NEW YORK — A neglected masterpiece it's not, but Giacomo Meyerbeer's "L'Africaine" offers enough of the guilty pleasures of old-fashioned grand opera to make it well worth the occasional hearing.
Those pleasures include five acts worth of bravura arias, duets and ensembles for a large retinue of soloists, rousing choruses, a ballet and a spectacular shipwreck at sea — all in the service of a thoroughly improbable plot about the 15th-century Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama.
Most of the elements were on display Wednesday night at Avery Fisher Hall, where the Opera Orchestra of New York gave the work a splendid revival in concert form. There were cuts, but the performance still lasted nearly three and a half hours, including intermission.
The chief reason it worked so well, even without dancers or scenic effects, was the remarkably strong cast assembled by Eve Queler, founder of the group and the evening's attentive conductor.
Making an impressive U.S. debut, Italian soprano Chiara Taigi starred in the title role of Selika, the Indian queen who loves de Gama but relinquishes him to her rival. Taigi has a colorful, dramatic voice that she deploys with technical assurance. She can hurl out arresting high notes one moment, then scale back for lovely pianissimo sounds the next. She also has a lower register, or "chest voice," of rare potency, and had plenty of opportunity to use it.
To Selika falls one of the most famous (not to mention ludicrous) death scenes in all of opera. She commits suicide by inhaling the poisonous fragrance of the mancanilla tree, singing all the while.
The fact that this tree is actually native to the Americas is just one of the geographical confusions exhibited by Meyerbeer and his librettist, Eugene Scribe. Though the opera's title translates as "The African Woman," and the island over which she reigns seems to be Madagascar, Selika herself appears to be from the Indian subcontinent.
As Inez, the young American lyric soprano Ellie Dehn impressed with a pure, sweet sound that contrasted nicely with Taigi's gutsier tones. Their one number together, a duet of recrimination followed by forgiveness, was among the evening's highlights.
Other singers of note included Fikile Mvinjelwa, a South African baritone who tore into the role of Nelusco, an Indian slave who loves Selika, with great energy and a vibrant, well-focused voice. Baritone Daniel Mobbs was solid in the role of Don Pedro, de Gama's rival both for nautical fame and the hand of Inez. And in the brief role of the High Priest of Brahma, bass Harold Wilson unfurled a voice of impressive size and smoothness.
Anchoring the performance was the de Gama of tenor Marcello Giordani, a Metropolitan Opera regular admired for his full-throated high notes.
Though he seemed slightly indisposed, he gave a generous performance and drew a prolonged ovation after the most famous aria in the opera, "O paradis!" (It did him no favors that the evening had started with the playing of a scratchy recording by the great Richard Tucker, who sang the role at the Opera Orchestra's inaugural performance back in 1972.)
In that aria, Meyerbeer displays some of the melodic inspiration that generally eluded him. Too often, his operas sound as if they were dutifully assembled by an expert technician, with scenes that keep promising to catch fire but never quite do. But during his lifetime, and for many years after his death in 1864, Meyerbeer was among the most popular of operatic composers.
To show how drastically tastes have changed, "L'Africaine" was last performed at the Metropolitan Opera in 1934. Nearly 40 years later came the Tucker performance. Now, after another interval of nearly 40 years, it was high time to welcome it back — if only for one night.