gradually become hot, the passions burst. Vasco, repulsed, dismissed, revolted, the Inquisition launched his anathema; it is the dramatic progression of the first act of Romeo and Juliet, having as a frame the senate of Othello. I’m not here to talk about violins and. clarinets and naively seek out by what kind of technical processes such effects can be obtained. The science of rhythm and enharmonic combinations, Spohr and Mendelssohn had it equal to Meyerbeer; the supreme instinct of the sonorities of the orchestra ensures to the author of Tannhäuser his best title to fame, Rossini’s melodic flow is more abundant; but what none of the contemporaries possesses to such a degree is the art of posing a situation, of making his characters live and move, of surrounding a dramatic action with all the historical interest, all the picturesque it involves. “The enemies are where I wanted them,” wrote Frederick of Prussia; Meyerbeer can say as much of his audience: he brings it, fixes it where he wants. You are in full Europe of the fifteenth century, in the midst of a congress of princes of the church and statesmen; let your thought be quicker than the electric wire, and just now it will have transported you thousands of miles under climates whose color and atmosphere you immediately perceive. In Meyerbeer, the musician does not separate himself from the playwright; Even in his minor compositions, he attaches himself to pathos and accent. Musices seminarium accentus; examples, among his melodies, include le Moine, Rachel and Nephtali, pieces where the harmonic overload predominates, where the text advances only at heavy steps, crushed by the weight of modulation. In his eyes opera alone exists. Any instrumental or vocal music can only be the prelude; by this unique principle all life proceeds. In vain he wished to escape, to attempt digressions on either side, and it was always necessary to return to it, for the theater exercised a kind of demonic influence upon his genius. Invincibly his most serious readings, his meditations brought him back to it; he continued, revived the situation even in the Gospel. “Lazarus, arise!” What would he not have given to be able to put to music this sublime cry of the Savior! “You do not think of it,” we said one day to him, “an opera by Lazarus is impossible, make an oratorio.” But no, he would have liked the setting and the spectacle. This superhuman evocation would have been the ray of light in a painting by Rembrandt. The play of shadows, the combinations of the staging were necessary to his picture; the ideal glimpsed was to depict the life of a God in reality. Forced to renounce it, he returned to history, wrote this admirable page of the first act of the African woman, whose greatness amazes you. What invention in this finale, rhythms, incidents! What power, in turn, and what characteristic distinction in these periods accompanying, commenting, nuancing the various movements of action! The council enters the stage on a rhythmical march pointed out with a beautiful neatness, and then, at once, the invocation of the bishops bursts forth, calling divine illumination on the assembly’s work: an imposing phrase, of a simplicity, a supreme greatness, several times brought back and always happily from the double point of view of musical and dramatic interest, a whole chorus of men vocalizing with full voice and in unison! On one of those brilliant, superb rhythms, which are like the brushstrokes of a Veronese, between Vasco de Gama. He tells of the disaster of the fleet, makes his demand. Nothing that stinks of the prowess, the emphasis of a singer of cavatinas; an excellent recitative, full of calm, dignity, squeezing the text. The slaves are introduced, the mode changes. A strange prelude brings them: presentiment, recollection of those distant lands of which Sélika and Nélusko are like the samples presented to the council by Vasco. “Name your country!” the president tells them. They are silent. Sélika, however, will speak, seduced, fascinated by the irresistible supplication of Vasco. The slave prevents it. Everyone is dismissed, and discussion begins: the opposition of the bass voices on the side of the priests representing the right and the voices of tenor forming the left. Between the old spirit of the past and the new ideas, the struggle begins, becomes envenomed; the quarrel threatens to turn into a scandal, when the bishops rise on their benches and again intone the splendid Veni Creator whose last three measures, after the immense explosion of the main phrase, has the solemn gravity of the liturgical Amen. On stage, Vasco learns that his projects are rejected as insane; he is indignant, curses his judges, and the anathema proposed by the great inquisitor is taken up by the bishops in unison, the last effort of genius, and which we must despair of rendering with words.
As for me, such a beginning, I must admit, did not fail to frighten me a little. Who has not heard of this famous door of Mindos that Diogenes advised the inhabitants to close with care, lest their little town should not disappear? Many works, I imagine, and the most commendable of our times, would run the same danger in a similar case; but in constructing this colossal vestibule, the architect had already calculated the proportions of his edifice. For those who have heard this scene, I will add nothing now, for they know that it contains beauties of all kinds, and for the vast majority of the public who do not know it, I refer them to the fourth act of the Huguenots. They have only to remember and say to themselves that it is something approaching, if not superior.
