Academy of Music
Manager / Director:
1 March 2019
“The great musical event of the coming season will be the production of Meyerbeer’s ‘Africaine.’ After an immense amount of preparation, and rather more than the ordinary quantity of red tape, it has probably by this time been brought out in Paris. On the night of its production an exact copy of the score is, by special stipulation with the proprietors, to be forwarded to Mr. Max Maretzek, who has, we are informed, secured the exclusive right for this country. Thus a few weeks after its representation in Europe we shall have an opportunity of judging of a work which is generally expected to be its composer’s master-piece. It will have singular significance here, as one of the principal incidents of the plot is the liberation of the slave. Of this and many other things we can only speak positively after the work has been given to the public. A veil of mystery, lifted only at short intervals by abandoned journalists and heretical if not visionary newspaper correspondents, surrounds it. The opinion prevails, however, that the ‘Africaine’ was composed many years ago, and represents the ripest period of Meyerbeer’s powers. The subject seems to have had a singular fascination for him. Before the triumphant success of ‘Robert le Diable’ he had used it in a work called ‘Guasco de Gama [sic].’ Subsequently he proposed the same subject to Scribe, but abandoned all his early strains, and entirely reset the new book. The old version, bearing the date of 1835, is still in existence. It is in the possession of Mme. Meyerbeer, and on the first page is written, in the hand of the great master, the words, ‘Road to Africa.’ The mise-en-scene of the ‘Africaine’ is of the most difficult, complicated and expensive kind. Two acts are played on the deck of a large ship, which occupies the whole stage. The change to the ensuing scene involves, of course, some loss of time. The music is very highly spoken of by Fetis, as well as by other musicians who have heard it. For the first performances every seat has already been sold. The enthusiasts who send their money for seats are so fearful of having it returned to them with a point-blank refusal, that they merely give their initials, and no address. They are willing to take the first open night. Ah! If they lived in America this would not be thus. There is, we believe, in the opera a character for a tenor who possesses a declamatory style, and a full dramatic voice; for such a tenor, briefly, as that old favorite of the public, Signor Mazzoleni. Why cannot Mr. Maretzek secure this fine artist? He would, we are sure, be received with hearty favor by his many admirers.”
“L’Africaine is now in full rehearsal at the Academy of Music. The choruses have been in preparation for some time, and the orchestra is now in training... There are already inquiries for seats for the first representation.”
“L’Africaine is getting fairly into shape, and the artists and instrumentalists are becoming excited of the music... The scenic effects are very elaborate and striking, and the big ship will surprise the frequenters of the Opera who are not accustomed to see much enterprise or intelligence in the stage effects at the Academy of Music. We understand that the management has spared no expense in the production of L’Africaine, and if the expenditure has been well directed, the Opera will be more perfect in details than any produced for some years.”
“Mr. Maretzek was the fifth applicant for the score and for the right to perform the work; and he has exhibited the promptest energy and most liberal enterprise in getting it ready for the American stage.”
Fairly long article on the history of the opera, its initial performances, copyright issues, and Maretzek’s expenses. “We understand that Mr. Maretzek secured the score and right at a cost of over $4,000. He had the forethought to apply early, and his score is marked No. 5, being the fifth permission issued by the owners of the copyright. Notwithstanding the advantages possessed by European cities, as yet L’Africaine has only been produced in Paris and London, so that New York will have the honor of being the third city to produce the last work of the great Meyerbeer--an evidence of enterprise which should not be overlooked. The production of L’Africaine will prove very costly to the management. It is calculated that the cost of the scenery, dresses, machinery, extra orchestra and choruses, military band, supernumeraries, &c., will exceed $10,000. This is a vast outlay for the production of a single work, but we believe that it will prove a good investment, so great is the public mind excited upon the subject, although, as the season is drawing to a close, only some half a dozen representations can be given. L’Africaine will positively be produced on Friday evening next, December 3.”
Long article on the plot and music of the opera. “It will be an eventful night in our opera annals.”
“This evening, the musical event of the season comes off at the Academy of Music...”
