Substance Battles Spectacle, in Meyerbeer's 'L'Africaine'

Overview
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The opera has five acts, set at the beginning of the 16th century, and the action opens in Lisbon. As ACT ONE begins, we meet the aristocratic young woman Inès, who is engaged to the explorer Vasco da Gama. He's been away for two years, and he and his expedition are feared lost at sea. Inès's father Don Diego is urging her to marry someone else, his friend Don Pedro. Inès recalls Vasco's final goodbye in the showcase aria, "Adieu mon doux rivage" -- "Farewell my sweet shore."

The Lisbon council convenes, along with the Grand Inquisitor, to decide whether a rescue mission should be sent to find Vasco da Gama. The question is answered when the explorer himself unexpectedly returns. He says he has been to the waters off Africa, and to prove it he presents two prisoners he has brought back as slaves: Sélika, a queen in her native land, and the defiant young man Nélusko.

Vasco wants the council to approve a new expedition, and leaves while they deliberate. When he returns, he's furious to hear that his request has been denied, and he states his anger so impertinently that the Inquisitor orders him sent to prison.

Prison is exactly where we find him in ACT TWO, along with Sélika and Nélusko. The three of them are one of the opera's several complicated love triangles. Sélika is clearly in love with Vasco, while Nélusko is in love with Sélika and attempts to murder Vasco while he's asleep. Sélika prevents this, and wakes Vasco. She tells him that she can guide him to her home island, and as they talk it's clear that he has feelings for her.

Before long Inès appears, along with Don Pedro, just as Vasco is embracing Sélika in gratitude. Inès tells Vasco that she has won his freedom. Vasco tries to reassure her that there's nothing between him and Sélika, by offering Sélika to Inès as a slave. He's then devastated when he learns that Inès has won his release by marrying Don Pedro. Vasco is even more upset when he finds out that the council has awarded Pedro an expedition fleet. In the ensemble that ends the act, Inès urges Vasco to pursue his own ambitions, and to forget his love for her.

In ACT THREE the action takes place on the high seas, aboard Pedro's ship, with Nélusko guiding the expedition. Sélika is also aboard, and Pedro has also brought along his new wife, Inès. The councilor Don Alvaro warns Pedro that Nélusko is up to no good, and may be guiding them into danger. Pedro ignores this, despite Nélusko's tales of a deadly sea monster.

Another Portuguese ship is then sighted. It turns out that Vasco da Gama has managed to mount an expedition after all, and he's concerned for Inès's safety. Taking to a small boat, he draws alongside and boards Pedro's vessel, saying the course they're on will lead to trouble. Pedro is enraged, and the two men are about to fight a duel when a violent storm hits.

In one of Meyerbeer's most spectacular scenes, the ship is driven against a reef and founders. We quickly discover that Nélusko has brought himself and Sélika into home waters. Their people appear in seagoing canoes, board the ship, and begin capturing the Europeans as the act ends.

In ACT FOUR Sélika's people rejoice at the return of their queen and she again takes the throne, after a grand procession in her honor. Nélusko tells Sélika that all but one of the European men who were captured have been executed, and the women will be next. They'll be led to a grove of manchineel trees, which are so poisonous that simply breathing their fragrance is deadly.

Next, the one surviving Potuguese man is led in. It's Vasco da Gama. He's in quite a predicament, yet he's still an explorer at heart and exclaims at the wonders of this strange new land. His revelry is cut short when the assembled warriors get him ready for the executioner. But as he begs for mercy, Sélika intervenes and saves him. When the others object Sélika lies, telling them that she and Vasco were married while she was away, and she persuades Nélusko to back up her story.

A ceremony then takes place to honor their marriage according to the local tradition. As part of it, they both drink from a sacred cup, containing a love potion. During a procession into the temple, Sélika gives Vasco a chance to escape. Thanks to the potion, he can't bring himself to leave her and refuses. As the act ends, the people continue to celebrate Sélika's marriage, as the European women are heard dying in the distance.

ACT FIVE begins in Sélika's private gardens, where we see Inès. Somehow, she managed to escape while the other Portuguese women were being killed. Vasco sees her, and reluctantly rejects her appeals, saying he's now married to Sélika. But as the two say goodbye, it's clear that they're still in love. Sélika has been looking on, and realizes that her hold on Vasco is gone. She orders Nélusko to save Inès and Vasco, and vows to end her own life.

The final scene takes place on a bluff overlooking the sea, as Sélika watches Inès and Vasco leaving on Vasco's ship. As she inhales perfume from the fatal manchineel blossoms, she imagines Vasco returning to her in a chariot drawn by swans. Nélusko then returns, and find's Sélika near death. Moved by her final moments, he also breathes in the fatal fragrance, and the two die together as the opera ends.