In the second act, the scale changes; but the musical interest does not weaken. The characters arise. Here is first Sélika, the African woman, at the feet of Vasco asleep in his prison. She watches, she spies, worried, caressing, jealous. Her love, scarcely revealed, has panther leaps, sighs and grumbles, becomes irritated and calm, bursts out in cries of rage in the name of Inès when Vasco utters it in his dream, or resolves into enervating languors in an Indian lullaby deliciously balanced over the silvery ringing of the triangle. A dramatic scene follows this monologue of exquisite charm. The slave understands why his mistress is disturbed and imagines nothing better than to assassinate Vasco to save the royal majesty from a false step, for this Sélika is a queen that Vasco de Gama brought to Europe on his return from his first expedition. However, at the moment of striking, Nélusko hesitates, and, disarmed by a look from the queen, fell at his knees. Where can we find a more emotional, more pathetic voice? Involuntarily you think of Ruy Blas, the earthworm in love with a star. It is the same accent of submission, but more humble, more prostrate, as it is appropriate to the abrupt nature. To this rampant and fervid passion, Meyerbeer will presently oppose the chivalrous character of his hero.
Vasco awakens, dismisses the slave, and suddenly embarks with Sélika on an Italianate duet, over which a generous melodic breath crosses. Then comes the septet, capital piece of the act. Inès, one of those unfortunate princesses found everywhere in Scribe’s operas – the same grieved person who in La Muette is called Elvire, Eudoxie in La Juive, Isabelle in Robert le Diable, Rafaëla in Haydée – Inès brings her grace to the prisoner of state. Vasco is free, but henceforth, alas! is no longer so, for this order of enlargement signed by the King could only be obtained at the price of a marriage with Admiral Dom Pedro. This is the program from which Meyerbeer drew his scene. One could not imagine more nobility, authority in development, elegance in details: noble horns, violins, wooden instruments, and kettledrums; each episode brings a motive, an idea; The drawings intersect, supporting the narrative. One follows them, one sees them, while the musical drama goes its train, to walk their arabesques in the orchestra. It is of a distinction, a dignity of tone and manner that reminds you of the best passages of the Huguenots, and with it an imperturbable dramatic movement: each character, each voice kept at their post of passion, combat, one of those splendidly modulated Meyerbeer periods, which advance like clouds, thick with of all the storms of a situation, and after having burst on a point, melt into dew. On the last measurements, the orchestra leaves the voices uncovered, and the piece ends in a slow movement by turning off the sound. One thinks of Les Huguenots and the Chanson de mai. Meyerbeer did not know how to make little: even in the pretty, the pleasant, he carried his romanticism; he had, in his art, the refinements of a voluptuary; he had to pass from one type to another, to taste everything. The same man, tormented by colossal combinations, who, by the fifth act of Robert le Diable, the fourth of the Prophète, introduced the church into the theater, at certain moments dreamt of idylls, of songs. The heights attracted him; but as he ascended, he already aspired to descend. The sensations of the beautiful did not suffice him, he wanted those of the amiable. It was a curious thing. Follow, in this Chanson de mai, the progression which, gently accentuated at first, ends up resolving itself on the word “love” with a force, a brilliance whose expression recalls the same process used in the trio of Robert the le Diable and in this admirable septet of L’Africaine. It is a diminutive of his thought, but it is always his reasoning thought, calculating its effects, composing.
Here we reach the ship. The ocean, from afar, announces itself to the traveler; you do not perceive it yet, that already the salty air, certain vague rumors betray its approach. Listen in the orchestra to the sound of waves, this rolling. There, behind the curtain, something floats: it is the ship. The canvas rises: O disappointment! We had talked too much about this caravel. That, the ship in L’Africaine! You are joking; but it is the decor of Haydée overloaded with a floor. The impatient public awaited the maneuver; the maneuver did not come, or so little that one wondered what one should think of such a mystification. In Vienna, in London, things are done more simply and in a few weeks. We have the mania to complicate everything: to say a lot and besides invent nothing, to agitate in a vacuum! Gold is thrown out of the windows, time is wasted, and to arrive at this fine result one is exposed to compromising the destinies of a masterpiece by delaying to the heat a performance that could have taken place three months earlier.
Musically, this third act seems to me inferior to the preceding ones. I found too much descriptive filling, of picturesque out of place. The malignants of the Rhine, who claim that the French dramatic style, as Auber and Meyerbeer have understood it, is only a mixture of tunes to be drunk and prayers with the scene of madness, an eternal opposition of religious hymns and bacchanals, will not fail to exploit the argument. The fact is, that for these antithetical combinations to have a serious effect on the theater, they must be a necessity of the situation. Now you are witnessing only a sort of musical pastime admirably combined, I confess, but which does not respond to the pressing curiosity of the moment. Every day the diane is beaten on board, every day, at sunrise, the sailors pray. What interests me is not to know what is going on in any building, but how, on this vessel I have before my eyes, the various passions of your drama will behave; — This prayer is certainly a very rare piece, in which, from below and from above, the voices of a double chorus intermingle, are coordinated, a broad plain-chant placed by the voices of men to whom the invocation of women responds. Meyerbeer’s effects, however, are no longer astonishing. The master has so often proved his strength and his skill, and in the Huguenots and in L’Étoile du Nord and in Le Prophète so many beauties dispute the attention that the accessory, however successful, even admirable from the specific point of view, is wrong.
