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By Phil Hall | May 1, 2005

This video record of the San Francisco Opera’s marvelous production of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s “L’Africaine” is noteworthy as offering an excellent filmed record of a rarely performed epic opera. If Meyerbeer’s work is uneven, its flaws are carefully hidden through stunning performances by its peerless cast and an imaginative visual style that makes this something of an operatic guilty pleasure.

Taking a lot of liberties with history, “L’Africaine” recasts the story of the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama into a melodramatic tale of unrequited loves and political treachery. In this version, de Gama returns from Africa to the royal court in Lisbon with two uncommon slaves: Selika, the queen of an East Indian island (the country is never identified) and Nelusko, her devoted but devious aide. Nelusko quietly loves Selika, but she loves de Gama, but he loves Inez, the daughter of an aristocrat who wants her to marry Don Pedro, de Gama’s rival. Circumstances land de Gama and his slaves in a dungeon, but they are freed when Inez agrees to marry Don Pedro, who takes de Gama’s navigational charts to conquer the seas. Nelusko acts as Don Pedro’s pilot and steers their ship back to Selika’s island, where the natives liberate their queen and imprison the Portuguese. But de Gama shows up on the island, creating more confusion and turmoil since Don Pedro was conveniently killed, freeing up Inez while knocking Selika into heartache.

None of this obviously make a lick of sense, but who cares? With more twists and grief than the entire Douglas Sirk canon, “L’Africaine” is pure soap set to operatic gold. This production is blessed with two titans of the opera: Placido Domingo, in a joyfully aggressive performance as the obsessed de Gama, and Shirley Verrett (the epitome of regal beauty) as Selika. Their presence is electrifying and they grace “L’Africaine” with a power and majesty that will make even the most rabid opera haters sit up in awe.

Kudos are also in order for Wolfram Skalicki’s set design (especially the three-headed deity looming about the temple of Selika’s kingdom), Amrei Skalicki’s costumes (the swashbuckling maritime clothing of 15th century Portugal and the flowing robes of the East Indian island kingdom are brilliantly designed), and the combined teamwork of Lotfi Mansouri’s direction of the stage version and Brian Large’s innovative framing of this video record.

There is one catch: a ballet welcoming Selika’s return is rather mundane. It’s not bad, but it slows the action down and should’ve been dropped from this otherwise flawless offering.

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