There are some random ways to die in opera – caught in an avalanche, hurled into a cauldron of boiling water, thrown to the lions – but inhaling the poisonous blossoms of the manchineel tree must be one of the most unusual. That is Sélika’s fate at the end of Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine, an opera rarely performed. Deutsche Oper, as part of its Meyerbeer cycle, now presents the opera as left by the composer at his death, under its original title Vasco da Gama, as a star vehicle for Roberto Alagna. Vera Nemirova’s updated production didn’t please everyone, but it’s intelligently done.

The plot is a fictional account of the Portuguese explorer’s exploits in being the first European to reach India by sea at the end of the 15th century. Vasco is caught in three love triangles, the geometry of which is quite messy (but this is French Grand Opéra, so we have five acts to solve the equation). Vasco is essentially caught between his love for the beautiful Inès, the Grand Admiral’s daughter, and for Sélika, one of the slaves he has brought back from Africa (hence the eventual title of L’Africaine). Most of the cast end up on a ship to the Indies which Nélusko, a fellow slave and himself in love with Sélika, drives onto the rocks. Indian locals attack, killing most of the Europeans. Sélika, it turns out, is Queen of India and spares Vasco’s life by declaring they are married. Hearing Inès being sent to her execution, Vasco rushes to save her, leading the betrayed Sélika to grant them their freedom before taking her own life.

Brushing aside concerns about shifting an opera weighted in historial context to the present day, Nemirova’s production heightens the political and religious conflicts in the work. Aboard the ship to India, the Grand Inquisitor wrestles Sélika to her knees and forces her into becoming a nun. Nélusko emerges as a religious fundamentalist and the boarding of the ship by Indian pirates who machine-gun the Europeans at the end of Act III caused plenty of booing on opening night. Vasco, wearing a red beret and a T-shirt bearing his portrait à la Che Guevara, is a selfish glory-hunter, even abandoning Inès at the end to set off on a new expedition. This rather upstaged Sélika’s death, but with Alagna in the title role, in this version named after the explorer, it was a predictable – if inappropriate – denouement.

Jens Kilian’s clever set featured a semi-circular chalked map, at times studded with stars, which rose and lowered, framed by several curved sails onto which subtle images were projected. Inès, pining for the return of Vasco (feared dead) plays at making origami boats; a giant version of the boat serves as both Vasco’s prison and their means of escape from India. Act IV turned into a visual feast of orange, the stage flooded with blossoms, garlands, saris and sails. Nemirova adds touches of campery – sailors in blue berets and striped singlets dancing a number – almost sending up the Grand Opéra spectacle, while Act IV opens with a vaguely embarrassing tribal war dance reminiscent of a haka.

Meyerbeer’s music is terrific, despite a few longeurs in the opening acts, and Enrique Mazzola drove it along excitingly. There are a couple of thrilling choral numbers – as the Inquisition condemns Vasco, and when the Indians demand his death – plus the score’s most famous number, the tenor aria “O paradis”. Alagna, pleading a cold, was in huge voice, pushing his tenor far more than was needed on occasion. He was at his honeyed best in duet with Sophie Koch’s gorgeously sung Sélika in their Act IV flower bed of machineel blossoms. Koch doesn’t have mezzo richness, but her voice has undeniable power and she impressed greatly. Her French diction, however, was mushy. 

Sailor-suited Nino Machaidze looks the part of the beautiful Inès and has an impressive lower register, but there were touches of balsamic vinegar to her tone, while high notes gusted towards squally. Like Alagna, she also shone best in duet with Koch, their Act V number deeply affecting. The most impressive performance came from Markus Brück, who made a sympathetic figure of Nélusko: fierce fundamentalist, but deeply in love with his queen, even to the point of sacrificing himself to die by her side – which was rather lost in Vasco’s surprise return at the end.

A puzzlement. If you romp around in a bed of poisonous blossoms through most of Act IV without any signs of ailment, why do the same blossoms suddenly mean pretty instant death in Act V? That, folks, is opera in a nutshell!