Grande Opera en cinq actes. Running Time: 4 hours 15 minutes. This was Meyerbeer’s last opera and it premiered a year after his death. It is also, probably for that reason, the most modern-sounding of his operas although he started writing it as early as 1838. It is also a very interesting composite examination of multiple theories from his earlier operas such as intolerance and religious extremism. It also uniquely grapples with sexism and racism within a Euro-colonial framework. Not that the work is overtly feminist, but I think I can say without controversy that the female characters in this opera are stronger than the males.
NOTE: I have changed the linked recording to the 2013 complete production of Vasco de Gama. I feel that one can really grasp the dissonant orchestration combinations better in this recording than any other, also, it is more complete.
PLOT: Lisbon, India, and the ocean in between, circa 1497. Inez is in love with Vasco da Gama but her father wants her to marry Don Pedro. When Vasco is imprisoned by the Inquisition she has no choice but to give in. Meanwhile, Selika, an Indian (or African?) queen who rescued and returned Vasco to Portugal has fallen in love with him to the consternation of her warrior Nelusko. Eventually they all end up on a ship going to wherever Selika rules and are shipwrecked with the Portuguese characters all experiencing an uncomfortable change in who is in control. In the end Vasco ends up with a widowed Inez and Selika and Nelusco die via a poisonous tree.
Vasco de Gama (2013 performance):
(I have revised this review to reflect the original intention of Meyerbeer. 18/3/18)
LOOK OUT FOR:
0: The Prelude **, is as soft as velvet but a lovely composition. In fact, it is the youngest music in the opera. It all starts off with the brass rather softly, then a flute comes in with what we will soon know as the haunting Inez theme, or rather her song to the river Tagus which flows from the city of Lisbon into the heart of Portugal. After some agitation we get another theme (voyage/discovery) in the lower woodwinds, more agitation again and then the Inez/Tagus theme is taken up again, this time by the horn and then back to the flute. A wonderful introduction.
ACT 1: The Council Chamber, Lisbon. (52 minutes)
9: After the preliminary introduction material provided by Inez and her confidant Anna in recitative: mostly that Vasco has been gone on a voyage with Diaz for three years and that her hand is the prize of his return. Inez embarks on the opera’s first aria ** starting with her hymn to the Tagus, in this way a quotation of what Vasco sang to her the night before he left Lisbon. She vows to die with him (this motif will return in the following trio). If one looks at Inez as representative of a romantic chivalric Portugal and her soon to be husband Don Pedro as a mercantile exploitative Portugal then the rest of the scene makes more sense.
17: Her father, Don Diego shows up and in recitative Inez goes from being a dutiful daughter to a strong objector of her father’s marriage plans for her (he wants her to marry Don Pedro, a council member). Inez defends her Vasco from her father’s accusations that he is a nothing person. Until Don Pedro comes in there is little melody from the orchestra. When they get into the matter of Diaz’s shipwrecked voyage and the obit listings things start to warm up but very slowly with the two men chatting off. Inez has to break in with a strong melody of despair and torment over the assumed death of Vasco ** and a return of her death vow <<avec vous je meure>>. The two men come in again and yet again Inez breaks in with her vow. It is amazing here how dominate Inez was in the previous number and here almost limps miserably (even on some brief low notes) but still manages to survive although beaten.
21: The beginning of the Council scene ** which will constitute the remainder of the act starts off with a fugal orchestral accompaniment and then a rather good all male chorus, although the basses drown the tenors. Listen for the orchestral accompaniment as things die down right after this and before Don Pedro goes into his spiel about Portugal could do well with this whole sailing around Africa to get to India thing. The Inquisition is against all of this (of course) and accuse Pedro mildly of wanting to enrich himself at the expense of Portugal. After a repeat of the chorus and some more spiel to a rather strong orchestral accompaniment the plot forwards.
26: The arrival of Vasco de Gama ** at first seems like a duet as the two tenors in the opera, Vasco and the council member Don Alvar, engage in a pitch plan to the Inquisition (which is as unsuccessful as Don Pedro’s, especially after Vasco stupidly admits to wanting immortality through his reputation as an explorer). There is some nice choral/soloists work, much of it to Vasco’s entrance theme. Vasco decides to pull out the big guns and produces the native people he has with him.
34: Selika and Nelusko are brought in to a wild motif, Don Pedro calls Selika a slave and then she makes her first comments to the most noble accompaniment **. One minute later Vasco begs Selika to speak to the Portuguese with most lilting tenor line. She starts to melt, she is obviously in love with him. Nelusko acts all cocky with the Portuguese, much of it addressed at the rather equally cocky and presumptive Don Pedro. They, along with Vasco, are ordered out as the Council decides to take a vote, but there is so much competition between the “yes” an “no” sides leading to a short climatic ensemble. The Grand Inquisitor levels everything with a repeat of the council chorus.
