Political intrigues in exotic settings lie at the heart of three new productions at Deutsche Oper next season, headed by a rare outing for Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine in its original version, as left by the composer, under the title Vasco de Gama. 

Dietmar Schwarz © Peter Badge
Dietmar Schwarz
© Peter Badge

Dietmar Schwarz, director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin since 2012, is not a huge fan of a theme running through the season. “We’re an opera house with 30 different titles and we’re very proud of having different kinds of music theatre from older productions to completely new, experimental ones,” he explains. “However, next season we have in Vasco de Gama, Aida, and Die Entführung aus dem Serail three very political subjects. For me every piece of theatre, every opera has something political… and by political I mean it has something to do with us. In these three titles, there’s something more political than the others in terms of how you treat your life, foreign influences, people seeking asylum – a problem our society faces today and how to deal with it. On the other hand, there’s the political situation of love in times of conflict… another thing which our lives also contain nowadays.”

Meyerbeer’s Vasco de Gama is part of a commitment to present the Berlin-born composer’s work in his home city. Last November, the Deutsche Oper performed Dinorah, starring Patrizia Ciofi, in concert in the Philharmonie, while their main stage was closed. It was a great success. “Was it the opera? The cast? The fact we weren’t playing much in Berlin at this time? But we were nearly sold out which for a concert performance of an unknown opera, was very interesting,” Schwarz muses. In 2016-17, Die Hugenotten will receive a new production (the former one is over 30 years old now), followed by Le prophète the year afterwards.

But why is director Vera Nemirova staging Vasco de Gama and not its more familiar (but still much neglected) guise of L’Africaine? Schwarz explains that “the original version was always the one Meyerbeer wanted to have. It makes this opera interesting – shifting all the time between big choral tableaux and intimate scenes. We think that the dramaturgy of the original version is more interesting.” The opera tells of fictional events in the life of explorer Vasco da Gama, who claims he has discovered a new land in the Indies, offering Sélika and Nélusko as examples of this new race. Vasco is imprisoned where Sélika, who is really a queen, saves him. Sailing to the Indies, Nélusko plans to destroy the Europeans, with only Vasco spared. Believing Vasco has betrayed her, Sélika commits suicide by inhaling the perfume of the poisonous blossoms of the manchineel tree.

Meyerbeer worked on the score for some 20 years and was about to start another revision in 1864 when he died. François-Joseph Fétis was allowed to edit the score and it’s his version in which the opera L’Africaine – first staged at the Salle le Peletier in 1865 – is usually performed. In Vasco da Gama, we have Meyerbeer’s score in its untinkered form as Meyerbeer left it. Fétis cut and reordered the opera, making Sélika a far less interesting character, despite the fact that he named the opera after her.

Vera Nemirova © Bettina Stöß
Vera Nemirova
© Bettina Stöß
In 2013 Oper Chemnitz used a “critical” edition for a recorded performance of Vasco de Gama, prepared for Ricordi Berlin by Jürgen Schläder based upon autograph scores from Krakow and Berlin, along with material from Fetis’ published version. The autograph transfers much of the opera’s action from Madagascar (where the revised opera was set) back to India and reinforces Selika’s Asian (rather than African) origins. The opera’s hit number “O paradis” will revert to that originally set by Meyerbeer as “O doux climat”.

Schwarz is buoyed by the success of this version and has gathered the starriest of casts to do Meyerbeer’s work justice: Roberto Alagna tackles the role of Vasco, while Sophie Koch is the Indian queen Sélika and Nino Machaidze sings the role of Inès, Vasco’s former lover.

If Vasco de Gama presents opportunities to balance grand tableaux with more personal conflicts, it’s nothing to Verdi’s Aida. In many people’s minds, Aida is all about grand spectacle, so which aspects of the drama will director Benedikt von Peter hope to draw out in his production? Schwarz explains that for the director, it’s the intimate scenes that make the opera extremely interesting. “Radamès feels captive in the situation in which he finds himself, caught in this warrior role he has to play in society. Then there is this dream of an exotic woman – Aida – who can help release him from this pressure – she is an escape, a vision of another life.” He also reveals that Peter wants the public to feel Verdi’s enormous choral forces emotionally, so the chorus will be present in the auditorium – they’ve blocked out seats in the theatre – so the public will be immersed in these public scenes. It could be quite a spectacle, especially with Tatiana Serjan in the title role!

Inside Deutsche Oper Berlin © Leo Seidel
Inside Deutsche Oper Berlin
© Leo Seidel
Mozart’s Die Entführung is a trickier proposition. How does a 21st century director handle a plot which is seen as sensitive – rife with political, racial and religious aspects? This will be theatre director Rodrigo Garcia’s first opera, but he knows everything Mozart wrote for the stage and is very keen to tackle it. For Schwarz, although Entführung is about people from different cultures coming together, this still frames a story about love. “As in Così fan tutte, people behave differently when they are in love and this is the same with Entführung – the human element is at its heart.”

Each season, Schwarz reveals, there is a focus on one of “the five pillars of our repertory at Deutsche Oper.” This season, after missing out on the 150th anniversary celebrations in 2014, it’s the turn of Richard Strauss. A new production of Salome, directed by Claus Guth, is at the centre of the season, with revivals of Die Liebe der Danae and Die Aegyptische Helena (both rarities outside Germany), Elektra (with the amazing Evelyn Herlitzius) and Der Rosenkavalier, with Anja Harteros as the Marschallin. These are five good reasons alone for Strauss lovers to head to Berlin next season.

The new season also features contemporary opera in the form of Georg Friedrich Haas’ Morgen und Abend, a co-production with the Royal Opera, Covent Garden. The Deutsche Oper has a tradition for staging contemporary opera with works by Henze, Reimann and Rihm, so Schwarz feels it was about time Haas’ work was presented in Berlin.

With such attractive new productions and a richly diverse programme of revivals, Deutsche Oper Berlin should feature on every opera lover’s itinerary next season.


This article was sponsored by Deutsche Oper Berlin.