"L'africaine" ("The African Woman") is a
grand opera, the last work of the composer Giacomo Meyerbeer. The French libretto was written by Eugène Scribe. Meyerbeer's working title for the opera was ' Vasco da Gama', the hero. The events in the opera are, however, entirely fictitious. Gabriela Cruz has published a detailed analysis of the historical context of the events of the opera and the opera setting itself. [Cruz, Gabriela, "Laughing at History: The Third Act of Meyerbeer's "L'Africaine" (March 1999). "Cambridge Opera Journal", 11 (1): pp. 31-76.]
The opera was premiered at the
Paris Opéraon April 25, 1865in a performing edition undertaken by François-Joseph Fétis, as the composer had not prepared a final version at his death the previous year. It is Fétis who gave the work its present title.
The work was first performed at
Covent Garden Theatre, London, on 22 July1865, and in New Yorkon 1 December1865.
The opera was enormously successful in the 19th century but is today rarely revived. Most modern performances and recordings are severely cut to give prominence to the parts of da Gama and Sélika, and therefore cannot give a full idea of the composer's conception - which in any case has been to some extent obscured by the version of Fétis.
The opera depicts fictional events in the life of the explorer
Vasco da Gama.
:Place: Lisbon, at sea, and in an exotic new land.:Time: late
The beautiful Inèz is forced by her father, the Grand Admiral, to marry Don Pédro instead of her true love, Vasco da Gama. Da Gama, who is thought to be dead, appears at the Grand Council saying he has discovered a new land. His request for an expedition is refused, causing da Gama to attack the grand inquisitor. Da Gama is then imprisoned.
In prison, Sélika, an African queen, saves da Gama, whom she loves, from being murdered by Nélusko, a member of her entourage. Inès agrees to marry Don Pédro if da Gama is freed. Don Pédro mounts an expedition to the new lands, assisted by Nélusko.
Nélusko is navigating Don Pédro's ship, but is secretly planning to destroy the Europeans. Da Gama has followed Don Pédro in another ship, and begs him to return to Lisbon. Don Pédro refuses, and a storm breaks out. The local people kill all on the ships save da Gama.
Sélika returns to her homeland, and swears revenge on her enemies. Da Gama is captured by priests, who intend to sacrifice him. Sélika saves him by saying that he is her husband. Da Gama resigns himself to this new life.
Inèz has made her way to this new land. She meets da Gama, but their reunion is interrupted by Sélika, who feels betrayed. When she realises the strength of the lovers' affection, she allows them to return to Europe. She then commits suicide by inhaling the perfume of the poisonous blossoms of the
Manchineel tree. Nélusko follows her into death.
* Harold Rosenthal and John Warrack (eds.), "The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera" (Oxford, 1979)
* Reiner Zimmermann, "Giacomo Meyerbeer", (Berlin, 1998).
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