As is well known, Meyerbeer made it his regular practice in his later years to write several alternative versions of his operatic scores. Her then decided in rehearsals which one was to be adopted for performance. Since he died before the rehearsals of L’Africaine
began, the business of selection devolved upon the Belgian musicologist Joseph Fétis at the instigation of the director of the Paris Opéra. The results were delegated to the young Delibes, then employed at the Opéra as a chorus master, to play over at sight on the piano. “What a masterpiece!” exclaimed the enraptured director. “Monsieur le Directeur,” stammered the young pianist, “it’s, it’s awful!” Whether he was referring to Meyerbeer’s original or Fétis’s edition of the score, his services were dispensed with, although it didn’t stop the influence of the music on his own oriental Lakmé
some eighteen years later.
Berlioz in his memoirs gave vent to his very low opinion of Fétis both as an academic critic and as a musician, describing his proposed ‘corrections’ to Beethoven’s symphonies as “a crime” and an “insult to common intelligence”. This stricture is in no way ameliorated by Fétis’s denial that he had intended to do anything of the kind - although his writings on Beethoven certainly tend to give the suggestion credibility. Be that as it may, this recording of Vasco de Gama
- as Meyerbeer finally wished to entitle the opera - rejects Fétis’s miscellaneous abridgements and amendments in favour of the composer’s final written score. This may not, as the booklet note acknowledges, be the version that Meyerbeer would finally have presented following rehearsals but it is as close as we can come to the composer’s intentions. A new critical edition of the score has been issued by Ricordi. In undertaking this review I have perforce made use of my own vocal score published by Boosey and Chappell with Italian words, in a leather binding the luxuriance of which bears testimony to the esteem in which L’Africaine
— the edition retains the French title in preference to L’Africana
, along with stage directions in French only — was held in its day.
The fact that the opera’s reputation has not endured is testified to by the fact that we have never had an absolutely complete studio recording of L’Africaine
in any version whatsoever. There have been a number of live, and presumably pirated, sound recordings, only one of which makes any pretensions to giving us the complete score even in the form that Fétis bequeathed. Two recordings featuring Plácido Domingo in the leading role – one on CD and one commercially released on video
– both make cuts in the score; rather different ones in the two versions. The earlier of these recordings, conducted by Jean Perrison, has generally been regarded as the most satisfactory of the CD versions. This new release however gives us not only a more ‘authentic’ version of the opera, but also the only truly complete one, and as such it is doubly welcome.
Comparisons with the two Domingo sets disclose substantial cuts in the earlier recordings even in the First Act. It has to be said that these trimmings, sometimes of only a few bars, seem to bear no real resemblance to the quality of the music. Many of them eliminate repeats, some of which actually have relevance to the structure of the score. Others, such as a substantial cut in the final ensemble, eliminate music of real substance which would have helped to create a sense of excitement. In the Second Act both of the Domingo sets – and the version we are given here – actually add music to the Boosey vocal score, and rather good it is too. However at the beginning of the second disc we have a further duet between Vasco and Selika, important for the development of both plot and character. This is massively truncated in both the Domingo recordings, which also cut most of the ensemble passages in the finale of Act Two. In Act Three there are some fairly massive re-orderings of material in the San Francisco performances, with some passages missing from the vocal score restored and other sections cut. Act Four begins with the massively extended ballet sequence, where again San Francisco make substantial abridgements. The amount of cutting in the final sections of the score is perhaps best attested by the fact that the audio CDs fit the opera onto two-and-a-half discs; the remainder of the final disc is made up of extracts from a Domingo/Verrett Samson et Dalila
. The set currently under consideration runs to a full four discs. Enough said, other than to note that the passages cut by Fétis and excluded from the vocal score seem to be in no way inferior to the sections of the score that were retained. Some of the restored passages here, as in the vastly extended scene before the storm (CD 2, tracks 14-15) illustrate Meyerbeer’s talent for orchestration at its most innovative, as in the imaginative scoring for timpani, trombone and piccolo.
Where this new set does yield points to the earlier versions with Domingo is in the quality of the singing. Not so much by comparison with Domingo himself; Bernhard Berchtold lacks Domingo’s honeyed tones and richly heroic sounds but he is a more than adequate hero and arguably more in the style of the Meyerbeer period. He floats his higher passages in mezza voce
rather than in the full romantic manner. It is elsewhere that the singers here are less satisfactory. In both the San Francisco sets, the part of Sélika is taken by Shirley Verrett; here Claudia Sorokina produces rather curdled Slavonic tones, and her top notes are a distinct trial despite the fact that she is described in the accompanying material as a soprano rather than a mezzo. The South Korean Guibee Yang is a piping Inès who lacks the more regal manner of Evelyn Mandac (on the Domingo CD) or Ruth Ann Swenson (on the video); Pierre-Yves Proudot, the only Francophone in the cast, sounds more naturally at ease than either Norman Mittelmann or Justino Diaz in the San Francisco sets. However, his controlled manner of delivery does not really lend itself to instructions such as “avec un rire sauvage et d’un ton farouche” (CD 1, track 8). Frank Beermann is a good rather than an inspired conductor, not always whipping up excitement in the ensembles in the manner which Meyerbeer might have expected. The recorded sound is excellent, both in balance and warmth of sound. The legion of smaller parts, some of them of more than mere comprimario
status, are well taken and the recorded sound is far superior to the live performances from San Francisco.
Finally, we return to the matter of the opera itself. It is valuable to be able at last to hear the score at its full length as originally proposed for performance by the composer, although inevitably doubts must arise about any alterations and amendments that Meyerbeer – in accordance with his usual custom – might have made during the course of rehearsals. On the other hand L’Africaine
(or Vasco de Gama
) is not a dramatic score such as Les Huguenots
or Le Prophête
with their heroic gestures and grandiose heroic effects. Its triumphant and well-prepared première by the Paris Opéra contrasts startlingly with the treatment the same organisation meted out to Berlioz’s Les Troyens
a few years earlier. Meyerbeer himself had attended the performances in 1863 of the truncated Troyens
given in Paris, attending many times — as he himself testified — for “both profit and pleasure”. It would indeed be hard to imagine the oriental episodes in the score – not previously one of Meyerbeer’s strong cards – without the example of Berlioz’s Carthaginian scenes before the composer. Delibes, who had assisted at rehearsals for those performances, would surely have recognised those resemblances. When compared with Berlioz’s towering masterpiece, Meyerbeer’s opera cannot but be regarded as a pale imitation. Allowing for that and as is always the case with Meyerbeer, cuts only serve to make matters worse, throwing his deficiencies into higher relief. For this reason alone this new recording will be welcomed by all who are interested in the development of romantic opera in the period immediately before the Wagnerian ascendancy swept all before it. The presentation by CPO is all that one could wish, with full texts and translations as well as booklet notes that are a model of clarity — not always to be assumed with this company — and comprehensiveness. The booklet is also illustrated with pictures derived from a rather basic-looking stage presentation, although it does not appear that this recording was made at live performances.
Paul Corfield Godfrey