“Musical. Academy of Music - Production of meyerbeer's opera of the 'African' - Although it is not our privilege, if we may believe a chagrined but facetious contemporary, to live in an operatic centre, such, for instance, as Kalamazoo or Peoria, and are in consequence deprived of the ineffably splendor of Mr. Grau’s appearance, and the amazing voices of his newly imported artists, to whom, by the way, the natives of the ‘centres’ aforesaid do not appear to take with that entire abandon which is acceptable to the gay impresario, we have yet, thanks to Mr. Maretzek, enjoyed the comparative satisfaction—shall we say, triumph?—of hearing Meyerbeer's ‘African’ in anticipation of those superior capitals. The work, of all others the most important, was produced last evening at the Academy of Music, before an audience of overwhelming proportions, which manifested its pleasure by frequent bursts of applause, and during the entr’acts expressed its appreciation in unmistakable terms. The first nights of Meyerbeer's operas have rarely been demonstrative. The music has never been of the sort that could be swallowed at a gulp. It requires many auditions before its beauties are perceived or become impressed on the memory. Most of our readers will recall the placid composure with which ‘Robert le Diable’ and ‘Les Huguenots’ were received when first brought out here. It was only after frequent performances that these grand works became popular. The ‘African’ has fallen on better times. Its acceptance was immediate and positive. But for the speedy termination of Mr. Maretzek's season, it would undoubtedly enjoy a long and profitable run. As it is, we must be content with it to-night and three times next week only.
Few works have been more talked about than this. There is probably no reader of current literature who has not during the past dozen years seen innumerable references to it as a forthcoming novelty. Commenced or contemplated before the ‘Huguenots’ had well begun its triumphant career, it reaches us now the last of the works that Meyerbeer was permitted in a long life and with rare deliberation, to give to the world. It was often laid aside, but always cheerfully resumed. The result was an enormous mass of manuscript, the natural consequence of a desultory mode of composition. After the composer’s death, ‘L’Africaine’ was lopped and topped for the French stage by M. Fetis, shedding about a third of its superfluous growth. A few twigs and branches have since been taken from it by other and less scrupulous hands. Notwithstanding all this musical gardening, it still requires four good hours to get through it. And if five were needed, we should not be the first to grumble. It will we fear be many a long day ere we are again called upon to spend the like amount of time at once so profitably and agreeably. Without pretending in any way to determine the rank of the ‘African,’ but agreeing in the general verdict that its status is somewhere between the ‘Huguenots’ and the ‘Prophete,’—we have no hesitation in declaring it to be one of the most agreeable operas ever put upon the stage. The drama itself is stupid enough. It is the story… The most that can be said of this delectable nonsense, is that it supplies a series of interesting situations which Meyerbeer has seized with remarkable success. It affords also a good opportunity for the stage-carpenter, scene-painter and costumer; and an opening for an extra band on the stage.
There is a so-called overture, but it is of slight proportions. A phrase which is repeated constantly through the opera to indicate Inez is here heard for the first time, and speedily leads to the melody which forms the finale to the second act. These motivi are played in several keys and on several instruments, according to the composers’ [sic] custom. The first act opens with a scena and romanza for Inez—very chaste and pretty. All the music allotted to this character is exquisitely wrought, but it sometimes lacks inspiration. A vigorous ritornelle leads to the Council scene, and is followed by a chorus in unison, which in power, fluency and melodiousness has seldom, if ever, been surpassed. It will bear comparison with nothing save the Benediction chorus of the ‘Huguenots,’ and even then will not suffer by the juxtaposition. The entry of Vasco to urge his scheme before the council is followed by some of the best dramatic music ever written. His statements are large, eloquent and manly. The superb declamatory style of Signor Mazzoleni —we need scarcely add—contributed materially to their effect. Selika and Nelusko, her companion and compatriot, here come upon the scene, and give rise to many fine phrases. A little duet, where Vasco implores Selika to speak, is beautiful and provokingly short. The navigator’s appeal to the council being in vain, he relieves his mind by abusing that dull and pompous body in a square and popular melody which forms the finale to the act. For this luxury of vexation he is thrown in prison, where we find him in the next act. He is sleeping, and the faithful Selika watches over him. Under such circumstances it is natural that she should sing a slumber song, and equally natural that it should be somewhat commonplace. Nelusko (baritone) has a fine aria; the quick movement being remarkably original and vigorous. Signor Bellini sang this and the other music of his rôle with rare fire. The map business, where Selike points out the way round the cape, is heavy; relieved, however, by beautiful passages such as the duo—a very melodious and tender piece. The finale returns to the ornate but familiar theme already heard in the overture.
