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

WOO-1415-LAfricaine-250Let's face it. When it comes to large-scale entertainment, spectacle makes for great box office, whether it's at the cineplex, or in the opera house. Yet in either venue, extravagance can at times become a sort of double-edged sword, at least when it comes to sealing reputations.

Take the cinematic example of director James Cameron. In 1991, he changed the way people saw movies with the mind-bending special effects in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, then among of the most technically ambitious and expensive films ever made.

He broke similar ground with Titanic in 1997, and with Avatar in 2009 Cameron pioneered the modern 3D technology that has been a staple of high-tech movie making ever since. Once more, Cameron had changed the expectations of movie-goers. And, by one crucial measure, he now ranks among the most successful directors of his time: His movies have earned billions of dollars.

Yet, thanks to all that hi-tech wizardry, James Cameron may also have been pigeonholed -- as a director more attuned to the spectacular than the profound, making movies that generate more "oohs and aahs" than discussion and contemplation.

And at the opera? Well, if we look back to 19th-century France, we find a composer who may have fallen into the same pigeonhole. In the mid-1800s, Giacomo Meyerbeer might well have been the most popular opera composer in the world. Working in Paris, he more or less defined the genre we now call French Grand Opera -- a form that reveled in huge ensembles, sweeping dramatic gestures, and extravagant stage effects that can stretch the capacity of opera houses even today.

But when his operas are mentioned now, it's more likely to be for those extreme technical demands than for the level of their insights, or the depth of the composer's music. Thanks to those demands, which make his operas difficult and expensive to produce, we're far more likely to hear discussion of Meyerbeer's works than we are to hear the operas themselves -- and, justifiably or not, that may be especially true of the drama featured here, Meyerbeer's final opera, L'Africaine.

With most of Meyerbeer's operas, it's more than just the stagecraft they require that tends to be complicated. Their stories can also be difficult to sort out-- and in the case of L'Africaine, the story of the opera's creation is complex, as well. Even the title is a bit of a conundrum.

L'Africaine was written over a period of nearly 30 years, beginning in 1837. The opera's title means "the African woman," and originally the title character, Sélika, was exactly that: an African queen, brought to Portugal by a famous explorer.

Somewhere along the way, it was decided to make the character an Indian princess instead. So, obviously, the title had to be changed and the opera was renamed for the explorer, Vasco da Gama. The project was an on-again, off-again affair for quite some time. Then Eugene Scribe, the librettist, died in 1861. Other writers worked on the text. The main character became African again, and the title was changed back. Yet somehow, the final version retains mentions of Hindu gods and shrines -- making the character of Sélika Indian again, but neglecting to change the opera's African setting in the process.

Still, none of that confusion kept the piece from being an enormous success at its Paris premiere in 1865, which took place shortly after Meyerbeer's death. Apparently, for audiences at the prestigious Paris Opéra, one faraway exotic setting was pretty much as good as another.

On World of Opera host Lisa Simeone presents L'Africaine in a production from one of opera's most glamorous destinations, La Fenice in Venice. The stars are soprano Veronica Simeoni and tenor Gregory Kunde as Sélika and Vasco da Gama, in a production led by conductor Emmanuel Villaume. So listen up. On the radio, after all, there are no distracting special effects -- and you might just discover that there's more to Meyerbeer's opera than spectacle and stagecraft.