I've got to say, I am a Meyerbeer fan, as well as a fan of Grand opera in general. When I listened to "Les Huguenots", it was for me a real revelation. Thus, I had high hopes for this opera, which is Meyerbeer's last work, his swan song. I was in no way disappointed, though this work has a very different feel to it than Les Huguenots. While Les Huguenots is a very somber story, with persecution, impossible love, religion, and martyrdom, L'Africaine is entirely a love story, and manages to be sometimes very intimistic, despite it's use of chorus and grandiose effects.
If I had to compare this work to any other work of the romantic era, I would compare it to Verdi's "Falstaff". Of course, both works have, esthetically, pretty much nothing in common (if this work is musically similar to a Verdian work, it is Aïda, for it uses similar orientalizing elements), it's only that L'Africaine seems to have a bit of Verdi's last opera's atmosphere. For both composers, throughout their lives, composed melodramatic love stories, more or less in the spirit of their time. While Verdi ends with a comedy where he makes fun of all his teary-eyed tragedies, Meyerbeer gives us a last tragedy, but seems to approach it more philosophically. As if, used to this atmosphere, he tries to find a moral to the ensemble of the operas he ever composed, giving the sentence it's period, the sundae it's cherry. He approaches the cast's misfortunes with a tender eye, instead of over-dramatizing, and gives the world a somewhat lighter work than his previous Grand operas, which doesn't stop him from giving a worthy rendition of the characters' feelings, and being pathetic when need be (especially at Selika's death scene). Aside from Don Pedro, who is all evil, and Ines, who is all good, all characters have good and bad points, and overall, the moral of this work is pretty much that love smiles on everyone, but only your luck decides wether it will make you happy or sad. This is pretty much the moral of all melodramas.
From a musical point of view, I have trouble finding the famous downsides other reviewers have pointed. Regarding the lyricism, it is maybe less direct than Verdi's, but equally expressiveand effective. The arias are more elegant, have a more french aesthetic. But it in no way means that his lyrical invention is inferior. As I said, this work is not as passionate as Les Huguenots. As for the famous "broken-backed" act formation, I just don't see what it may be about. This is not because an opera doesn't have the musical continuity of Wagner's lyrical dramas that it lacks good structure. After all, despite Meyerbeer's success, the music critics of his time wouldn't have acclaimed the work as they did if it wasn't well-built. For me, an act is ok from the moment the story and the action make sense.
Regarding the cast, everyone is very good. Placido Domingo is thoroughly chilling as the intrepid explorer. He shows well that back then, the aria "O paradis" was a party-stopper. Shirley Verrett sings her second-act sleep aria very well, and is very moving at the opera's end. All of the supporting cast is also top-notch. The famous "workhouse" sounds are mostly when the music is "piano", soft. Most of the time, however, I've had no problems with this recording. The Dolby digital sound is very ok.
Finally, if you must make a choice between this work or Les huguenots, I'd say this dvd may be a surer bet than the Australian dvd of "Les huguenots", since the cast here is of greater quality. However, Les huguenots has, I think, a "grander" subject, and it's emotional impact is greater, I feel, than L'Africaine. Still, I would recommend you to buy both instead of making a choice, since each one has such a great musical and dramatic value.