In the third act we have the scene-painter’s piece de resistance—the great ship, with its cabins, flush deck, mast, sails, rigging, &c. The effect of the ‘set’ is extremely good and repays the inevitable delay caused by it. One is surprised, however, to notice that in those early days the wheel was used for steering purposes, and that telescopes were quite common. History does not record that either of these articles were invented in the time of Vasco di Gama, but it is obvious they ought to have been. A very singular and striking mariner’s [sic] chorus opens the act. One of its peculiarities is a total absence of form, and another is the appalling fact that the tenors have to sing up to C in alt. The effect is extremely good, but not in the slightest degree nautical. A prayer for all the voices, richly harmonized and boldly massed, follows. In this act Nelusko gives his wild and extraordinary direction for the helmsman to steer for the north—a few bars of declamation that possess a singular potency. The great sensation effect of the scene is achieved when the vessel turns slowly to her helm. Only instead of veering to the north, she comfortably settles down into a southwesterly course, to accommodate the Academy of Music. Nelusko sings a Storm King ballata with gusto—a piece of no particular merit. The storm comes in due course, and subsequently a horde of wild indians, who massacre the crew and take possession of the dismasted vessel. The curtain descends amid a tumult of unusual virulence, and decidedly more noisy than anything else.
The fourth act opens with the celebrated Indian march; a lengthy composition, serving as an introduction to the various masses of the procession, and as ballet music for the Bayaderes and Amazons. We all know how Meyerbeer excelled in this species of composition. The present march is full of rhythmetic character and charming effects of instrumentation. If it does not rank with the coronation march of the ‘Prophete’ it is surely not far behind that famous morceau. The tenor aria, O Paradiso, is exquisitely chaste and dreamy. Indeed, the music of this act is so superlatively excellent, that it is useless to speak of it except in general terms of praise. The duet for tenor and soprano has never been surpassed; notwithstanding the comparative weakness of the succeeding allegro. A pretty female chorus (with Glockenspiel accompaniment) and dance bring the act to a close.
In the fifth act there is a marvelous duet between the two sopranos in which all the inventive skill of the composer seems to have been poured out. The second motive is refreshingly Italian in character. We are hurried now to the [upas?] tee—a botanical production which is ushered in by an instrumental passage of great power. Selika’s closing scene is exceedingly tender, and the whole act is thoroughly poetical. To return to the instrumental passage just referred to. It consists of an andante cantabile of sixteen bars. To the eye, there is barely the indication of a melody, and assuredly no promise of the stupendous effect which in reality is produced. The passage is strictly in unison—that is to say, no octaves are employed, and embraces a succession of eleven notes only. These are bestowed equally among the violoncellos, the violas, the violins, the bassoons and the clarionets. An earnestness and intensity of sound is in this way obtained which is without a parallel in music. The effect is perfectly thrilling.
The ‘Africaine’ has been placed on the stage in a splendid manner, and is cast to the full strength of Mr. Maretzek's company. The music suits the artists, who last night were all in excellent voice. Of their efforts and Mr. Bergman's we shall speak on another occasion. For the moment, it must suffice that the opera was a complete success, and that Mr. Maretzek's liberality and industry have contributed in a large degree to insure that result.”
(…) The performance was excellent. Soloists and ensemble sang and acted very well. The scenery and especially the backdrop paintings are noteworthy.
“MUSICAL. Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine. A work produced at the cost of many years of brain labor, is a serious subject; one that must be approached cautiously, with a certain reverence of feeling and an honest fearfulness whether in passing judgment upon the results of such labor, we bring to bear the requisite knowledge for such a task and the fairness to examine thoroughly in an appreciative spirit calmly and without prejudice. What the eye of the composer dwelt on, watching it from day to day, from month to month, until the months grew into years, and such shadowy thought became rounded and beautiful and instinct with life and passion, we can scan over in a few hours, and grasp in that brief time the whole scope of years of earnest and inspired thought. A task so easy too often induces a hasty judgment, and wrong is committed even by those who know, while the undigested, flippant remarks of half-fledged critics wound for a time a reputation that will outlive the witless words, and a whole generation of hap-hazard scribblers.
