Meyerbeer’s opera stagings are still very rare and I was very pleased to see L’africaine scheduled in this year’s season of the Deutsche Oper Berlin (or Vasco da Gama, as Meyerbeer intended to call the opera). Meyerbeer was once performed with the frequency and acclaim of today’s Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals but has almost fallen into oblivion. And stage it today as Meyerbeer intended it is difficult due mainly due to the costs of finding the appropriate singers of the often murderous roles, a conductor able to keep up the musical tension, and a director capable of making the, often several hour long, opera not fall into an interpretational disaster. Let’s start by the latter point. The set is interesting with the huge sails that dominate the scene, alternating with the huge black worldmap. But other than that the directions is disastrous showing us girls in underwear, a rape scene, people singing statically throughout the acts and ideas and messages that don’t relate to one another, but change aleatorically. A perfect example of a “modern staging”. Unfortunately there was no thread throughout the opera and I soon fell into indifference, boredom, and slight anger.
Not much better the conductor Enrique Mazzola. Or better, he directed well the more famous passages but failed to bring cohesion between the single numbers. Sometimes the orchestra was not synchronized with the singers, the colours of the score underlying the characters barely present, and unacceptable the cuts. Unacceptable for an opera house to spend all this money on an opera who only gives part of its potential and unacceptable for the singers, whose presence and importance is diminished. Cuts which might maybe have been agreed by the singers. Sophie Koch’s voice was smooth with a nice dark timbre but very inflexible, she goes as far as to flatten the singing line in the few florid passages, the phrasing is only approximate and the top notes are “difficult”. Clearly the role is a size too big for her. Roberto Alagna was very good, luscious timbre, moving interpretation, excellent diction. Overall quite convincing although also his top notes are a bit “pulled” (and what the heck was the long final top note at the end of act I, holding it as long as possible only to awkwardly yodel it down somewhere towards to final chord??).
A well deserved success that of Nino Machaidze, with no usual shrillness, a resounding voice with easy top notes, a good interpretation and a charming stage presence made her an ideal Ines. Seth Carico has a nice dark voice and sings well all over the range, his stage presence coupled with a very good vocal performance was one of the very few enjoyments of this production. Clemens Bieber had a very ungrateful timbre while Marcus Brück as Nelusco was acceptable with a powerful voice but approximate phrasing and problematic florid passages. Other theatres have tried to stage Meyerbeer and were more convincing Brussels with the Huguenots, Chemnitz with Africaine and to a certain extend Venice with Africaine. For the Deutsche Oper Berlin a completely missed opportunity.
Musikalische Leitung-Enrique Mazzola, Inszenierung-Vera Nemirova, Regie-Mitarbeit-Sonja Nemirova, Bühne-Jens Kilian, Kostüme-Marie-Thérèse Jossen, Choreografische Mitarbeit-Bharti Ramdhoni, Silke Sense, Video-Marcus Richardt, Don Pedro-Seth Carico, Don Diego-Andrew Harris, Ines-Nino Machaidze, Vasco da Gama-Roberto Alagna, Don Alvar-Clemens Bieber, Der Großinquisitor-Dong-Hwan Lee, Nelusco-Markus Brück, Selica-Sophie Koch, Der Oberpriester der Brahmanen-Albert Pesendorfer, Anna-Irene Roberts, Matrosen 1-3-Paul Kaufmann, Gideon Poppe, Thomas Lehman, 4. Matrose /Gerichtsdiener-Michael Adams