L'Africane - Opera Orchestra of New York, 3/2/2011
Giordani, Taigi, Dehn, Mvinjelwa, Mobbs / Queler
Meyerbeer and Scribe's L'Africane doesn't, in fact, seem to have any Africans in it: the exotic characters turn out to be Indians, though I'm not sure whether it's my understanding or the creators' that's more confused here. (Was it supposed to be a non-subcontinental kingdom founded by Indians who ended up closer to the Cape? That makes little sense, but not much in this concoction does.) Its central figure, Vasco de Gama, did in fact make it to India, though he's probably better known these days for having a Rio soccer team named after him. As you might guess, the piece is utter nonsense as history or geography -- it's slightly better as opera, though.
Hugh Macdonald's program note suggestion that this posthumous score is Meyerbeer's masterpiece seems reasonable enough. L'Africane doesn't, after all, ruin its best musical scene with a mind-bendingly preposterous wrapper (as Huguenots does), and in its last acts does assemble a number of musically rewarding scenes in reasonably close proximity ("O Paradis" and the Vasco/Selika duet in Act IV; the Selika/Inez duet and Selika death monologue in Act V). But it's still characteristic Meyerbeer and Scribe, for all that implies: wooden, predictable, and unimaginative construction on the scene level, and an overall story sense perfectly attuned to the humbug of their day. This latter quality served well to make Meyerbeer the 19th century James Cameron (or, um, Michael Bay?), but has not worn well to the present.
So while today we can still savor its sort of Orientalist exoticism in other French Romantic operas (Pearl Fishers, Lakme) and French-Russian ballets (the scenario would have been much better in the hands of Petipa), the Meyerbeer/Scribe peculiarity of L'Africane itself makes for a slog. Again (like Huguenots) we have the wish-fulfillment hero, who despite being a narcissistic boob is adored by all the ladies -- including, in the manner of Vasco's futuristic successor James T. Kirk, the lovely alien princess who sacrifices herself for him -- again we have the chorus used endlessly for background noise chants of "you suck!"/"you're great!", and so on.
The cast sang well enough though not exceptionally. Marcello Giordani (Vasco) had his high notes but didn't transcend his generally workmanlike musicianship, US-debuting soprano Chiara Taigi (Selika) sang with confidence but a not-quite-matching instrument (stronger on bottom than top), while the best supporting singers were two low-voiced men: Daniel Mobbs as the Portugese bad guy and Harold Wilson in the small part of the High Priest of Brahma.
There's enough nice music here for a good highlights CD (besides the above, there's also Selika's famous second-act showpiece), but again one regrets that Wagner couldn't find a better model of what big opera really was.