L’Africaine. How loving Vasco da Gama proved fatal for an African queen

Settings for the 1865 premiere of a L’Africaine (press illustrations). The stage designs for Act I (Council Scene) and Act II (Dungeon Scene) were created by Auguste-Alfred Rubé and Philippe Chaperon; for Act III (Sea Scene and Shipwreck) and Act IV (Hindu Temple), by Charles-Antoine Cambon and Joseph-François-Désiré Thierry; for Scene 1 of Act V (Queen’s Garden, not shown), by Jean Baptiste Lavastre; and for Scene 2 of Act V (The Machineel Tree), by Edouard-Désiré-Joseph


Shrirley Verrett (Selika)and Plácido Domingo (Vasco da Gama) in San Francisco

Vasco da Gama (yes, the Vasco da Gama) loves Inès, but when his own life is in danger, he takes refuge with the African queen, Sélika. Poor Sélika! She loves him wholeheartedly, but as soon as Inès reappears on the scene, she has to step asie. She does so literally; by smelling a poisonous flower.

Of course, much more happens in the opera, especially in the music. I wonder why it is that the opera is performed so little.
Is it due to the weak male lead, who mainly pursues fame? In any case, Meyerbeer gave him a magnificent aria, probably one of the most beautiful ever: ‘Pays merveilleux/Oh paradis’:

Domingo has always had faith in the opera and he has sung da Gama several times. It is also thanks to him that the opera experienced a minor revival in the 1970s.

There is a pirate recording on CD (Legato Classics LCD-116-3), starring Shirley Verrett and a truly brilliant Norman Mittlemann as Nélusco. It is from 1972, but there is no mention of where it was recorded. But since Verrett sang a series of performances that year, in San Francisco, it is actually quite clear.

The sound quality is poor, but not to worry: the opera was later also recorded for television, so that we can now enjoy it to the full on DVD (Arthaus Music 100217).

The truly wonderful production was created by Lotfi Mansouri (direction) and Wolfram and Amrei Skalicki (stage and costumes). Inès is sung by a (literally) beautiful, light coloratura soprano Ruth Ann Swenson and Justino Díaz does his best to convince us that he is scary. You should really watch it!


In 1977, the opera was recorded at the Teatre Liceu in Barcelona, again with Plácido Domingo as da Gama. But should I really recommend this recording? Probably not. Montserrat Caballé is a fine but unconvincing Sélika, Juan Pons has seen better days and Christine Weidinger is a merely decent Inez (Legato Classics LCD 208-2).


In November 1977, L’Africaine was recorded live in Monaco with a fine Martina Arroyo in the leading role. The textbook says it is probably the most complete performance of the score ever recorded. Unfortunately, Giorgio Casellato-Lamberti is a weak Vasco da Gama, but Sherrill Milnes’ superb Nélusco makes up for a lot (Myto 3MCD 011.235).

Sly by Wolf-Ferrari: have your handkerchief ready!

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The operas of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876-1948) are still rarely performed. We do not even need to guess at the reason. That it is not because of the quality, is proven by the recording of Sly ovvero La leggenda del dormiente risvegliato (Sly or the legend of the awakened sleeper), released in 2001 on Koch Schwann.

The tragicomic story tells us about a poor poet who, blind drunk, is brought to the palace of the Count of Westmoreland to be made a fool of. He is dressed up in expensive clothes and, as soon as he comes to, he is led to believe that he is the earl and that he has just recovered from a long illness. The Count’s lover Dolly pretends to be his wife but gradually falls in love with him.

“No, io non sono un buffone” (No, I am not a fool) he sings at the end and cuts his wrists with a broken bottle. His beloved Dolly, like Charlotte in Werther, arrives too late. The music is a cross between opera buffa, surrealism and mainly verism, although one should not forget the Wagnerian influences.

There was already a recording of the opera in German (Accanta) with Deborah Polaski, and the Italian original was eagerly awaited. This recording was made live in Barcelona. The lead role is sung by José Carreras, who celebrated his 30th anniversary with it. He is a very moving Sly. His voice sounds very fragile and his performance leaves you in tears.

Sherill Milnes once again proves his reputation as the interpreter of villainous roles, but the greatest praise goes to the Zairean soprano Isabelle Kabatu. Her voice is a little reminiscent of Leontyne Price’s: velvety and slightly shrouded.

Sly van Wolf-Ferrari: zakdoekjes binnen hand bereik

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De opera’s van Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876-1948) worden nog maar zelden gespeeld. Naar de oorzaak ervan hoeven wij niet eens te gissen. Dat het niet aan de kwaliteit ligt bewijst de, in 2001 op Koch Schwann uitgekomen opname van Sly ovvero La leggenda del dormiente risvegliato (Sly of de legende van de ontwaakte slaper).

Het tragikomische verhaal vertelt van een arme dichter die, stomdronken naar het paleis van Conte di Westmoreland wordt gebracht om daar voor gek te worden gehouden. Hij wordt verkleed in dure kleren en zodra hij bijkomt wordt hij wijsgemaakt dat hij de graaf is en dat hij net hersteld is van een langdurige ziekte. Dolly, de minnares van de graaf doet zich voor als zijn echtgenote maar wordt gaandeweg daadwerkelijk verliefd op hem.

“No, io non sono un buffone” (Nee, ik ben geen nar) zingt hij aan het eind en snijdt zijn polsen door met een gebroken fles. Zijn geliefde Dolly komt, net als Charlotte in Werther, te laat. De muziek houdt het midden tussen opera buffa, surrealisme en voornamelijk verisme, al moet men ook de wagneriaanse invloeden niet vergeten.

Er bestond al een opname van de opera in het Duits (Accanta) met Deborah Polaski en naar het Italiaanse origineel werd met spanning uitgekeken. Deze registratie is live opgenomen in Barcelona. De hoofdrol wordt gezongen door José Carreras, die hiermee zijn dertigste jubileum vierde. Hij zingt een zeer ontroerende Sly. Zijn stem klinkt zeer breekbaar en zijn vertolking laat je in tranen achter.

Sherill Milnes bewijst nog eens zijn reputatie als de vertolker van schurkenrollen, doch de erepalm gaat naar de Zaïrese sopraan Isabelle Kabatu. Haar stem doet een beetje aan die van Leontyne Price denken: fluweelzacht en lichtelijk omfloerst.

José Carreras, Isabelle Kabatu, Sherill Milnes
Koor en orkest van het Gran Teatre del Liceu olv David Giménes
Koch Schwann 3-6449-2