Indeed, interest only begins when Nelusko commands the maneuver. From the beginning of the act, he can be seen coming and going, agitating in the back like a wild beast in his cage. Admiral Dom Pedro appointed him pilot of the ship. He speaks, gives an order: “turn to the north,” a few unaccompanied measures of recitative written in a sovereign hand. M. Faure attacks, prolongs, superbly accentuates this sentence of a very difficult intonation. His voice grows at ease, flexible, creamy, full. Besides, this mastery of execution, M. Faure extends it on all the role, which he composes, plays and sings as a French artist penetrated by the great tradition of Nourrit, Levasseur, and Duprez. Impossible to feel better, to say better: at once sinister and pathetic, creeping and superb, proud and gentle, tiger and dog, it represents to the real the character seen by Meyerbeer. He has a sober gesture, a mixture of suppleness and dignity peculiar to primitive races, the right intention, the true pose, and in his song as in his acting that authority which gives to an artist of experience and talent consciousness not exaggerated, but perfectly established by its merit.
The ballad of the sea giant Adamastor, with the violins beating the wooden string of their bow, seems to me less original than odd. Again one of these morceaux à tiroir, these boleros, which the dramatic convenience rejects, and which it seems that our system of opera should inexorably suffer the pain! Is it, therefore, an indispensable thing, and passed for ever in our customs, this ballad about everything and nothing? No opéra-comique, grand opera, which its parasitism does not afflict. Nolens, volens, to the end you will hear it. Meyerbeer himself, to this law of a ridiculous poetics, thought himself obliged to conform. The situation is in no way suited to it, there are ingenious means to force it. “As the ballad says,” adroitly insinuates the character in quest of an opportunity of placing his word, and the chorus at once gives in to this gossip and makes a circle, singing: “Listen!” How many of these ballads have we not heard, since that of Robert le Diable? Scribe had an interminable repertoire; he put them everywhere for those who love them, or rather who loved them, for the taste of this ritornello has passed, and all the art of a Meyerbeer here has not warmed it. Besides, Meyerbeer was never a man for clichés. His style loses its genial qualities, it is confused. Stuck in these bad rhymes, his inspiration was running out of steam; see her now resume her flight, and start to meet Vasco de Gama, whose chivalrous entry is announced by one of those phrases that are like a flood of electric light projected before a personage. Whoever walks in such a music can only be a hero. With his entrance, the drama tightens, raises the tone, and this third act, which will end in the fairy play of the Châtelet by fires, massacres and polkas, throws its last brilliance in a scene whose conflict recalls the famous finale of the apple in Guillaume Tell, and which musically is worth this page of Rossini.
In the fourth act, wealth is no longer counted, you walk with admiration in dazzling. This music itself is a show. Enormous India opens to you, picturesque and sacred India; even in the mysterious depths of the sky of Indra, of the formidable Brahmanic trimurti, plunges the eye of your intelligence. The libretto tells us that we are in Madagascar. In this, as in so many other things, the libretto does not know what it says: firstly because Vasco de Gama never set foot in Madagascar, and secondly because the countries of the African coast where the illustrious Portuguese navigator only knew religion as the grossest fetishism. We are in an island of Meyerbeer’s invention, one of those islands as Shakespeare discovered. Genius has its own geography, its own flora, its own fauna. Meyerbeer was indeed a man to be content with simple ordinary savages! Do you see the author of Robert le Diable, Les Huguenots, and Le Prophète pile Ossa on Pelion to make a bamboula dance to Negroes? Sylvœ sint consule dignœ. Go for an unknown island, but on the condition that these savages will be connected with the traditions of a world hierarchically constituted for centuries, that they will have silk and purple, diamonds, pearls, rubies, to clothe and dress them, that they will have pagodas of marble and gold, bayadères, brahmins, sacred books, all the poems, all the beliefs, all the pomp of an authentic religious revelation, a serious worship, where genius can take itself.