48: The Council makes its decision, they refuse Vasco who blows up on them telling them that the Church also laughed at Christopher Columbus in 1492 until they weren’t and so it will be with da Gama as well. Vasco lilts until the Council gets really mad with him and then he goes into a rather dapper melody ** which will bring everything down to his arrest, condemnation from the Inquisitor, and the end of the act.
ACT 2: The prison. (47 minutes)
5: The brief prelude has strings and an aimless horn solo going on before we get some woodwinds and Vasco makes rather lilting interjections in his sleep (Selika is in love with him, no question as she breaks into some recitative). Selika then breaks into a theme song of sorts ** full of coloratura flourishes. Apart from some interruptions by Vasco it is a solid solo piece for soprano and quite lovely.
15, 20: Nelusko comes in to a noble orchestral accompaniment but then turns very not noble by offering to murder the sleeping Vasco. Selika stops him: Vasco is a prisoner just as they are. Nelusko retorts the Vasco is a Christian and that he hates Christians. Nelusko asks Selika why she a daughter of kings <<Fille des rois>>, would debase herself to protect a Christian man **. The accompaniment is as smooth as velvet, almost waltzing, and is not as sinister as the words and Nelusko’s desire to kill would indicate until the second (shorter) part which is at least a bit more warlike **. Selika has to wake up Vasco in order to save his life.
28: Nelusko has time though for one more liltingly baritone interjection before leaving queen and explorer to their geography lesson * on the topic of ‘How to get to India as quickly as possible’ which is a fine number but not up to the same level as the previous hour or so of music, much of what comes from the orchestra sounding like chamber music more suitable for an elegant soiree. There is a reference (foreshadowing) to the deadly Manchineel tree.
38, 43: Don Pedro and Inez show up. Selika is filled with jealousy as she sees how Vasco looks at her. Inez tells Vasco that she has purchased his freedom to a declining scale, the order is “formal” and after exclamations from both she says good-bye for the first time with a hint of what will develop into a much stronger theme in a few minutes. Selika emotes more tortured feelings of jealous, exacerbated by Vasco handing her over to Inez as a personal slave along with Nelusko. The whole first part of the scene has a smaller scale orchestral accompaniment, in fact for part of it the orchestra is entirely absent. An ensemble septet with traces of melodies that will return in the later acts **. There will be an expedition, but Don Pedro will lead it. Nelusko gets himself hired out to him as steersman on the voyage (something Don Pedro will regret) and Inez admits to having married Don Pedro in order to get Vasco freed and the ships for the expedition which leads to another patter ensemble * which is broken by a horn.
44: The voyage/exploration motif comes in with Inez as she tries to inspire hope in Vasco ***. Much of this is remarkably a cappella and the act ends without the orchestra.
ACT 3: On board Don Pedro’s ship, somewhere in the ocean between Africa and India. (55 minutes)
0: The prelude *** starts off with Inez/Tagus on a solo oboe which then duels with one other low woodwind instrument (bassoon?) and then the strings come in to give us some rather ardent and beautiful seafaring music. You really get the sense of ships moving swiftly through water. A remarkable occasion of tone painting which connects the Lisbon acts with the later components of the opera and sadly often cut in performance.
4: Inez’s ladies provide her (and us) with an okay opening chorus about how speedily the ship goes *. This entire scene parallels the choral opening of act 3 of Les Huguenots at Pre des clercs as we float from one choral “local colour” segment to another.
8: Then there is a loud snare drum roll and a soldiers/sailors chorus *, this is mostly a cappella at first but then takes on rather sweet high woodwind accompaniment.
10: Monks call the crew and passengers in for prayer *. There is a bell toll (on ship?).
12: The prayer itself ** starts with sweet solemnity from the women with the men below.
14: Another chorus, this time a solo high tenor sailor and his comrades ***.
16: Ines interjects with a dark rendering of her theme as the sailors can be heard calling **, the sailor and co. return for one last inning.
23: After the seventeen minute long divertissement Don Alvar and Don Pedro have an exchange on deck. Both suspicious (rightly) of the fact that Nelusko is the steersman, this is all recitative and it takes a few minutes of this before the next number although towards the end it takes up a rather rich orchestral accompaniment *.
26: Nelusko’s own distractive song about the great giant of the sea which destroys ships **. It is rather prophetic, or would be if we did not already have an idea of what Nelusko has in mind.