Meyerbeer, above all other operatic writers, requires to be deeply studied, otherwise his seeming want of spontaneity may mislead the judgment. The careful and elaborate polish which marks everything he wrote seems, at first, to forbid the idea of outspoken impulse, but on closer inquiry we find, amid the exquisite, though almost pedantic finish, the pure thought preserved in its integrity and standing out more grand and passionate, from its apparently cold and calculated surroundings. He left nothing to chance, he slighted no one point; the merest subordinate recitative is treated in reference to the succeeding motive, as though it was an aria of leading importance. It was this conscientious care, this close self-criticism, which gave to all Meyerbeer’s works that unmistakable tone, that sterling ring which stamps them at once as classic, with no waiting for a second generation to indorse [sic] them. That this elaboration and polish is a bar to immediate popularity is unquestionable; but Meyerbeer’s popularity is not dependent upon the sing-song element. At a first hearing, the majority will assuredly pronounce the music heavy and without melody; still they will stay and listen, because they are enchained by the grandeur of his treatment, the breadth of his effects and the wonderful coloring of his orchestral partition. Compelled to acknowledge these beauties, they listen again and then, beside the grander points, the wayside beauties, the phrases of exquisite melody scattered like wild-flowers in the lap of nature, make themselves felt, and the whole scope of the composer’s subtle intent is revealed, to the surprise and delight of those who listened before and doubted. The subject of L’Africaine is a grand geographical blunder, a hodge-podge of the most approved operatic pattern; but as it affords some striking situations and much variety in musical character, we forgive it and pass it over. Meyerbeer has been sneered at for being so fastidious about his subjects, not as to their common sense, but as to their acting effect—to their dramatic capabilities. The sneer, however, is pointless, for the reason that the scrupulous care bestowed in that direction has saved him from having his music, after years of labor, sacrificed to a worthless libretto. Meyerbeer was, therefore, clearly justified in using the utmost caution in selecting the matter to which his music was to be wedded.
The first act introduces us to Inez. . . . [plot summary follows]
Such is the story of L’Africaine. It is absurd, all will admit, but still it has human interest, and with all its improbabilities, it affords striking situations, and the change of localities, mysterious and wonderful as they are, admit of admirable effects in costume, scenery and characteristic music. As in the case of the ‘Huguenots’ the fourth act is in every respect the most earnest and the most powerful, rising up to a grandeur of passion, in which Meyerbeer is approached but by few. But no part of the work is slighted because of the concentration of power in the fourth act.
The instrumental introduction is a key to the leading subjects of the opera—to those which by their recurrence, are personal to certain of the characters. It is of importance in this respect only although it is finely instrumental. It leads into a recitative and andante and romance for Inez, Mlle. Ortolani, the first plaintive and subdued, and the second one of the parts of the work, in which the quaint and sad ritornelle heard in the introduction, is the characteristic thought. The form of this romance is perfect, the melody beautiful, and the accompaniment delicate and [perfect?]. It classes with the quaint ritornelle, which completes the form. This Madame Ortolani omitted, substituting a commonplace cadenza. We do not complain so much of the cadenza as of the mutilation of the form of the work. The next important number in this act is the bass chorus, principals and chorus in unison. The subject is flowing of a grave character, and wonderfully effective from the treatment of the voices and the orchestra, the latter sustaining the voices by the contrabassi, while the trumpets are laid [out?] in chords alternating with the violin pizzicato.
The recitative previous to the introduction of the Indian captives is boldly and grandly phrased, and the music, which is devoted to the narratives of the Indians, is singularly wild, bold, and characteristic, the flute and cymbals giving the point to the whole. Much concerted music following which is requisite to the progress of the design, was omitted from necessity, else the duration of the opera would exceed the endurance of the most patient audience. The ensemble finale, commenced by Vasco at the words ‘Rebelle—Insolente—is a superb movement, simple, grand, and emphatic. The subject is afterward taken up in unison, and worked through various changes until it comes in in full harmony for principals, chorus, and orchestra, reaching a climax of power which is full of grandeur.