When in le Dieu et la Bayadère M. Auber puts Brahma on stage, the witty composer makes his music a joke, a fine and charming irony. One feels that it proceeds directly from the style of Candide and Zadig. This Brahma is not a god, he is a tenor, and his incarnation, his earthly migrations, seem to aim only at stinging, to exhilarate by the allusion a Voltairean parterre, made absurd by its hatred of Jesuitism, the implacable bawl of the moment. The Berliner Meyerbeer considers things from another point of view. The religious element attracts him, but by its great sides; he addresses the idea, the substance of which his music will be like the emanation. “Brahma, Vishnu, Siva! ” exclaims his mystagogue, distraught with fanaticism, and suddenly the shudder seizes you, the symbolic trimurti shows itself to you in its rosette of lotus, in the midst of an inextricable clutter of constellated heads, legs and arms crossing, twisting, brandishing sceptres, javelins, bows, handfuls of serpents. Never did anyone evoke the spirit of religions better than Meyerbeer. At the queen’s entrance, saluted by both the orchestra and a military band of Sax instruments placed on the stage, to this sublime call of the old pontiff, the depths of the temple of Ellora seem to answer. And later, when the brahmin and priests have disappeared and you hear this demonic old man pursue his theurgy outside, you think you are witnessing the incantation. Clearly the spiritists and the somnambulists are fools. There is no real medium here but genius. Do you want to see Indra, Surya, Varuna, Parana, Yama, princes of the air, waves, sun, winds, justice and death? Listen and then say how long it would take to maneuver tables turning before knowing about this chapter of Hindu mythology as much as Meyerbeer will have revealed to you in this solemn melody of which Gluck himself would not have invented the character, for Gluck knew neither Hammer nor Humboldt.
M. Obin makes a creation of this figure of the Brahmin imprinted with the fierce daze of the eastern ecstasy. He has an icy mask, a dull eye, a stiff, impassive attitude. Sitting on his throne of pink granite, the tiara on his head, veiled in white, long, mute, emaciated by fasting, pilgrimages and all the intoxications of mental life, you would take him for an idol of Pradschapati. If he rises, if he speaks, his arms are scarcely detached; he has the rare, narrow gesture; but on the other hand, in that superb voice invoking, cursing, exorcising, what ferocious energy, concentrated flames emerge! It looks like a volcano throwing its lava, then, the ravage consumed, closing immediately under its snows. This character has only two scenes, but he lives and moves in the work of Meyerbeer with an originality of physiognomy of which one must be grateful to the singer for having understood and rendered the power. — Now try to disguise your high priest as a perfect savage, tattooed, painted, wearing feathers; instead of Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, make him bishop Mamajambo! And if you bring the public into your game, if you succeed in moving it, in convincing it, we consent to all the opinion of a criticism at once bold in its discoveries, and it cannot be more judicious, which absolutely wants Meyerbeer to have committed a blunder by enthroning the Brahmanic religion among tribes known to have worshiped only fetishes. The dances themselves have this sacred character. These motives of delightful charm, these rhythms stamped with strange, unheard-of vibrations, breathe the nostalgic languors of the being absorbed by the being. Speech does not lend itself to these delicacies: it is as if you wanted to cut lilies with a sword; the dance, of a more musical nature, plays with the dispositions of the soul, renders the inarticulate sighs of the creature. Every idea must be able to be presented to its full advantage by the means at the disposal of the art in which it is intended to be produced. If the means are insufficient, it is for the artist to abandon his idea. Meyerbeer knew this truth, practiced it. When a subject had once tempted him, he no longer left it, convinced moreover that music can study everything, comment on it, make everything from the spectacle of a great deliberative assembly to the mysteries of a religious dogma.
Between the first political and Catholic act of L’Africaine and the fourth, a true oratorio of pantheism, what spaces crossed, oceans traversed! Vasco, setting foot on the ground of his discovery, contemplates the nature that surrounds him, walks dazzled, opens his soul to all the enchantments of an Edenic dream. He is drunk and swallowed up by the ineffable delights of this promised land, whose orchestra, while his voice glides adagio, tells you the sounds, the gossip, the perfumes, the wonders: adorable melody, supreme exclamation of rapture on the tremolo of the flutes, and the sharp notes of the violins, by which, at intervals, a dull rolling of the timpani wads the sound! So much reverie colors this music, the accent is so picturesque, so penetrating that the light of a new world floods you. Above the massifs of snowy gardenias and yellow roses, the coconut spreads its palms, innumerable streams coming from the interior of the island bathe luxuriant vegetation on all sides; with its iron arm, defying the axe of the warriors, the thuya hangs its enormous fruits; the purple-stemmed plane-tree spreads its dark green, parchment like leaves wide. From these tops and thickets, like the sound of human gossip, comes the imperturbable conversation of the parrots; everywhere, in waves of sunshine, mirrors of wings, whistles of birds, buzzings of insects! To this cantabile, to this aria radiant with inspiration follows an ensemble led by Nélusko, then finally, after the magnificent interlude of the nuptials, the duo.
