Enormously popular and influential in its time, Meyerbeer's L'Africaine
has become a rarity--the conventions of grand opera which it embodies so thoroughly are only familiar as adapted by Verdi and Wagner, so this work usefully reminds us of how radical they were. Meyerbeer and his librettist Scribe give us a five-act plot full of confrontations and threats of death, a shipwreck and the suicide of the Indian heroine Selika and her rejected suitor by inhaling the poisonous aromas of a deadly tree. The expedition of Vasco Da Gama round the Cape of Good Hope and up to the spice ports of India becomes less a story about the crusade for profit and more a matter of messy triangular love affairs. Heavy fathers, Brahmin priests and Grand Inquisitors are handled with much facility and no intensity. What L'Africaine
really amounts to is a singers' display piece, and the two principals here--Shirley Verrett as Selika and Placido Domingo as Vasco--are entirely up to its demands. Domingo reminds us that Vasco's Act 4 aria "Oh Paradis" was for decades a standard tenor showstopper. The other principals, Ruth Ann Svenson and Justino Diaz, are entirely admirable and Marco Arena and the San Francisco Opera give the work as a whole both the grandeur it certainly possesses and rather more subtlety than one might have expected.
On the DVD: The DVD, presented in 4:3 ratio, and in PCM stereo, has no features apart from instructions and subtitles in French, German, English and Spanish. This failure to provide extras, or even an especially informative leaflet, becomes especially regrettable with a work whose conventions are now far out of the operatic mainstream. --Roz Kaveney
Placido Domingo stars as Vasco da Gama in Giacomo Meyerbeer's spectacular grand opera, first performed at the Paris Opera in 1865. In the great explorations, da Gama returns to a Portugal seething with political intrigue and hypocrisy, armed with two exotic slaves he has brought back with him from Africa. Shirley Verret co stars.