The ‘Slumber Song’ of Selika is a composition of rare invention. It is not the song of the Christian maiden lulling her lover to sleep, but the purr of the [Furess?] to her young. There is a certain tenderness, but the savage element predominates. The change of feeling expressed, while the music [pulsing?] upon the key of F passes with a sad passionate strain to F sharp major, returning boldly to A minor, the original key, is wonderfully conceived and carried out. It is in such compositions that Meyerbeer displays his extraordinary resources of harmony to color and enforce the melody and his perfect mastery of form and effect. The duet between Selika and Vasco, which follows, is delicious in melody and brimful of passionate expression. It contains a charming effect by an enharmonic change, which imparts to it light and color. The finale to this act is distinguished by a beautiful sextette in G flat, which leads to the closing and broadest motives in the opera in B major, in which the soprano voice is obligato. It is a rare mingling of science with melody.
The woman’s chorus and the chorus of the Matalots open the third act brilliantly. The first is quaint and pleasing, the second bold, spirited and effective, and the choral prayer which follows is extremely beautiful. Neluska’s Legend of Adamastor is a wild and savage subject, well treated and effective. The finale is a grand and exciting ensemble piece, most of which is omitted, and that which is retained is swallowed up in red fire and confusion.
The famous Indian march, which shows so little upon paper, is full of brilliant effects in the orchestra. It contains half a dozen different movements, the soldier’s march, entrance of the Brahmins, the Priestesses, of the Amazons, and of the Jongleurs. Each has its separate subject, and all are appropriately awarded and strongly characteristic. That of the Priests is a melody of rare beauty and simplicity, and the delightful ritornelle, for flute and fagotti, on a point d’orgue, which follows, is exceedingly beautiful. Its close in breadth and grandeur equals any of his previous famous marches. The Grand Air for Vasco, which is at once contemplative and declamatory, gives opportunity for a beautiful effect, produced by a long sustained tremolo for three flutes, with a beautiful cantabile passage for the basses. The effect is serial and fascinating in the extreme. The beautiful Senteile in which Neluska bears the obligato part, is used in the opera as given here, as a solo only, thus destroying a charming composition, and the action of the scene at the same time. The grand duet between Selika and Vasco is one of the most passionate scenes in the whole range of opera writing. His impetuous protestations of love are told with infinite dramatic force, in the movement commencing ‘Grimmal mortal image,’ and a charming and subtle effect is produced at the words, ‘Come di fiamma un raggio passo rei mio seno,’ when the key changes from F to A major, giving brilliant point to the words. Another brilliant point is where Selika, astonished and wild with joy at the sudden expression of love, utters a cry on the fourth of the key note F, by an enharmonic change gives vent to her emotion in a broad, impassioned melody, in the key of F sharp. The effect on the stage is electrical. At the close of the act a fine dramatic point is made, when in the midst of the bridal chorus and rejoicing the voice of Inez is heard singing the sad, weird ritornello, which is first developed in the introduction to the opera.
The Duo between Selika and Inez in the fifth act contains a fine andante Maestoso movement full of passionate utterance. The grand death scene of Selika, under the Mancenillier tree, commences with the famous wail, or hopes dirge, a rugged but passionate melody, performed in unison by the violins, on the fourth string. Simple as this sounds, the effect is such as cannot be described; it is the saddest, the most melancholy, the most painful musical effect ever yet accomplished in an orchestra, and its conception was a flash of genius equal to any which Meyerbeer’s fertile brain ever gave birth to. The scene throughout is a death plaint, terminating with a celestial vision which is beautiful in itself and in its treatment.
In this opera we find a thousand points of beauty, scattered throughout the vocal and instrumental scores. The recitatives, while they are strong, nervous, declamatory, and varied by the utmost ingenuity of science, are so replete with phrases of beautiful melody that they are in no way wearying. The countless changes in rythm [sic] and key exhibit in the highest degree the laborious painstaking, the conscientious working of Meyerbeer. But the pains and the work were not thrown away, for the polish and the finish which resulted from them imparted an air of spontaneity equal to the natural and emphatic flow of oratory. The principal vocal subjects are devoid of prettiness; there is scarcely a small thought in the whole work; on the contrary, they are all broad, thoughtful, many impassioned and poetical, and a few rising to dramatic and melodic inspiration. Several of the subjects strike upon the ear as familiar, and some who would fain fled new spots in the sun shout out plagiarism. To condemn such a work because of a few accidental resemblances which rarely extend beyond a few notes and given these receive a new beauty in the handling is a simple absurdity. This is not the way to judge of such a work. If we build a pyramid of atoms, even the mosaic character of the materials is lost in contemplating the immensity of the whole. Who would stop to point out a defective grain in a field of corn?