We are in the fourth act of an opera by Meyerbeer: the word is to the tenor and to the woman, it is a scene of love; let us dare to evoke the most dangerous of the parallels! It is true that the master does not care about these perils. Far from dreading them, on the contrary, one would think that he was looking for them. It has been said of a celebrated person that she had lovers to prove to herself that she did not grow old; Meyerbeer loved to take on these challenges. “I have composed more than the fourth act of the Huguenots,” he often repeated, impatient of the obstinacy with which his masterpiece was thrown at his head, and we cannot help seeing a certain coquetry in this way of recalling twice in L’Africaine this involuntary recollection of the Huguenots. Still it was necessary for Meyerbeer to have unusual resources in the mind and the heart to dare, when he had such antecedents in the theater, to begin with a prologue affecting the size and scale of the terrible episode of the blessing of the swords and to finish his fourth act with a love duet.
Let us say first of all that this duo in L’Africaine has nothing to do with that of the Huguenots except as a masterpiece by the same master, because, for the rest, in expression, cuts, movement of ideas, these two marvels differ absolutely from one another and are not identical. All this, however, will not prevent many good people, anxious to give their opinion, to tell you point-blank: “I prefer the duet of the Huguenots.” It’s possible; but what do you know? Why so strongly hurry us to learn what you necessarily do not know? Ten years ago, fifteen years, perhaps twenty years, you heard the duet of the Huguenots sung by the most famous and most diverse tenors, the most seducing singers. To these memories of art, other personal memories of youth and love have mingled, and so warned you do not hesitate to pronounce! Suppose that Meyerbeer had lived, such a story would have been renewed at his next work, and then it would have been the duet of L’Africaine that the wise minds of which I speak would have equally judiciously opposed to a piece proclaimed by public admiration, for the music of L’Africaine, by then, would have had time to complete, to settle, to make herself; the new wine exalts, intoxicates, but it is not classic.
Let one only bother to think about the two situations. Raoul in the Huguenots loves without return, his flame possesses him wholly; he sees only Valentine, wants only her. In the present as well as in the future; his tenderness, his desires, are infinite, exclusive. In the duet of L’Africaine, Vasco de Gama obeys only the delirium of the moment; his love is but a shift, an insolation; the thought of Inès has left him only to recapture him, and it is from this struggle, in which the senses irresistibly triumph, that the musician drew the motive, the interest of his poem. —As a drawing, a color, a fair arrangement of the voices and the orchestra, I cannot imagine anything more exquisite. The melody, everywhere diffused in profusion in the masterpiece, here vaporizes into essence, into a bouquet. Imagine a heap of flowers from the tropics from which the spirit is extracted: it is this very spirit that breathes. “O transport, ô douce extase!” The phrase bursts forth, at first uttered by Sélika, whom rapture overwhelms, and Vasco answers it with a mezza voce reverie of a voluptuous pleasure, a drunkenness burning with the ardor of an Oriental nuptial night. Soon languor wins them both, the sigh dies on their half-open lips, and their voices, entwined in this inenarrable third, are extinguished and turn pale, in the midst of the orchestra’s suspense, into one of those kisses where the whole being dissolves.—It may be said of M. Naudin that he puts his whole part in this sentence. Until then, why this clumsy singer who speaks a Macaronic French and acts with pantomime and the airs of a puppet was at the opera was inexplicable. But this fourth act compensates you for the disappointments. From the cantabile of the air of Vasco, the interest begins, and when the duo arrives, the accomplished virtuoso is found again. It is to him that you open arms, forgetting everything for this charming voice, the only one capable today of making such a music with this divine art of half-tints.
We really shudder when we think of the difficulties of this role of Vasco de Gama. Scribe said, ” Talma and Rubini would be needed!” Talma was a great deal, and I imagine that in evoking this name Scribe sought above all to convince himself that in this poem he had written a work of tragedy. Be that as it may, the role, as the master has understood and performed it, affects a double character of virtuosity which places it outside singers’ ordinary reach. Without ceasing to belong to the heroic race of the characters of Meyerbeer’s French repertoire, Vasco de Gama of the African has more Italian casualness. He places the voice, tenorizes, abounds in the turns and detours of this bell’canto che nell ‘anima so sente. It is to this part of the role that M. Naudin responds marvelously; for the rest, one would like a Nourrit, a Duprez, a Roger. Not being able to have everything at the same time, it was necessary to choose between the artist and the virtuoso. Meyerbeer, hearing M. Naudin in Così fan tutte, was not mistaken; he, so skilful in grasping each one’s strength and the weakness in a flash, knew from then on what to expect. It is at the same time the good and the bad side of the virtuosos to sum up a role in a sentence; but this duet is worth a whole part, and as M. Naudin says it with a charm of expression, of which no other would be capable, I am not brave enough to complain.
