‘Vasco Da Gama’ (Or ‘L’Africaine’) Under Full Sail In Berlin

Roberto Alagna in Vasco da Gama
Roberto Alagna, playing the Portuguese explorer, is seized in Meyerbeer’s ‘Vasco da Gama’ at Deutsche Oper Berlin.
(Production photos by Bettina Stöss)
By Rebecca Schmid

BERLIN – In Giacomo Meyerbeer’s opera Vasco da Gama, best known in its posthumous revision as L’Africaine, the passion of Queen Sélika for Portuguese seafarer Vasco becomes so strong that she sacrifices not just herself but her entire native land (whose exact identity is not clear historically), lying beneath the poisonous manchineel tree after ordering him with to sail off with his compatriot, Inès.

Vera Nemirova directed 'Vasco,' posthumously titled 'L'Africaine.'
Vera Nemirova directed ‘Vasco,’ posthumously titled ‘L’Africaine.’

The Deutsche Oper opened its season on Oct. 4 with a recently-published critical edition that names the opera after Vasco rather than Sélika, as based on notes the composer jotted down before he died during rehearsals. As seen in Vera Nemirova’s new staging, Sélika’s martyrdom comes into even stronger relief with the title character’s western ambition: In the final scene, as the Queen enters into a hallucinatory state, Vasco appears with maps in hand, ready to expand the Portuguese empire.

The opera is the second installment in a cycle dedicated to the Berlin-born Meyerbeer, whose post-war revival has been slower to catch on in Germany than in countries such as France, where he conceived the grand opéra form for which he is most famous, or the U.S., where companies such as the Metropolitan and San Francisco Operas have mounted lavish, if abridged, stagings of works by the composer. The Deutsche Oper continues with Les Huguenots next November and Le prophète in 2017-18, both in the latest critical editions.

Meyerbeer died in 1864, about a year before the opera's premiere in Paris.
Meyerbeer died in 1864, about a year before the premiere in Paris.

A combination of factors led Meyerbeer’s stage works to lose traction since the 19th century. Anti-Semitism plagued him during his lifetime, particularly in his native Germany. In more recent times, his operas have struggled to stay in fashion because of their history-laden content.  While Wagner’s mythic subject matter lends itself to the conceptual fare and updated plotlines that are popular with German audiences, Meyerbeer’s stage works are grounded in real-life cultural conflict. Nemirova strikes an impressive balance between contemporary narrative and symbolist abstraction, depicting the Portuguese council as a mix of Catholic priests and bureaucrats while seating them within a formation of sails that hints at the dome of German Parliament (with sets by Jens Kilian).

It was impossible to miss the parallel between the Indian natives who entered in modern dress (in costumes by Marie-Thérèse Jossen) and the deluge of refugees currently dividing politicians. When the captured Nélusko brings in warriors to wreak vengeance on the Portuguese ship, Nemirova is not afraid to add to the mix a few ISIS-style terrorists who gun down the female choristers rather than placing them beneath the manchineel tree, as per the libretto – eliciting a torrent of boos before the second intermission. Once in the queendom of Sélika in the fourth and fifth acts, the inhabitants emerge in bare-chested, tribal fashion, a naturalist approach that might have benefited from some real choreography; while the opera was presented in five acts, the ballet numbers were omitted.

In Act IV, Vasco (Alagna) and Sélika (Sophie Koch) declare their love in a bed of petals.

Nemirova underscores Sélika’s fatal passion by depicting the manchineel tree as a bed of petals where she both romps with Vasco and lies down to die. As the poison sets in, blue petals falls from the sky, an abstract touch that was nevertheless without ambiguity. That the staging illustrates the drama with limited means speaks to the director’s talent. One almost wished it were not necessary to have Vasco reappear in colonial victory; even if it was only a figment of Sélika’s imagination, the moment detracted from the spiritual release that Meyerbeer so evocatively depicts.

Koch's Selika
Mezzo-soprano Koch sang with “rich, burnished timbre.”

The Deutsche Oper brought together a fine cast for the monumental score, joining star singers with its roster of ensemble members. As Vasco, Roberto Alagna chose to carry on despite a cold, his robust tenor only slightly dampened as he filled the house with ardent tone. Although he became hoarse while pleading to Sélika in the fourth act, he recovered for the following duet, “L’hymen que ton salut me force de souscrire.” The Sélika – mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch – was more resigned than stoic, her rich, burnished timbre luring the listener into the character’s conflicted depths. Her tendency toward flat intonation aside, Koch sang with great stamina and skillful dynamic shading during the death scene, the extended four-movement structure of which was radical in Meyerbeer’s time.

The creamy timbre and virtuous allure of soprano Nina Machaidze was perfectly suited to the role of Inès, and the young bass-baritone and Deutsche Oper ensemble member Seth Carico held his own with round tone and polished diction as the council president Don Pedro to whom she is betrothed. The more veteran ensemble baritone Markus Brück captured both the vicious and vulnerable sides of Nélusko, who joins Sélika in death. Conductor Enrique Mazzola drew impressive balance and rhythmic flexibility from the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, which is best known for its performances of Wagner. An appropriately atmospheric perfume emerged from Sélika’s second-act “Sur mes genoux, fils du soleil,” also known as the “Slumber Aria,” and while the brass was rough around the edges in the Brahmin temple of the fourth act, the dark strings only grounded Meyerbeer’s fateful harmonies.

Note: For more information on the new edition, see this author’s article in the New York Times.

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to the Financial Times, New York Times, GramophoneMusical America Worldwide, and other publications.