MEYERBEER: Vasco de Gama
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MEYERBEER: Vasco de Gama

spacer Sorokina, Yang; Berchtold, Pruvot, Rasanen, Braman; Robert Schumann Philharmonie, Chor der Opera Chemnitz, Beerman. Texts in French, German, and English. CPO 777 828-2 (4)


When composer Giacomo Meyerbeer and librettist Eugene Scribe contracted for the grand opera L’Africaine (The African Woman), little did they know the complicated road it would take toward an actual performance. The first plot of L’Africaine concerned an African princess who loved a Portuguese officer. At this point, Meyerbeer’s excitement about the project apparently waned, and he and Scribe put aside work on L’Africaine until after the opening of Le Prophète in 1849. When they took up the work again, the Portuguese officer became the famed explorer Vasco de Gama, who discovered the sea route to India, thus requiring the African princess to become an Indian queen sold into slavery. But before a final version of the piece, now named Vasco de Gama, could be completed, Scribe died in 1861. The German actress Charlotte Birch-Pfeiffer completed the text. Meyerbeer believed the opera would be ready for performance in 1864. But he died in May of that year, before rehearsals began.

Belgian musicologist Francois Joseph Fetis was commissioned to put together a performable version, and he made numerous cuts and revisions. He even changed the title back to L’Africaine, despite the fact that Selika is clearly an Indian woman. The Fetis version had its premiere to great acclaim in Paris in April 1865.

Opera-lovers in general and Meyerbeer aficionados in particular will be greatly pleased that a critical edition by Jurgen Schlader restores the Fetis cuts/revisions and uses all of Meyerbeer’s published and unpublished material to create a version that comes as close as possible to the opera as it was at the time of Meyerbeer’s death. Opera Chemnitz produced the Schlader version of Vasco de Gama, and made a studio recording of the piece, issued on CDs from CPO and Deutschlandradio Kultur.

Frank Beerman leads the Robert Schumann Philharmonie and his cast in a spirited and subtle reading of the score in a performance that gains momentum as it goes along. After an unpromising Act I, in which the playing and singing feel very careful and do not reflect the passion of the libretto, both cast and orchestra catch fire and deliver performances that always please and often thrill. Bernhard Berchtold is a fine choice for the title role, his sweet, clear tenor sailing through the difficult role and a particularly lyric singing of the famous aria “O doux climat” (“O Paradis” in the opera’s more familiar versions). Soprano Claudia Sorokina delivers a smoky, sensuous Selika; her dark, mezzo-ish quality is put to stunning use in her extended death scene under the manchineel tree. Pierre-Yves Pruvot is an unusually mysterious Indian slave Nelusko. Only soprano Guibee Yang is disappointing as Vasco’s original love, Ines: she has a lovely lyric soprano, but her performance seems bland and rather one-note. When she enters in Act V, the stage directions call for Ines to enter “pale, reeling, clinging to shrub branches, out of breath and speaking with difficulty.” Yang sounds as if she had taken no more than a brisk walk in the park. spacer 


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