Opera Profile: Meyerbeer’s ‘L’Africaine’

By David Salazar

Meyerbeer’s “L’Africaine,” or “Vasco da Gama” has never quite established its foothold in the operatic canon.

Despite being one of the composer’s most mature operas, the work, which premiered on April 28, 1865 is so massive that it has often been cut down in modern performances to accommodate its running time. The work has seen champions in the likes of Plácido Domingo and Enrico Caruso, but not enough to sustain it into the modern era.

Short Plot Summary

Da Gama is imprisoned for attacking the Grand Inquisitor after his request for expedition is rejected. Meanwhile his beloved Inès is betrothed to another man, Don Pédro. Sélika, the queen of the undiscovered land saves Da Gama from being murdered by a man from her clan. She loves him. Inès agrees to marry Don Pédro if Da Gama is freed.

Don Pédro is allowed to go on the expedition with Nélusko, Sélika’s native companion, as his pilot.

Nélusko leads Don Pédro into a storm. Da Gama has followed the expedition and urges Pédro to turn around. He is ultimately spared though his fellow Europeans wind up dead.

Da Gama, now a captive on the island is sentenced to death, as is Inès. Sélika saves him by saying that he is her husband. He resigns himself though he has doubts upon hearing of his beloved impending doom. Sélika feels betrayed by the reunion of Da Gama and Inès but realizes the power of their love. She frees them and then commits suicide through poison. Nélusko follows her to his death,

Famous Musical Numbers

The aria “O Paradis” is one of the most famous recordings that Caruso ever made. It’s melodic splendor and build make it a textbook example of Meyerbeer’s ability to explore rich emotion through simple musical means.

Watch and Listen

Here is a recording of the opera starring Grace Bumbry, Franco Bonisolli, Miwako Matsumoto and Silvano Carroli. Though admittedly cut, it features top-end singing all around.


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