Vasco da Gama
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In Review > International

Vasco da Gama

Deutsche Oper Berlin

In Review Berlin Vasco da Gama hdl 116
Alagna and Koch, Meyerbeer’s Vasco da Gama and Sélika at Deutsche Oper Berlin
© Roberto Ricci

HOURS AFTER the final triumphant chords sounded from the Staatsoper im Schiller Theater’s premiere of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, it was Deutsche Oper Berlin’s turn to find a suitable way to celebrate twenty-five years of German unification. Instead of choosing a popular national work (Meistersinger already taken, they could have picked Zauberflöte or Freischütz), DOB opted for a work that has all but disappeared from the repertoire for nearly a century, L’Africaine, here retitled Vasco da Gama, which was the preferred title of composer Giacomo Meyerbeer, one of Berlin’s most illustrious native sons. 

Set alongside the Staatsoper’s exciting if predicable Wagner offering, it showed an admirable amount of chutzpah on the part of DOB to select this anniversary to inaugurate its multiseason Meyerbeer cycle, future installments of which will include Les Huguenots and Le Prophète. The cycle was announced last year, during an international conference held here on the composer titled “Europe was his Bayreuth.” In Germany there has been a slow but steadily increasing interest in Meyerbeer, the granddaddy of French Grand Opéra and, in the estimation of many, the most successful opera composer of the nineteenth century, a composer whose posthumous reputation was besmirched by Richard Wagner’s anti-Semitic ravings against him. Two years ago, Les Huguenots arrived in Nuremburg, and last season Le Prophète improbably lit up Braunschweig. Both occasions sold out. 

Vasco da Gama, on which Meyerbeer worked, on and off, for nearly three decades, had its first performance in Paris in April 1865, nearly a year after the composer’s death, with the title L’Africaine foisted on it by François-Joseph Fétis, the musicologist who edited the composer’s manuscript for the premiere. Fétis also made extensive cuts and revisions, many of which have been rolled back by Jürgen Schläder in his new critical edition (which uses all the material, published and unpublished, that Meyerbeer wrote for the opera), first performed in Chemnitz. (In 2014, CPO released an acclaimed CD recording of that production.) 

DOB assembled a much starrier vocal roster than in Chemnitz, where a mostly unknown cast sang with enthusiasm and verve. The two possible title roles were filled by Roberto Alagna (Vasco) and Sophie Koch (Sélika, a character who is clearly not African, which is one of the most sensible reasons for retitling the work). Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze completed the triangle as Vasco’s beloved (and Sélika’s rival) Inès.

Familiar to today’s audiences primarily through Don Carlo and Gounod’s Faust, grand opéra is not a genre that’s particularly difficult to relate to. Meyerbeer was both an innovator and a man of his time, so while his works may require a little more sitzfleisch than most anything else this side of Wagner and a willingness to put up with a lot of singing in French, a work such as Vasco da Gama remains quite accessible, something confirmed by the enthusiastic response of the DOB audience, for perhaps most of whom this music was entirely new. 

I’ve long felt that the surest way to reignite interest in Meyerbeer would be for a star tenor to throw himself into the composer’s technically demanding and dramatically thrilling main roles. Having Alagna on board seemed a cause for celebration. The French tenor started out sounding nasal, but he was soon singing with generously full tone and injecting perhaps a bit too much swagger into his portrayal of the explorer. (His Vasco was not exactly a likable chap.) While his acting skills often left much to be desired and his T-shirt (with a picture of the real, bearded Vasco on it) and green cargo pants were distracting (the other sailors wore maritime uniforms), Alagna soldiered through this long role with impressive heft and durability, sounding especially ardent and devout in the famous Act IV aria “Pays merveilleux…. O paradis” (which the new edition renders as “O doux climat”). DOB has reportedly signed Juan Diego Flórez to sing Raoul de Nangis in next season’s premiere of Les Huguenots, which means that a Meyerbeer Tenor Dream Team might soon be a reality. 

It was likewise very encouraging to find Koch delving into the obscure corners of the French repertoire. Like Alagna, the French mezzo needed some time to warm up, but once she got going she plunged fully into the drama, dispatching her wonderfully textured voice in a full-throated performance that had a few shrill high notes in some histrionic moments. As Inès, who has quite a lot to do in the slow-going Act I, Machaidze was consistently attractive, with her long-spun phrases and delicate trill. She also sang splendidly in the show-stopping “Adieu mon beau rivage.” 

As captivating as the imported star attractions were, my attention was most consistently riveted by two DOB mainstays, baritone Markus Brück, as Nélusco, Sélika’s faithful yet conflicted servant, and bass-baritone Seth Carico as Don Pedro, Vasco’s rival for Inès’s hand. A third ensemble heavy, bass Albert Pesendorfer, made a chilling late-evening impression as the High Priest of Brahma. Conductor Enrique Mazzola seemed to favor somewhat dragging tempos; the DOB musicians played with refinement, endurance and great detail, but Meyerbeer’s music requires much more bounce and propulsion than Mazzola was willing to give. 

If there was mostly good news to report on the musical front, the news was less rosy dramatically. Bulgarian stage director Vera Nemirova, perhaps known best for her Frankfurt Ring and her 2010 Lulu at Salzburg, delivered a smorgasbord of nautical images—sails, maps, origami boats—and ill-conceived, cliché-laden touches, such as religious fundamentalist terrorists, refugees and orientalist pastiche. There was even what appeared to be an instructional tantric-sex video projected on a suspended bed strewn with petals. The staging would have been bizarre—and tedious—in any event, but it seemed especially unfortunate for a premiere that could be seen, in a certain way, as a defense of Meyerbeer himself. That the performance survived the inanities of the staging seemed a clear vindication of both composer and work.  —A. J. Goldmann 

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