The ensemble pieces and the separate choruses are well constructed, varied in character, dramatic in their conception, and are worked out fully, with a special reference to unity, color, and contrasted effect. We find no pandering to the popular craving for portentous masses of accumulated sound; on the contrary, he has specially avoided several striking opportunities for such display, which but few composers would have resisted. [Finess?] was Meyerbeeer’s constant aim, and upon his achievement of that rests his claim to immortality for his works.
The instrumentation of L’Africaine throughout is a study. Every instrument is treated characteristically. Meyerbeer uses them all boldly and freely, calling upon their fullest resources, expecting that competent artists alone will interpret his works. Here we see again the high art instinct scorning expediency, which would cripple the imagination and the inventive faculties to [catering?] for [mechanics?]. It is impossible to give the faintest idea of the infinite beauty and variety of the orchestration. A hundred phrases of exquisite melody, richly harmonized, are still unrecognized by the general hearer, though their influence is felt in the harmony of the whole. The independent treatment of the various instruments affords that variety of tone and color which is the appreciable charm of the work, and which places Meyerbeer at the head of operatic orchestral writers.
Viewing this last work of Meyerbeer as a whole, while we place it second to ‘Les Huguenots’ in high tone, sublimity of subject and directness of purpose, we rank it above all of his other works.
The production of L’Africaine at the Academy in so perfect a manner in but a few weeks is at once a matter for surprise and admiration. In Paris, it took nine months, in London four months, with the finest orchestras in the world, to bring it to a state fit for representation. If all the nuances are not as perfect here as there, still its representation is most excellent, and in some respects admirable. Mr. Carl Bergmann’s labor must have been most arduous, and as intelligent and conscientious as it was arduous, and as intelligent and conscientious as it was arduous. The difficulties were enormous, but the character of his mind, aided by his great practical experience is well calculated to reduce the chaos of sounds to harmonious forms, in the shortest possible space of time. Besides, he has the confidence of an orchestra which is the promptest and quickest in the world to comprehend and execute. Still we give to Carl Bergmann the largest meed of praise and all honors for having accomplished so difficult an undertaking so rapidly, so brilliantly and so successfully.
The singers, too, deserve our warmest approbation and admiration. To those accustomed to the modern Italian operas, to study Meyerbeer’s music is to attempt the mastery of a new language. The school is entirely different; the progressions, the dissonances, the modulations, the form, are as unlike as the Italian are the Choctaw. Still they have mastered all these differences, and present them to us in a style of excellence, which we gratefully acknowledge. On Carozzi-Zucchi, Mazzoleni and Bellini fall the chief burden of the work, and we must acknowledge that they have achieved it conscientiously and admirably. We can take no exception to the execution of any portion of the difficult music allotted them except, perhaps a want of tenderness in Zucchi’s ‘Slumber Song.’ It would be difficult to imagine anything more intensely truthful, more emphatically passionate, or more exquisitely tender than the rendering of the love duet in the fourth act, by Zucchi and Mazzoleni. In Paris or London they would have created a furore, and would have been garlanded amid shouts of applause. It is worth traveling a long distance to enjoy the privilege of listening to this duet as they sing it. Bellini was irreproachable in his role, and Ortolani and Antonucci claim our cordial approval.
The costumes were rich and appropriate, that of Zucchi being of more than oriental gorgeousness. The scenery is on a grander scale than any we have seen on the stage of the Academy. The first scene is well designed and printed, but we object to the interminable architectural vistas, for they are nowhere to be found save in the fancy of the painter. The ship scene is well managed and is quite effective; the temple scene is also well worthy of commendation, while the last scene with the fatal Mancanillier tree and the distant ocean, is extremely beautiful, and is always warmly appreciated. Mr. Calyo has made a fine artistic success this time. The stage appointments are rich and appropriate, and the stage arrangements reflect much credit upon Mr. Debreuil. Mr. Maretzek may well be proud of the production of the opera; it is the chiefest triumph of his managerial career. We see the result of his care and experience through all. His active mind and clear judgment pervaded and controlled each department, and to these his liberal outlay and the able assistance of Carl Bergmann, the triumphant success of his undertaking is due. We delight in the success of L’Africaine and we congratulate the manager and the public on the last brilliant effort of the most successful operatic season recorded in our musical annals.”
