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Giacomo Meyerbeer
06 Mar 2011

L’Africaine, OONY

Eugène Scribe and Giacomo Meyerbeer were in the business of creating proto-cinematic spectacles of drama and music, the formula being to take a historical incident in some exotic country or era, put in a tormented love story to hold our attention, and resolve the whole in catastrophe.

Giacomo Meyerbeer: L’Africaine

Sélika: Chiara Taigi; Inèz: Ellie Dehn; Vasco da Gama: Marcello Giordani; Nélusko: Fikile Mvinjelwa; Don Pedro: Daniel Mobbs; Grand Inquisitor: Djoré Nance; High Priest: Harold Wilson. Opera Orchestra of New York and New York Choral Ensemble conducted by Eve Queler. Performance of March 2.

Above: Giacomo Meyerbeer


Hollywood’s historical style, especially the epics with spiritual content, took its cue from Scribe, and the idea of accompanying the pageant with a thrilling but shallow score may also derive from these operas. In any case, the Scribe-Meyerbeer firm achieved this very well; their operas, expensive as they were to produce properly, were much loved for a hundred years. Changes in the style of singing, the onset of highfalutin Wagnerian music-drama, which outclassed grand opera, and the sheer cost of putting this grandeur on stage (six or seven leading singers were not the least of it—but ballets of ice skaters or ghostly nuns, sixteenth-century bathing beauties with pool, a full-rigged galleon overwhelmed by a typhoon—don’t none of it come cheap) fell victim to the Crash of 1929.

Revivals of their four grandest collaborations, not to mention the lesser ones, have been so rare since World War II that it is easy to keep track (and own pirates) of most of the grandest (the Sutherland-Corelli-Simionato Gli Ugonotti in Milan, the Ramey-Anderson Robert le Diable in Paris, the Leech-Lorengar Des Hugenotten in Berlin, the Horne-McCracken Prophète at the Met, the Verrett-Domingo L’Africaine in San Francisco). L’Africaine, the final (and posthumous) Scribe-Meyerbeer creation (premiere 1865), was last staged in New York in 1934 with Rethberg, Martinelli and Pinza. It was last heard here in concert in 1972, when the brand new Opera Orchestra of New York gave it for Richard Tucker to show off his stalwart ut de poitrine as Vasco da Gama. Eve Queler, who is standing down as maestra for the company she has steered through so many shoals past so many Capes of Good Hope, presented it again last week as her farewell to the podium.

Marcello Giordani [Photo by Dario Acosta]

L’Africaine has everything—except Africa or Africans. (The plot changed over years of rewriting but they forgot to change the title, and both men had died before the premiere.) L’Africaine certainly had everything Meyerbeer’s audiences expected: big arias and loud duets for singers with range and staying power, orchestral variety, insane stage effects, local color run riot, chorale, ballet. There are so many characters in Act I that we are relieved when a catastrophe in Act III reduces the story to manageable size, their stage-filling Portuguese galleon having hit a reef (thanks to an invocation of a god of the winds) where bloodthirsty savages overwhelm the crew. This still leaves two acts of romantic mayhem, oriental religious rituals and the opera’s most famous aria, “O Paradis” before a bittersweet conclusion: The savage but noble queen sends her adored Vasco and his Portuguese sweetheart home, then eats poisoned crimson flowers on a cliff overlooking the sea. (Yes, this situation was borrowed for Aida and Gioconda.) Unfortunately for the peoples of the Orient, the lovesick queen also gives Vasco navigational secrets with which to found a colonial empire, but in 1865 that was just what all the opera-loving countries wanted to do. “O Paradiso” (as it was sung in Italian, by Caruso, Gigli, Martinelli et al.) became, in a way, the theme song of the age.