Meyerbeer, let us not forget, began by composing in the Italian style. What could be more natural than at the apogee of his magisterial power, he remembered this first manner and the advantages he could derive from it for new combinations? In the same way that he formerly italianized by drawing from his German knowledge for the orchestra and dramatic expression, so there is found in L’Africaine a melodic plenitude, an easy turn of period which, with the composer of Les Huguenots, L’Étoile du Nord and Le Prophète, remind you deliciously of Emma di Resburgo and the Crociato. It is impossible to summarize better, to finish better. This score, in default of any other merit, would still have this peculiar character of being an abridgment of the master’s work as a whole. It testifies not only to the greatness, but also to the unity of conception, to the homogeneity of this encyclopedic genius, for through all his changes of style, all its variations, Meyerbeer, in short, has always remained faithful to himself. Without disavowing anything of his old principles where they could be good, he was able to use the new ones where they too were useful and good, arranging themselves so as to see their wealth incessantly increasing, and passing from one aesthetic to another almost as a converted Muslim would do, who, while tasting Christianity in the juice of the trellis, would nevertheless reserve a corner of the enjoyments of the paradise of Mahomet. Many people of rare mind, Halévy, Verdi, have tried to play this game; they have lost their stake, because more schooling, talent, genius, patience, fortune, happiness were needed to be Meyerbeer; it required above all a more aesthetic consciousness than most modern artists possess.
In the fifth act of L’Africaine, there remains in the theater only a duet and the scene of death under the manchineel. This duet between the two women, whose situation recalls that of Norma and Adalgisa, must not, even after so many beauties, go unnoticed. In Sélika’s role there are sublime élans. The phrase that comes back three times on these words: “Et pourtant il t’aimera toujours!” has sobs that tear you apart. It is the biblical consolari noluit translated into sounds in the finest language. Let us insist on passing over this painful, heartbreaking expression of Sélika’s character. Conceived between Les Huguenots and Le Prophète, it seems that this figure has the mission of linking Valentine and Fidès. From Raoul’s lover she proceeds by violent and passionate elaborations, and by this mourning of the soul predicts John of Leyden’s mater dolorosa. Never did the great chord of sadness vibrate with Meyerbeer in a deeper and truer tone. — The scenery changes; the tree appears. Sinister, solitary, immense, it rises by the sea; blood-red flowers hang in clusters from its branches, litter the ground in its shadow. “L’horrible est beau, le beau est horrible!” To this shadow a woman will come to lie down to die. We look, we listen, we wait. It is the silence, the recollection of nature before the storm; then suddenly the whole room rises as if moved by a spring; to mute anxiety succeeds enthusiasm; one marvels, one shakes hands, one cries out. So what happened? Almost nothing: the orchestra has just played a phrase of sixteen bars, a ritornello! How such a colossal effect can be produced, the ordinary Philistines of the tablature will tell you in four words. It is the simplest and best known thing in the world: a unison of all string instruments supported by two bassoons; the violins attack the song on the D flat, the violas on the third string, and the violoncello on the sharp; differently tuned instruments, instead of singing at the octave, pick up all their forces at the same level. — You see, all one had to do was to open one’s music textbook. What a shameful injustice, however, and what a detestable irony of fate, that when so many poor devils doomed to darkness know such formulas, only the men of genius profit by these odious monopolists! The expression of this incomparable exordium is the most distressing thing that can be heard. While the ear is dazzled, the heart is broken; it sings death in a festive tone, it is triumphal as a fanfare, harsh and strident as pain, implacable like Venus. What does the country, the heroine matter? Art has spoken, it wants, and, consecrated by these sixteen measures of a sublime symphony, the legend of a poor queen of savages is worth the epic of Ariadne, Phaedra, Dido! The solemnity is soon placed in the sweet elegies of the dying, the fury is appeased, the agony begins. Sélika pursues her forgiveness for the ship which is moving away. This poisonous atmosphere, which she deeply breathes in, these flowers, which she tears out in clusters and breathes, their influences penetrate her; a charming exhilaration, a supreme ecstasy of love, of which an ideal phrase of the cello, repeated three times and each time higher, marks the periods; a hymn of voluptuousness in immolation, of which an aerial choir comments on the delirium, and which all the harps accompany. This denouement is not only from a great musician, but also a poet. Schubert and Goethe join hands, the Schubert of the melody of the Erlkönig, the Orientalist Goethe of the ballad of the God and the Bayadère.
