Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine was a huge hit in Paris, London and New York when it premiered in 1865. I’m not sure why. It has all of the things that make Meyerbeer seem very dated and not as much of the good stuff as Les Huguenots, or even Dinorah. It’s ostensibly about Vasco de Gama but that’s just a peg to pin a love triangle and a bunch of exoticism on. Are we actually supposed to believe that the Portugese wanted to find a way around the Cape to find out what was there? It would have been a lot easier to get hold of a copy of Herodotus. It’s also long. Even with cuts it runs well over three hours in the version recorded at San Francisco Opera in 1988.
The production is by Lotfi Mansouri and it’s typical. There’s not an idea to be had. Costumes and sets are opulent but vague. I defy anyone to identify what period they are supposed to represent except perhaps “the European past as seen by US opera goers”. Blocking is rudimentary with a lot of bowing and scraping and characterisation seems to have been left largely up to the singers which means we get “park and bark” and lots of stock gestures. It’s typical of what people mean when they say they want “traditional productions”. Mansouri knew that, of course, and if there is an element of playfulness in his work it lies in giving that audience a slightly over the top version of what they want. This is it. Only one ballet is included which is probably a good thing as the one that is is cringeworthy mixing dull classical western choreography with some particularly crass bits of “indianness”.
Musically it’s very mixed. The principals are good. Placido Domingo, in the title role, is PD in his prime. He’s well backed up by Shirley Verret as the Indian queen Sélika and Ruth Ann Swenson as the the third side of the triangle. Both ladies sing very beautifully but neither role is as fiendish as most Meyerbeer heroine stuff. The conducting, unfortunately, doesn’t match the singing. Maurizio Arena fails to find anything interesting in the score and those odd twists and turns that make Meyerbeer at least a bit interesting are noticeably absent.
Technically it’s very much a 1980s US TV broadcast. The picture is rather soft, grainy 4:3 and the video direction, by Brian Large, is very small screen. Worse, he seems to want to drag the whole thing out. Maybe it is the custom in San Francisco for the principals to take curtain calls at the end of acts and for the conductor to pause portentously for what seems like hours before restarting but surely those bits don’t need to make it into the video. Especially when there are five acts. Subtitles are English only and hard coded. The sound choices are Dolby 5.1 and 2.0. The surround track was decent if hardly spectacular. The documentation was missing from my copy but as everything else about the disk is low budget I wasn’t expecting much. The fact that the box describes the opera as “An opera in three acts” doesn’t inspire confidence.