“Meyerbeer’s ‘L’Africane’ [sic] was produced for the first time in this country, at the Academy of Music on the 1st inst. We have not yet seen it, and therefore defer a notice of the new play until next week.”
“’L’Africaine’ in New York. New York, Dec. 4 – The principal musical event of the past two weeks has been the production of Meyerbeer’s ‘Africaine’ at the Academy of Music. So many accounts and analyses of this work, copied from European papers, have already reached the musical reading public of America, that a description of the plan, plot, and character of the opera is entirely unnecessary and uncalled for at this late date. And yet, among the mass of French, German and English criticisms upon the ‘Africaine,’ it is astonishing how very few we have met with, reliable and bearing upon them the stamp of good faith. Aside from interested or mercenary motives, we have had the unconditional Meyerbeer worshipped from incorrect M. Blaze de Bury down; his antipode, who goes to hear the Meyerbeer opera pre-determined to find nothing in it but good instrumentation and ‘effect-hashery’ and the countless herd of smart writers, who cover their superficial opinions and want sound musical knowledge and witty witticisms, and covert sneers at what they do not more than half understand. In this barren desert of verbiage,--as our flowery old friend Saadi would probably remark,--how seldom do we find repose beneath the cooling psalms of reflection, or listen to the reviving murmurs of the fountains of the oases of truth! One good effect of the want of weight in most of what we have read on the subject, is, that we go to a first hearing of the work with a mind almost fresh to receive impressions, and as much uninfluenced as it is possible to be.
After a careful study of the score, and an attentive public hearing, we find ourselves ranking ‘L’Africaine’ as, if not wholly the first, at least among the best of Meyerbeer’s operas. There is no occasion to repeat that it is finely instrumented, well calculated for scenic effect and for the singers, provided they possess natural and acquired powers beyond the common; these qualities we naturally expect, and usually find, in Meyerbeer’s works. But what especially pleases us in this, is its remarkable spontaneity of points of melody, and of impassioned feeling, in the salient points of the action. The introduction, ‘Adieu, mon doux rivage’ to the romance: ‘Pour celle qui m’est chère,’ sung by Inez, is very charming, although it failed of effect here, the difficult intervals not having been sung with perfect purity of intonation by Mlle. Ortolani. The romance itself is of an ordinary cast, though not unpleasing. The prayer: ‘Dieu que le monde revère’ has been compared to the ‘Bénédiction des poignards’ in the Huguenots, but the comparison results vastly to the advantage of the latter, we think; this prayer is neither noble nor original in motivo, and obtains its effect principally from the sonority of bass voices in unison. The finale to this act is one of the finest things of the kind we know. The ‘Air du Sommeil,’ with which Selika opens the second act is agreeable, but not as original as it has been said to be (so any one who takes the trouble to compare its first motivo with Schubert’s little known song ‘Der Leyermann,’ will find). There are many dramatic moments in the duet between Selika and Vasco, the air sung by Nelusko, and the ensemble that concludes this act, but nothing of high significance.
The third act, on board ship, is, from a musical point of view, the weakest in the opera. The female chorus: ‘Le rapide et léger navire,’ with which it opens, and one of the best numbers, was entirely omitted here. The ballad: ‘Adamastor roi des vagues’ sung by Nelusko, although effective, resembles many sea songs of a similar character. The whole of this act was very much ‘cut.’