In the presence of such a scene, one understands, one approves of Meyerbeer’s eternal procrastination. Where can we find the interpreter of this role? How can one discover in the same subject, with this poetic complexion of a Malibran, for example, the vigor of temperament necessary for all the rest of the role? This character of Selika, if it is the summary of the master’s principal creations, is perhaps even more a summary of the women singers who for twenty years have succeeded one another at the Opera and elsewhere. The bee makes its honey of all flowers. From every voice he heard, from every talent that passed before his eyes, Meyerbeer knew how to extract the best, the essential. Like Don Juan, who nostrils to the wind, exclaims: “senti odor di femina!”, you smell in this passage, by listening to this music, certain individualities whose traces have marked them. Here it is Pauline Viardot, there Rosine Stoltz, yonder Sophie Cruvelli. Of the three, which one would be chosen, if it were possible? It would be very embarrassing to reply. We act like Meyerbeer, we doubt, we hesitate; to form the glimpsed ideal, no one alone would suffice; we dream of a compound of the three.
Shall I add that Madame Marie Sax does not answer absolutely to this ideal? Who knows it not? And yet she fulfills the role, enormous thing! from the beginning to the end, she carries out her task with honor, and I do not see which of the current singers could be said as much. If in the scene of the denouement the interpretation leaves something to be desired, if distinction, charm, and poetry are wanting, the energetic, wild part of the role is rendered powerfully. In the first act, when she enters with Nélusko in the council hall, she contemplates the novelty of this spectacle with fierce astonishments mingled with an air of dignity. She speaks well the pathetic phrase of her duet of the fifth act, and succeeds above all in the sorrowful accentuation of character. The voice of Madame Marie Sax, of a magnificent extent, timbre, and equality, needs only moderation. This force of resonance too often pushes the cry, the soul is there, but not the style, and the style is the singer; which does not prevent Madame Sax from modulating very pleasantly the Indian lullaby of the second act and to have a superb impetus in the great duo of the fourth act on this sentence: “O transports! ô douce extase!” which she attacks as the true daughter of the sun. All in all, Mrs. Marie Sax is a very presentable African. She plays and sings the role; without seeking to know what is happening beyond her horizon; what Meyerbeer had dreamed of, she will strive to do so if you tell her, but I doubt if she thinks of herself. She executes, does not create. A splendid voice, a great deal of goodwill, intelligence, and passion,—the master, having maturely reflected, had judged that by the time which runs these elements should suffice. Let us try not to be more difficult.
We do not like classifications, and think that it is not proper for us to distribute places to masterpieces; However, if someone asked us what rank in Meyerbeer’s work we assign to the score of L’Africaine, we who until now have never ceased to regard Le Prophète as the highest, the most powerful manifestation of this genius, we would not hesitate to reply: “Put the four works at their order, not of representation, but of birth, and let it be the date that pronounces. From Robert le Diable to Les Huguenots, from Les Huguenots to L’Africaine, from L’Africaine to Le Prophète, so one would go, always ascending; but why want to classify, label? What do our preferences matter to the public? “What is beautiful is not beautiful,” says an Italian proverb, “but only what pleases.” Without accepting in all its latitude this aesthetic of a casuist, I do not believe it is such as to jeopardize the rights of genius, since what is beautiful always ends by pleasing. The envious are agitated, the impotent take advantage of the opportunity to catechize the flock of imbeciles, and neither want to understand that what they say there about L’Africaine was once said about Gluck’s Armide, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, the Freyschütz, Euryanthe, Rossini’s Barber, whistled in Rome, and his Otello, which Stendhal considered too German. What was not written in time about the score of Robert le Diable, which was also criticized for lasting seven hours, and which critics then called an endless musical encyclopedia, a potpourri of all the styles, a panorama of all phantasmagoria! “We do not go to hear an opera by Meyerbeer, we go to see it!” exclaims an esthetician on the other side of the Rhine, M. Carrière, adding, not without some naivety, that in this terrible word is contained the best sentence of the public in regard to this spectacular melody! The Germans are pitiless, they will never forgive Meyerbeer for having taken in France the fulcrum of his fame, for having wished to conquer them from our country, nor did they forgive Schroeder-Devrient her excursions into the Italian repertory. She was sublime playing, singing Fidelio; she had the spirit, the physique of the part: her graceful face, her divinely turned waist, seemed made for a transvestite; but she wanted to play, to sing Bellini’s Romeo, the downfall was complete; no more voices, no talent, men’s clothes no longer even suited her. With regard to Meyerbeer, animosity sometimes becomes so fierce that it really is not to be believed. Les Huguenots, Le Prophète, are pilloried, and to glorify what masques, just gods!
Non raggionam di lei, ma passa e guarda.
