“L’Africaine ” or “The African,” a grand opera in five acts, the last of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s works, was first produced at the Académie, Paris, April 28, 1865. Scribe had written the text in 1840, at the same time as that of ” The Phophet,” but so many changes were demanded by the composer, that, at one time, he withdrew his work altogether. Meyerbeer was still correcting and improving ” The African” at the time of his death.
Inez, daughter of Don Diego. Anna, her attendant. Vasco di Gama, an explorer, lover of Inez. Selika, an African queen, captured by Vasco. Nelusko, her fellow captive. Don Pedro, President of the Council. Don Diego, a Portuguese admiral, member of the Council. Don Alvar, a member of the Council. Grand Priest of Brahma. Members of the Inquisition, sailors, Indians, attendant ladies.
The scene of the opera is laid in Portugal and in Africa. As was frequently the case with Meyerbeer, he takes for his operatic hero an actual historical figure. On this occasion, it is Vasco di Gama, the Portuguese navigator, who has been sent with Dias to double the cape and repeat the glory of Columbus. The story opens in Lisbon. Donna Inez is sighing for Vasco, her lover, whose long absence has given rise, in court, to the fear that he has suffered death by shipwreck. Meantime, her father is bringing pressure to bear on her to gain her acceptance of the hand of Don Pedro.
The report of the shipwreck is confirmed and Inez is giving way to her grief when Vasco, the only survivor of the ill-fated fleet, appears to dissipate the rumor. He has picked up on his voyage a man and a woman, inhabitants of one of the strange lands where he has touched. They refuse to aid in his campaign of discovery, however, jealously guarding even the name of their island. The councillors exhibit grave doubts as to the truth of Vasco’s claims of discovery and also are suspicious of him, as one who would urge the existence of lands not mentioned in the Bible. Vasco, who does not help his cause by the violent rage into which he flies, is thrust into the prison of the Inquisition as a heretic and Selika and Neluska, the captives, are obliged to share his fate. They are incarcerated for a month and in that time Selika loses her heart to Vasco. Nelusko is jealous and looks for an opportunity to stab his supplanter in the dusky beauty’s affections. She faithfully guards Vasco and finally points out to him on his map the course he should have taken for his desired discovery. To add to his happiness, Inez secures his deliverance from imprisonment. But his joy is not without alloy for he finds that to gain this she has been forced to give her hand to Don Pedro, who has confiscated Vasco’s maps and sailing funds and is about to snatch the laurels of discovery from him.
Vasco presents the captives to Inez as a token of his unhappy love and Don Pedro resolves to make use of them on his voyage. Nelusko, with hatred in his heart, sees his opportunity and plans to wreck the ship on a reef. Vasco, following in a smaller vessel, sees the danger and for the sake of Inez tries to warn his rival but when he boards Don Pedro’s ship, the latter distrusts him, and, having him seized, orders him shot. Before his sentence is carried out, however, a typhoon arises and the vessel is driven on a rock and boarded by savages. It is Selika’s own island of Madagascar and she, its Queen, is rescued by her people. Don Pedro and most of the crew are killed but Inez escapes immediate death, while Selika, to save Vasco, declares herself his spouse. The barbaric nuptial rites are about to unite them, when Vasco hears the voice of Inez in the distance, bewailing her fate as she and her attendants are led to the sacrifice. Forgetting everything else, he flies to her. Selika realizes then that she never can gain Vasco’s love and nobly aids them to return to their own country. As they sail away in the distance, she lies down under the manchineel tree and kills herself by inhaling the perfume of its deadly blossoms, Nelusko taking her in his arms and sharing her fate.
” The African ” reveals all of Meyerbeer’s musical virtues and shortcomings. It is filled with theatrically effective situations, many of its melodies being of distinct beauty and at times of true nobility. The orchestration is often attractive, but there is absent, in both text and setting, any deep, genuine feeling. There are also many absurdities and discrepancies in both plot and characters.
Among the best numbers in the score are the romanza of Inez, ” Adieu, mon doux rivage ” (” Farewell, ye shores of Tagus fair “) ; the strongly dramatic ensemble with which the first act closes; the slumber-song of Selika, sung over Vasco in prison, ” Sur mes genoux, fils du soleil ” (” Lulled in my arms “) ; the invocation of Nelusko in the third or Ship act, “Adamastor, roi des vagues profondes ” (“Adamastor, monarch of the pathless deep “) ; the Indian march in the fourth act; Vasco’s finest aria, the celebrated ” O Paradiso ” (” O Paradise “) and the symphonic prelude to the last or ” Manchineel ” act, which, portentous as it is of coming tragedy, has the ‘attributes of a funeral march and is the best of all of Meyerbeer’s orchestral creations.