The fourth act is the finest of the opera; rich in melodies of no common order; filled with tone-pictures of the warmest and most sensuous coloring, it delights the ear, while at the same time it satisfies the intellect by its vivid illustration of what our imagination accepts as a semi-civilized ideal of tropical life. The passage sung by Nelusko: ‘L’avoir tant adorée,’ the long duo for soprano and tenor, the female chorus: ‘Remparts de gaze’ (although this latter recalls to us the episode: ‘Jetzo zurüch in die Rosenlauben,’ in Schumann’s houri chorus, a little more than is necessary) are all morceaux of marked beauty. Another comparison has been often made between the love duet of this act and that of Raoul and Valentine in the Huguenots; it is hardly well founded, as they are so different in coloring; but at the same time neither loses by the comparison. After a duo between Inez and Selika, not very remarkable in contents or effect, we are led to the foot of the manicneel tree. The scena sung by Selika is of the highest order of dramatic expression. This is preceded by some sixteen bars, Andante cantabile, played in unison by the strings. This passage, although a large and noble phrase, seems hardly equal to the excessive laudation it has received, and we cannot but think that a great portion of its effect is due to the peculiar tone produced by the violins on the fourth string, the momentary absence of harmony, the impression produced by the scene, and especially by the return of harmony at the conclusion of the period. Still, this calculation of effect, even, is the merit of the composer. The finale was almost entirely cut out at this performance. Indeed, so much was omitted throughout the opera, that its representation did not last above four hours (!), including ‘waits’ between the acts.
The best interpretations of the several characters were those of Vasco de Gama, and Nelusko, by Signori Mazzoleni and Bellini. The former appeared to better advantage than he has probably ever done before here, and the metallic quality of his voice admirably suited the music he had to sing. We only wished that Signor Mazzoleni could make a more effective and frequent use of the mezza voce. Signor Bellini, always a careful, as well as a gifted artist, increased his artistic reputation by his energetic representation of the semi-savage Nelusko. Mme. Zucchi looked a picturesque and glowing Africaine, her voice was not always equal to the great requirements of the part, but her acting was undeniably dramatic. Mme. Ortolani was an agreeable and gently feminine Inez, but her vocal powers were hardly adequate.
Don Pedro found a weak (vocally speaking) representative in Antonucci; the minor parts were inefficiently filled, and the chorus was insufficient and imperfect. A large number of persons appeared on the stage in the spectacular scenes, but how awkward and badly drilled were their evolutions. An amusing anachronism occurred in the ‘ship’ act; this opens, in the original score (as we have mentioned above) with a chorus, sung by the ladies of Inez’s suite, in her cabin; as this was omitted, some of the ladies, to beguile time while the sailors on deck were singing their chorus, unfolded and read the papers. Rather remarkable, when we remember that Gutenberg’s invention only occurred a few years before the expeditions of Vasco da Gama. The scenes of the fourth and fifth acts reflect great credit on the painter Calyo, and are not devoid of truly artistic merit. The orchestra, considering the few rehearsals that were hand, and the difficulties of a Meyerbeer score did remarkably well, under Mr. Carl Bergmann’s attentive conductorship.
A great deal of wit, good and bad, has been expended on the plot of this opera, but we cannot see that it is more improbable than that of a hundred others. On the contrary, we find it less so, if we except two or three slight, but saliently unlikely incidents, such as the map scene, which we are astonished to find unmarked by so clear-sighted a mind as that of Meyerbeer, and in a man so sensitive to ridicule as he was. But the subject must have been highly attractive to a composer, presenting, as it does an idea—the struggle of adventurous genius against bigotry and envy—besides dramatic incident in abundance and variety of coloring.
We have quoted above from Mr. Scribes’ original libretto; it is perhaps unnecessary to add that the opera was sung in Italian by Maretzek’s company.”
“The last of Meyerbeer’s works, (and recently produced at the Academy, in this city) was undoubtedly his greatest. For years the great maestro kept the secret of his great composition, and for years after the secret was divulged did he continue to prune and beautify the work which he determined should bequeath to him an immortal name. Sparkling throughout with the choicest melody and with the most intense dramatic fire, in turn ‘L’Africaine’ enchants the senses and leads captive the judgment. Neverthless, Meyerbeer determined that his last opera should be great in all parts, and he expended a vast deal of time—ably seconded by the exertions of M. Scribe the librettist—in rendering the scenes and incidents of the plot worthy of his music and of that class of spectacle which has obtained the name of the ‘materialistic drama.’ Thus we find the resources of the property-man taxed to the utmost in the ship, mancanilla tree, and island scenes-rendering this noble work complete in every part.”