They reproached Meyerbeer for his monstrous mating of instruments, his ophicleides, his bombards, all this artillery of large caliber, which formerly merely pushed the sound, and which he made to constantly evolve by all the directions of the chromatic scale, and at the same time one marvels at the grandeur and magnificence of his music. And those who most reprove the means acclaim the effect. However, to be a great colorist, one must use colors, I suppose, and the colors in music are the sounds. From the play of timbres, from their contrast light is born. This art of contrasts, where Meyerbeer already invented so much, seems to have said its last word in orchestra of L’Africaine. Horace, hearing this orchestra, would no longer be satisfied with saying ut pictura poesis, he would add to his verse musica. After having thoroughly admired the work as a whole, give yourself one evening the special treat of this instrumentation, place yourself at the back of a box, listen, eyes half closed, follow only the orchestra and, whether you are a musician or merely a man of taste, I promise you a study or a pleasure of the rarest and most exquisite interest. With Meyerbeer, the effects of instrumentation never cancel one another, as is the case with most symphonists of the Weber school. If it breaks out, if it thunders, it is like Jupiter, in his hour, and not suddenly and during his five acts. It takes its time, measures, distributes, organizes, unleashes its forces with a science of dynamics that the author of Freyschütz and Euryanthe himself did not always know the secret; sometimes parsimonious, sometimes prodigal, curious to preciosity in moderation as well as in excess. One recalls the Huguenots’ viola d’amore, the bassoon alone accompanying the introduction of the trio of the fifth act. In L’Africaine, this skillful hand continues to weigh, to exercise, to control the contrasts to its pleasure, it sows the winds to collect not the storm, but calm, unleashes the simoun to better prepare the cool rest of the oasis. Between the thunderous explosions of the council scene and the choral combinations of the episode of the ship, you have the second act, written in half-tones, with its veiled sounds, its sweet rhythms which accompany, in Sélika’s lullaby, the violins divided at the treble, and whose silvery vibrations of the triangle mark the voluptuous undulations. — “Research, mannerism!” exclaimed the doctors of the law. An art which thus delights in the employment, the exaggeration of technical means, can only be an art of decadence. — “Well roared, lion!” — Unhappily, since the world was created, these beautiful things are repeated. They were said of Michelangelo, who, in painting the Sistine, opened the way to the Carraches, of Beethoven, to whom, in the ninth symphony, resources seem now to be wanting for the expression of his thought; “Meyerbeer, too, wanted to do too much, he transgressed the limits of music, misunderstood the normal conditions of modern opera after having created it somehow, and the mold broke in his hands.” To this one adds: “Would L’Africaine be the masterpiece you think, that we should still lament, for after such a display of musical staging, after this luxurious imagination, these expenses of voice, this orchestral pomp, nothing is more possible in the theater in the way of operas.” I confess, however, that the argument touches me little. I do not know where we are going, and find it childish to debate this eternal question of progress and decadence, which flighty spirits amuse themselves by bringing back to the carpet whenever a masterpiece is born. If it is decadence, the musicians of the future will react against this so-called symphonic upheaval by returning to the musette of the forefathers, and I wish their audience much pleasure. If, on the contrary, it is progress, as I like to believe, it is permissible to have a pretty good idea of the generations that succeed us, for they will not be ordinary men but proud Titans, those who, having taken as their starting point in music Beethoven’s ninth symphony, or the score of L’Africaine, will find means of putting between this point of departure and the goal the space traveled by Beethoven and Meyerbeer in their careers.
Musical beauty is indefinable. It is something that delights the soul, seizes you, grasps you to resolve itself into a feeling mingled with joy and sadness. It was called grace and charm in the time of Apelles, not in the sense of what made Correggio’s paintings sell, but rather in order to express that inexpressible something, I repeat, which characterizes da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the Sonata in C minor, Sarastro’s tune in the Magic Flute, the duet in the fourth act of the Huguenots, the fourth act of L’Africaine, and forces you to exclaim: “Look, listen, this is divine!” Whoever does not possess in himself the gift of being moved in this way can speak of a masterpiece, appreciate the technical aspects of it; but the masterpiece as a manifestation of the ideal, of the beautiful, will remain eternally a closed book for him. Artists alone possess this faculty of feeling, a privilege which nothing replaces, neither the strong combinations of understanding, nor poetic ingenuity. The spirit of God blows where it pleases. Let this idea make us take patiently the period in which we live, and let us console ourselves in thinking that the beautiful, as an absolute manifestation, cannot be or have been the monopoly of this or that century. Let us seek what is true in the present hour, and not what will happen next. The question is to know what is musically beautiful at the moment I speak, and not to deal with the eventualities of a result on which the future will pronounce. We do not make the philosophy of history before history.