L’Africaine’s rare full revivals (most recently, in this country, in San Francisco in 1988, with Shirley Verrett, Plácido Domingo, Ruth Ann Swenson and Justino Diaz, a production available on video) never fail to delight those audiences who like their opera grand, with big tunes, big voices, long nights and manic spectacle. Its repute (both good and bad) pretty much guarantees an audience of the curious, and Avery Fisher Hall was packed to the rafters on the present occasion, despite the lack of well-known singers other than Marcello Giordani. Just, you know, to hear the thing. Most of us were still hanging on three and a half hours after Maestra Queler raised her baton (and there was only one intermission). And as soon as we heard a massed basso chorus threatening violence in the name of intolerant religion (a familiar Scribe trope), accompanied by a piccolo, we knew we were in Meyerbeer country. (Scribe gets it twice in L’Africaine—the raging basses are Catholics in Act I, when they wish to kill Vasco for attempting to circumnavigate Africa, and they’re bloodthirsty Brahmins in Act IV, when they want to kill him lest he go home and reveal the secret route.)

Taigi.gifChiara Taigi

Eve Queler has been running this show for forty years and her conducting style isn’t going to change. How dancers would follow her languid beat through Meyerbeer’s exotic ballets is hard to imagine, but happily this is not a requirement in concert performances; the singers had merely to stand out and declaim. The pace of the evening did not flag, the climaxes and confrontations were a thrill. For example, the xenophobic Brahmins inserting cries of “No!” into Vasco’s pleas for mercy were a nice Meyerbeerian touch, though of course stolen from Gluck’s Orfeo, which the Opéra had recently revived for Pauline Viardot. The tenor-bass duet in Act III, as Vasco and slimy Don Pedro nearly come to blows over the lovely Inèz, is even more exciting because we know the typhoon is blowing up. The soprano-mezzo battle over the tenor (again: Verdi and Ponchielli were paying heed) enlivens Act V while the conclusion is still in doubt. It was an evening of crowd-pleasers.

Besides showing off scores we are unlikely to encounter staged, Opera Orchestra’s other great function has been to introduce New York to singers we may not otherwise encounter. OONY’s alumni are quite a roster. That last L’Africaine, for example, paired Tucker with Antonietta Stella. OONY’s Les Huguenots, a triumphant occasion and a rare performance of nearly the entire score, gave us not only the New York debut of Krassimira Stoyanova as Valentine but the superb Raoul of Marcello Giordani. Giordani, for whatever reason, never sounds so good, so heroic, at the Met (where he sometimes sings the same roles) as he does when performing with OONY, and L’Africaine showcased his Vasco da Gama, some of the noblest, most robust singing he has given New York in many years, though not without an occasional bobble.

Giordani was joined by a curious roster of strangers and familiar faces in unusual roles. Among the strangers was Chiara Taigi, an Italian soprano of striking looks and high melodrama in the acting department, showing off three different costumes to suit Sélika’s three roles of lovelorn slave girl, restored queen and suicidal abandoned lover. The role is as juicy as, well, a Meyerbeer heroine, but sits awkwardly for the voice, mostly high mezzo with some soprano extension. Rosa Ponselle, whose voice ran precisely there, had a tremendous success with it, but no one living has the technique, much less the gift, of a Ponselle. Taigi’s top notes were rough and the joints sometimes showed, but it is a prima donna-sized instrument with some very beautiful material in it. I’d be curious to see her in more basic repertory, but I’m not sure which—the list of roles in her bio is all over the map, and her emoting may not suit the modern “realistic” school. In an OONY evening, she was just what we wanted.

Ellie_Dehn.gifEllie Dehn [Photo by Dario Acosta]
Ellie Dehn, who sings an odd assortment of parts at the Met (I loved her in Satyagraha), sang the role of Vasco’s girlfriend, Inèz, with some brilliant color but imperfect coloratura. A South African baritone named Fikile Mvinjelwa—short, barrel-chested, dark-skinned, a voice to reckon with and an actor to his fingertips—took advantage of all the quirks of Nélusko’s sinister-heroic personality without reticence and brought down the house with his “Adamastor, roi des vagues.” (He’s been covering roles like Rigoletto at the Met; I say: Turn him loose to sing them.) Daniel Mobbs, ever reliable and elegant, sang selfish Don Pedro suavely. Ezio Pinza was wont to sing both the Grand Inquisitor and the High Priest in the old days—more Scribean commentary on the universality of religious intolerance—but Queler gave them to sturdy rival basses.

It was a performance to make us all hope to be around the next time L’Africaine comes back—and more eager still to hear a Robert le Diable or Dinorah or Crociato in Egitto.

John Yohalem

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