31: Vasco’s arrival on board ship * is announced by Don Alvar: A small vessel is spotted coming towards Don Pedro’s ship. As it docks with the larger ship it is discovered that Vasco has climbed aboard (how did Don Pedro not know his rival was on a smaller ship on his own expedition?) Vasco warns Don Pedro that Nelusko is planning on wrecking his ship on a reef during an on-coming storm and that an army of Indian warriors is ready to kill everyone on the beach. Don Pedro thinks this is all a scare tactic by Vasco because of his romantic feelings for Inez, and Vasco readily admits to Pedro that he is still in love with his wife.
39: The duet proper is a rather energetic number ** between the two male romantic rivals.
42: Don Pedro orders to have Vasco executed but the latter’s cries can be heard from below and Inez and Selika both come up just in time to plead to safe Vasco (not effective but pretty *).
43: A dramatic emoting ensemble starts off with all the principals and chorus **.
46: Don Pedro promises Inez that he will not execute Vasco after all, so soon? This can not be the truth surely? Instead we get some chromatic orchestration * and Don Pedro decides that instead of destroying his rival he will have Selika flogged to death to a sickeningly up beat ditty but is stopped by Nelusko and the trio embark on a brief ensemble to something similar to a melody earlier introduced by Inez but it never goes beyond recitative really.
51: The fateful storm arrives although it is not all that exciting *.
53: Nelusko tells the Indians “fils de Shiva” to butcher the European men. Their chorus is very tuneful but menacing in an Offenbach sort of way and one half-expects the Indians to start dancing. The women, lead by Inez and Selika get a much better bouncy bit praying for mercy *. There is something about it that just doesn’t measure up to the horrific goings-on on stage. Although very loud and catchy, this finale doesn’t satisfy as a whole and comes off more like an operetta show tune than opera.
ACT 4: Before a Hindu temple in Selika’s Queendom. (54 minutes)
0: A bit of preluding strings introduces the famous Marche indouais **. More a grand ballet than a march except at the beginning and end.
9: The High Priest and people greet their returning Queen *. She must marry soon and Nelusko urges her on in this regard, but instead she wants to marry Vasco. Nelusko pronounces judgement over Inez and the other Portuguese women, poisonous Manchineel tree for them.
13: A chorus of Indians comes up *.
15: The women are taken away and Nelusko leaves as Vasco is dumped on stage so he can sing the most famous aria in the opera <O paradis> ***. The Hindu men arrive and want to have Vasco executed.
19: He pleads for his life * (negative from the Hindus). It has a Mozartean quality to it towards the middle that is especially worth looking out for.
23: Selika arrives and saves Vasco. Nelusko tells Vasco that Inez is dead (this proves to not be true) and Vasco’s reaction is the first sign to Selika that Vasco will never be entirely hers. There is some wonderfulness coming from the orchestra here **.
27: An ensemble ** as Selika declares that she is already married to Vasco according to the rites of his culture so she will make it official and wed according the Hindu rite.
29: This prompts a brief aria con coro out of Nelusko **.
31: The wedding ceremony **: the High Priest calls upon the Hindu trinity rather effectively, but that really is the highlight as he does his priestly thing. Part of the ceremony involves Vasco drinking from a drugged cup that will eventually make him temporarily forget who he is, where he is, who Inez is….
34: Listen out for the orchestral accompaniment right after the ceremony in the exchange between Selika and Vasco. It is rather Mozartean *. The High Priest pops in a again briefly. Don Pedro’s ship is probably beyond repair but there are the other two ships that were not wrecked although of them there is so far no report.
40: The first part of the Selika-Vasco duet has one good melody before the climax **.
41: A theme that you will recognize faintly from the act 2 septet reappears far more developed here *** and becomes the core of the Selika-Vasco love duet. I will call it “Selika’s love”.
43: A lovely harp accompaniment pops in as Vasco starts getting lovey with Selika **. Leading to a softer variant of “Selika’s love” and more loveliness until a fadeout.
48: The High Priest comes in again with the people (are we getting of the ballet and march here then?). Not exactly, it seems to be the beginning of the finale with the chorus of women dancers. Nice jolly bell accompaniment *. Selika and Vasco bask in their apparent passion for each other.
51: Inez can be heard in the distance hauntingly and painfully singing her song to the Tagus **, Vasco wonders what is going on as the women dancers distract him and the act ends.
ACT 5 (47 minutes)
SCENE 1: A garden in Selika’s palace.
0: The aria for Inez opening act 5 *** starts with an agitated and frantic prelude. The monologue itself consists of three parts, first a recitative in which she describes the poisonous manchineel tree and how it has just killed all of her ladies. Somehow she got away although apart from sheer self-determination this is never made clear. The second part is the aria proper in which Inez recognizes that this exotic place is not her homeland. The third part is a prayer to God. Personally I feel that without this number, which is actually not a numbered item in the score, there is a huge question mark as to how Inez is still alive this late in the opera. It is shameful that it is not actually a part of the official score because it is one of the best arias Meyerbeer wrote.
