Professor Landeg White’s presentation “Camões: Made in Goa” at the Fundação Oriente was truly revelatory.

I had been introduced to Luís Vaz de Camões (1524-1580) by my father while really young. I still have a copy of ‘Os Lusíadas’ in the original Portuguese that he presented to me on my seventh birthday. I didn’t appreciate it fully then, of course, and the absence of a handy English translation made my understanding of it very difficult in my later years as well. It is only in the last few years that I have begun to read it and really savour it.

The Landeg White presentation called our attention to the epic again, and it is a good springboard from which to examine music that got written as a result of it.

There must be other works as well, I am sure, but let us look at L’Africaine (The African Woman), the 1865 grand opera in five acts which was the last work of the German composer Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864), perhaps the most successful stage composer of the nineteenth century.

Its gestation period was about three decades. The French libretto by Augustin Eugène Scribe originally dealt with the unrequited love of African princess Sélika for Portuguese naval officer Fernand, who spurns her in favour of Inès, the governor’s daughter. If this sounds somewhat familiar, it is because the idea of a non-European woman falling in love with a white man, often an officer, but being rejected, is repeated in operatic writing of that time: Delibes’ Lakmé (1883); and perhaps more famously, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (1903). In all three cases, the rejected woman kills herself. In L’Africaine and Madama Butterfly, a white woman is preferred to the non-European, whereas in Lakmé, “duty to his regiment” causes British officer Gérald to desert her.

The initial inspiration was drawn from many sources, including Antoine-Marin Lemierre’s 1770 tragedy La Veuve de Malabar (The Widow of Malabar) and a poem by Alexandre Dumas. But in 1849-50, Meyerbeer read ‘Os Lusíadas’, and decided to replace Camões’ hero Vasco da Gama as the protagonist instead of Fernand. Meyerbeer was “enchanted by the poem, on which I will begin working with great confidence and pleasure.” Indeed, for a time, the working title of the opera became “Vasco da Gama, ou le géânt des tempêtes” (Vasco da Gama, or the Giant of Tempests).

It gave the libretto the advantage of taking the drama from mere personal conflict to giving it a historical backdrop.

But it is a spurious one at best. There are not only historical, but geographical liberties in the synopsis. There was obviously not much attempt to fact-check anything. For instance, Vasco da Gama married Catarina de Ataíde, but Scribe has him in love with Inès instead.

Vasco da Gama and Selika, from Giacomo Meyerbeer's opera L'Africaine. French educational card, late 19th or early 20th century.

And although the opera title is L’Africaine, it becomes obvious that Sélika is not from Africa, but from an island off its coast, likely Madagascar, although never explicitly stated. To confound the geographical location of the action even further, Sélika embraces death in the final act by inhaling the perfume of the poisonous blossoms of the manchineel tree (Hippomane mancinella, ‘the world’s most dangerous tree’ in the Guinness Book of World Records), native to the Americas! And all this is despite both Meyerbeer and Scribe having read the Camões epic as well as João de Barros’ detailed 1549 chronicle ‘Asia’.

Africaine 2

Musicologist Gabriela Cruz, in her paper “Laughing at History: The Third Act of Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine” in the Cambridge Opera Journal (Vol.11, No. 1, March 1999) argues that they “conceived L’Africaine as an account of bygone events that is historically reflexive and prescriptive, providing the listener with a specific strategy to imagine and understand the past. In other words, the idea of history as a narrative is already built into the plot where it appears as in the ballad: a sung narrative which supplies a structured vision of ‘what happened’”. The ballad she refers to is the ballad of the legend of Adamastor (the Greek-style monstrous personification of the forces of nature the Portuguese combated, particularly around the Cape of Good Hope), sung in the third act by Nélusko, Sélika’s fellow captive and who is also navigator of da Gama’s ship.

L’Africaine is not in the mainstream operatic repertoire. Its most famous aria is the one sung by da Gama (tenor), in the fourth act, titled O Paradis! (O Paradise!), sung beautifully as a stand-alone piece with piano accompaniment by the exceptionally gifted but tragically short-lived American tenor Mario Lanza in the 1955 Hollywood film ‘Serenade’.

With the benefit of 21st century hindsight, one can find fault with the synopsis on so many levels apart from mere historical inaccuracy: racism, sexism, imperialist supremacy and ‘Orientalism’. But as with Camões’ ‘Os Lusíadas’, perhaps one should judge Meyerbeer’s ‘L’Africaine’ in the context and time in which it was written.

I came across an interesting paper ‘Camões in Brazil: Operetta and Portuguese Culture in Rio de Janeiro, circa 1880’ by Luísa Cymbron. It refers to the tercentenary celebrations of the death of Camões in Portugal and Brazil. Despite the “different ideological undertones and distinct political objectives on both sides of the Atlantic,” the bard was “exalted” as “an icon of national heritage, projecting a broader ideal of brotherhood between the two countries.”

Nevertheless, Rio de Janeiro’s Revista Illustrada reported, somewhat tongue-in-cheek: “This week never had its own story: it was devoted to leisure and rest, and the little that it lived, it lived from the festive life of the other, as the true parasite that it was. Everyone felt tired from so much partying, and they put aside their enthusiasm and their tailcoats, to stay at home and ruminate about Camões’s centenary, to stretch, reading the commemorative supplements of the daily papers, yawning and finally sleeping. . . . We have a shorter endurance than that of the Creator: God only rested after a week’s work; we stretch, half awake, on the fourth day of celebrations and enthusiasm. And I must confess that I have never seen so much resistance, so much activity, or so much thirst for festivities, in Rio de Janeiro, in honor of a man who cannot even thank us.”

Three operettas were premiered at the Fênix Dramática theatre, a collaboration between Portuguese violinist-composer Francisco de Sá Noronha (1820-1881) and the young Brazilian playwright Arturo Azevedo (1855-1908): “’A princesa dos cajueiros’, a political and social satire of current life (in a clear Brazilian adaptation of the Offenbachian model); ‘Os noivos’, a comedy of manners on a Brazilian theme; and ‘O’ califa da rua do Sabão’, an adaptation of a French comedy mêlée de couplets.” It would be interesting to be able to examine these works today, if one could get hold of the score and text.

(An edited version of this article was published on 11 December 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)