MEYERBEER Vasco de Gama
Vasco de Gama had a difficult birth. Meyerbeer began composing it in 1837, set it aside and returned to it more than once, completed it in 1863 but died before the premiere at the Paris Opéra in 1865. Eugène Scribe, the librettist, had died in 1861, so others contributed their pennyworth. One of them was the critic François-Joseph Fétis, Berlioz’s bête noire, who – after Meyerbeer’s death – also supervised the rehearsals and reinstated the opera’s original title, L’Africaine. Covent Garden mounted it in 1978: I remember a realistic ship, a sterling performance by Plácido Domingo, and a gasp from the audience at a tune that began exactly like the Entr’acte between Acts 2 and 3 of Carmen (1875).
Fétis made an improbable story even more obscure by omitting several passages; his reversion to L’Africaine for the title caused more confusion, as Sélika had been changed from an African to an Indian queen when Meyerbeer was revising the opera in the early 1850s. But the first production was a success, and Fétis’s version held sway up to the present. Last year the Chemnitz Opera staged the work using a new edition by Jürgen Schläder that sought to restore Meyerbeer’s final version. This recording, seemingly not taken from live performances, was made at the same time.
It’s a long haul. Vasco returns to Lisbon with Sélika and Nélusko, slaves ‘of an unknown race’ whom he had bought in Africa. Forbidden by the king’s Council to lead a new expedition, he and the slaves are imprisoned. To bring about his release, Inès, his beloved, marries Don Pédro, who himself leads the expedition. Deceived by Nélusko, Don Pédro and his crew are shipwrecked and captured by Indians, who hail Sélika as their queen. The men are executed and the women taken to be poisoned by the vapour of a manchineel tree. Vasco is saved by Sélika, who of course loves him, to the fury of Nélusko, who of course loves her. Believing Inès dead, Vasco marries Sélika; but Inès has miraculously escaped from the poisonous tree. Sélika sacrifices herself, and is joined by Nélusko.
The essence of Meyerbeerian grand opéra is spectacle, and there are plenty of opportunities here: large-scale ensembles and choruses, a ballet, the storm and shipwreck. And that is the problem. In the theatre, this must have looked magnificent: on disc, you can only focus on the music, which is less than first-class. The unison prayer in the Act 1 finale lacks the power of the Consecration of the Swords in Les Huguenots; even the famous ‘O paradis’ – here ‘O doux climat!’ – is dull as well as dramatically implausible. There are lovely moments, such as the gently rocking introduction to the scene on board ship; but Verdi did it so much better in Simon Boccanegra.
The performance is excellent. The girlish tones of Guibee Yang’s Inès make an effective contrast with Claudia Sorokina’s rounder Sélika. Bernhard Berchtold sounds suitably heroic as Vasco. The most interesting character is Nélusko, treacherous and lovelorn: Pierre-Yves Pruvot is impressively saturnine. Frank Beermann, the chorus and the orchestra are all splendid. It’s certainly interesting to hear this full version but Meyerbeer’s cause would have been better served by a DVD.