7: Inez’s reunion duet with Vasco which immediately follows *. Inez herself gets a cheery little bit as she declares to him “your Inez is here!” and they have a Tarzan meets Jane moment as the drugs start to wear off.
11: Selika catches the two together rather conveniently and logically suspects the worst for her. She threatens revenge and orders Vasco out (he never returns in the opera). The first half of the Selika-Inez duet * in which the two rivals (the latter imploring for mercy) realize that their love for Vasco is of equal measure and that Vasco will always prefer Inez (drugged or not drugged).
15: The grand duet between Selika and Inez climaxes in one of Meyerbeer’s grandest achievements *** <O longue souffrance>. This is the one number in the opera which I think improved from the post-mortem revision, both the beginning and end are more effective orchestrally and compact than in the original score although the vocal lines are all there. There is a legato reprisal which does make up for the fact that the revision has a more dramatic opening and closing. After this, Selika orders Inez out of her sight and then orders Nelusko that Vasco be transferred with Inez to a ship and safely allowed to return to Lisbon.
20: The scene ends well starting with Nelusko’s bit of lyrical arioso * but a forlorn orchestral chord from Selika tells Nelusko to escort the two Portuguese to the safety of their vessel and then to join her at the Manchineel tree.
SCENE 2: Under the Manchineel tree.
24: After a brief orchestral intermezzo, Selika comes on and waits to see the Portuguese sail out of sight (variant on the ships from act 3 prelude here *).
26: She bides Vasco <adieu, Vasco mon bien ami>” (literally) *** to a sedate brass and string accompaniment. Unlike in the revision there is much destress here, although it is still beautiful.
31: An outing of arioso ** leading to something resembling a cabaletta.
34: Later there is some orchestral wonderfulness with hints of Vasco’s first plea for Selika to speak in act one on a harp ** as she breathes in the deadly scent of the manchineel.
35: The voices of the wind come in to accompany Selika ***. She fantasizes that she sees Vasco again (obviously delusional from the poison).
37: She thinks Vasco is embracing her **, this is oddly frightening even though the orchestra is playing an almost happy ditty on the trumpets. As morbidity starts to set in the high strings end up going crazy with bells and woodwinds all over the place providing some level of stability as she lays down to die.
43: Nelusko comes to die with Selika *** in an apotheosis. His entrance is fugal, but as she dies she declares that death is happiness. He comments in terror that she is icy and frozen to the touch. The chorus floats about in a switchback between ecstasy and terror as Nelusko dies and the opera tragically comes to a close.
This is a great opera, but not exactly a masterpiece. Part of the problem is the fact that until 2013 no one had ever heard the entire score and literally EVERY recording of this opera prior to the 2013 German production of Vasco de Gama is in some way incomplete. Cut, the score of L’Africaine/Vasco de Gama can come off like gibberish as much of Meyerbeer’s allusions are lost. For instance, the third act starts off with a series of choral pieces that are meant to remind one of the same act three start in Les Huguenots. The first seventy minutes of the opera are constant good music, the fifth act is stunning and the second and fourth acts are very good, but the third act just does not come off well and this is partially because of cuts made to the score. The storm sequence especially is just serviceable, just, and I am not sure how the massacre can be pulled off satisfactorily. Don Pedro is a rather idiotic baddy, but the four main characters are very complex and interesting flesh and blood people, with the two women (Inez and Selika) the most interesting. But this comes off best when the score is uncut. Both women sacrifice everything for Vasco (Inez allows herself to be married off and most likely used as a dishonoured sex toy subjected to Don Pedro’s lusts, Selika commits suicide). It is actually rather hard to determine which sacrifices more for his love. Nelusko is terrible to everyone except Selika, for whom he has nothing but selfless love which in a way redeems him. Vasco is okay, but seems to not be as involved in the opera for us to decide if we truly like him or not. Racially, Vasco is really not that sensitive to Selika or Nelusko by handing them over to Inez as her personal slaves, especially considering how the two Indians saved his life and got him back to Portugal safely, ultimately twice. Nelusko obviously doesn’t like Europeans, but Selika sympathizes with both Vasco and Inez at different points in the opera and her suicide is symbolic of the destruction caused by European colonialism. The Inquisitors are just as terrible, reactionary, and ignorant as one would expect. Notice that although all four of Meyerbeer’s grand operas have Roman Catholic elements in them, only this one actually has a cleric on stage (albeit in a minor role in the first act). It is also wonderful to be able to gain insight into the thinking of a non-European opera character who is truly three dimensional. It’s an A.