Opera Scotland

Africaine L'africaine; The African Girl

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Giacomo Meyerbeer (born Vogelsdorf, 5 September 1791; died Paris, 2 May 1864.


Eugène Scribe, revised by François-Joseph Fétis.



First Performance: Paris (Opéra), 28 April 1865.

First Performance in UK: London (Covent Garden), 22 July 1865.

First Performance in Scotland: tbc.

Scottish Opera premiere: N/A.



Meyerbeer had worked on L'Africaine on and off for nearly thirty years. By the time it was premiered at the Paris Opéra both he and his librettist, the indispensable Scribe, were dead. It was left to Fétis to make any tweaks that seemed necessary during rehearsals.

Given the span of years during which it was composed, it is hardly surprising that the work's main fault is a lack of dramatic impetus, and an element of confusion between mainland Africa, Madagascar and India. However that is more than compensated for by the beauty of much of the musical writing. The composer successfully differentiates between the early scenes in the Portuguese court and the sequences on board ship, including an impressive storm. When the story reaches India the score is tinged with a suitable air of exoticism.

After many years of neglect, there have now been a series of revivals at a number of international houses. During the 1970s L'Africaine was successfully performed in Florence, San Francisco, Covent Garden, Monte Carlo and elsewhere, when several live recordings were made. The Covent Garden cast of 1977 included Plácido Domingo (Vasco), Grace Bumbry (Sélika), Silvano Carroli (Nélusko) and Margherita Rinaldi (Inès). Willard White sang Don Diego and David Ward the Inquisitor, all conducted by Peter Maag. Sélika has also been sung by Jessye Norman, Shirley Verrett and Martina Arroyo, with Veriano Luchetti, Franco Bonisolli and Giorgio Lamberti taking on Vasco.


Main Characters

Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese Navigator (tenor)

Sélika, an East African queen, now a slave (soprano)

Nélusko, a chieftain in her service, also a slave (baritone)

Don Pedro, President of the Council (bass)

Don Diego, Admiral of the Portuguese fleet (bass)

Inès, his daughter (soprano)


Plot Summary

Inès is pining for her beloved Vasco, an officer in the exploration fleet of Bartholomew Diaz that has been away for two years searching for a route to the Indies. Her father believes the ships to have been lost, and accepts the order from the king that she should marry Don Pedro. When Pedro arrives, it is with confirmation of the shipwreck, but as the Council discuss what action to take, a survivor arrives. This is Vasco himself. There is little enthusiasm to sponsor a second expedition until Vasco presents the remaining survivors, his slaves Sélika and Nélusko, to prove that there is land beyond the Cape. But the Grand Inquisitor pronounces Vasco a heretic and the trio are imprisoned.

In prison, Nélusko, who loves Sélika and is jealous of her love for Vasco, attempts to kill him as he sleeps, but she intervenes to prevent it. She then shows Vasco her map of a route to the East. Don Pedro and Don Alvar arrive with Inès and Anna. To secure Vasco's release she has promised to marry Pedro, and he, in turn, has obtained backing from the king to lead a voyage of exploration. Inès will accompany him, along with his newly acquired slaves.

Don Pedro's flotilla is making progress, though two ships have been lost. Don Alvar is suspicious of Nélusko's motives as pilot, and holds him responsible for the losses. Nelusko is, indeed, determined on revenge. Vasco arrives on another ship, determined to warn them, but Don Pedro refuses to believe him, and has Vasco arrested. Inès and Sêlika beg for him to be pardoned, and before sentence can be carried out, a violent storm blows up, the ship is thrown on to rocks, and is then attacked by fierce tribesmen attracted by Nélusko's signal.

Nélusko has succeeded in wrecking the ship on his own home territory, and Sélika is welcomed home as Queen and warned by the High Priest not to admit foreigners. The Portuguese men have all been killed except one, and Vasco is brought in, astonished at the beauty of this country. To save Vasco from execution, Sélika declares him to be her husband, and forces Nélusko to support her claim. Vasco nearly decides to stay with her in this paradise, however when he hears Inès crying out his love for her revives and he rushes off to save her, Sélika admits to herself that she is not loved as much by him.

Sélika decides to let Vasco and Ines return home to Portugal. As she watches them sail away, she deliberately inhales the poisonous vapours of a manchineel tree and dies. Nélusko, loyal to the end, follows the same course.

The Cast

 Inès's waiting woman
Don Alvar
 a Councillor
Don Diego
 Admiral of the Portuguese Fleet
Don Pédro
 President of the Council
Grand Inquisitor
High Priest of Brahma
 daughter of Don Diego
 one of Sélika's chieftains
 a Queen from the East Coast of Africa
 of the Council
Vasco da Gama
 Navigator and Explorer

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