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Grand opéra in five acts
Libretto by Eugène Scribe
1st performance of reconstructed original edition February 2 2013, Theater Chemnitz
1st performance of François-Joseph Fétis' edition April 28 1865, Opéra, Paris
Sung in French with English & German surtitles
ca. 4 hours 45 minutes, including intervals after acts 2 and 3
an introductory talk, in German, begins in the upstairs foyer 30 minutes before every performance
Rossini, Halévy and Giacomo Meyerbeer wrote Grand opéra for Paris in the 1830s. In Germany the genre and its protagonist fell into disrepute through Richard Wagner's poisonous polemic. One and a half centuries later Meyerbeer is enjoying a renaissance. The exotic story is about the discoverer Vasco da Gama, whose desire to find previously unknown of parts of the earth and conquer them for Portugal was insatiable. After he returned to Portugal with two captives, Nelusko and Selika, after being shipwrecked in a failed attempt to round the Cape of Good Hope, the council of the admiralty refused to allow another expedition. The Grand Inquisitor has him thrown into prison for blasphemy. Ines, who loves him and is loved by him, can only free him by agreeing to marry his rival Don Pedro, who is commissioned to embark on a voyage of discovery. Vasco follows him with his own ship. When they reached land the Portugese were overpowered by the natives. Their lives are in danger. Then Selika, the former slave and now reinstated queen of her people, saves him by saying that Vasco is her husband. But she knows he still loves Ines. She renounces her love for him, helps them both to escape and commits suicide.
Impressive choral tableaux, epic dimensions, virtuoso arias and ensembles and orchestral effects characterise the genre, to which Verdi also turned his hand. Meyerebeer and his librettist Eugène Scribe busied themselves with the story of L'Africaine for almost 30 years but it was never finished. It was first performed in 1864, a year after Meyerbeer's death, in an edition by François-Joseph Fétis and was performed all over the world. It was not until 2013 that Theater Chemnitz used Meyerbeeer's original manuscript as the basis for a rediscovery - under the title of Vasco de Gama. The first ever performances of the work in Frankfurt, directed by Tobias Kratzer using this reconstructed original edition, are under the original title of »L'Africaine«.
Act I Vasco da Gama, one of the discoverer Bernardo Diaz' officers, has been travelling to new horizons for more than two years. His girlfriend, Ines, is waiting, full of longing, for her lover's return. When rumours spread that the expedition has failed, and Vasco killed, Ines’ father puts pressure on her to marry Don Pedro, an influential man, but Ines turns him down. The council, chaired by Don Pedro, meet to discuss the consequences of the failed mission. News reaches them that there was a survivor: Vasco da Gama. Vasco makes use of his audience before the council to ask to lead a new voyage of discovery. To substantiate his objectives, he presents two people of unknown descent to the council, who he brought back as slaves: Selika and Nelusko. The council regard them with fear and distrust and have them taken away. Vasco's claims are rejected, after controversial consultation. He insults his superiors and is accused of high treason. Act II Vasco meets Selika and Nelusko again, in prison. He still dreams of »glory« and »immortality«. Selika prevents Nelusko, taking revenge for their enslavement, from killing Vasco in his sleep. Nelusko suspects that Selika is in love with Vasco, but bows to her wishes. She is »the daughter of kings«, he, her escort. Selika and Vasco become closer. She betrays the secret route to her native land to him. When Ines and Don Pedro come to set Vasco free, he thinks he has achieved his goal. But freedom came at a bitter price. Ines seems reserved. Thinking her jealous of Selika, Vasco denies any relationship with his slave – and gives her to Ines as a present. He gradually discovers the real reason: Ines married Don Pedro in return for Vasco's being released from prison. Don Pedro is the new commander of the very mission that Vasco was refused. To find Selika's native land. Nelusko warns Pedro about the perilous journey and offers to be his guide. Don Pedro trusts him. He takes Selika and Nelusko with him. Vasco remains behind, defeated. Act III Don Pedro's ship is on its way to unknown territory. The mission is dangerous, but the crew feel reassured by the comforting words of the women, the routine on board and wine. But Nelusko is two-timing them. The course he has set Don Pedro on, leads to hazardous regions. But Don Pedro, still trusting his advisor, throws all warnings to the wind. Nelusko's plan seems to be working. He prophesies the destruction of the crew and the whole of »old Europe«. A sailor reports the approach of an unknown ship. It is Vasco, who comes on board. He tries, in vain, to persuade Don Pedro to change course. Jealousy over Ines escalates their argument - but Pedro avoids having to fight a duel by making use of his rights as captain and ordering Vasco's execution. Ines’ and Selika's pleas to spare Vasco fall on deaf ears. Selika takes the last possible course of action. She takes Ines hostage, forcing Vasco's release. Don Pedro orders Nelusko to whip Selika as punishment. Nelusko openly confronts his oppressor, just as a sailor reports the approach of a terrible storm. The mission is wrecked, not far from their destination. Nelusko and Selika's people board the ship and massacre the crew. Act IV Selika is reinstated as Queen and swears, before her people, that »no foreigner desecrate the sacred soil of our land«. Ines, and a few other women who survived the massacre, are led towards the poisonous Machineel tree, to die from the fragrance of its flowers. Vasco da Gama is the only male survivor. Although his life is in danger, he is fascinated by the wonders in this new world. Only Selika's intervention prevents her people from killing Vasco as a foreign intruder. To save him, she maintains that he is married to her. Consumed by inner turmoil, Nelusko pays witness to Selika's lies, in public. Selika and Vasco's marriage is sealed with a love potion. They get closer to one another. Although Vasco, as the husband of the Queen, is free to leave, he promises her to stay with her for ever. Act V Ines eluded death under the Machineel tree. She meets Vasco, who thought she was dead, who admits to her that he is now Selika's husband. Selika catches them. She sends him away, telling him she will exact revenge. Selika's rage and desperation are now directed at Ines. When she offers to die for Vasco, both women recognise themselves in each other. Mistrust and jealousy give way to understanding. Selika makes a lonely decision. She orders Nelusko to allow Vasco and Ines to go home. Selika takes her leave from Vasco. She goes beneath the Machineel tree, to die. Intoxicated by the fragrance of the tree's poisonous flowers, she sees herself reunited with Vasco again – »far from the Earth« and »rewarded by Heaven«. Nelusko brings Selika back to reality: »can you see their ship?«. Dying, Selika realises that her sacrifice will bring death to others too. Tobias Kratzer