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Scene Last Night: African Queen, Queler’s Farewell, Saint Agnes

Opera Orchestra of New York
Sopranos Ellie Dehn and Chiara Taigi applaud Opera Orchestra of New York Music Director Eve Queler. Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

Two sopranos -- an elegant brunette in red and a seductive blonde with a dress for every occasion (prison, beach, suicide) -- battled over a tenor last night at Lincoln Center, where Eve Queler presented Giacomo Meyerbeer’s “L’Africaine.”

The once-chic composer, who died in 1864, would have enjoyed the fashion parade as a cast of 11 joined a large orchestra and chorus on the stage of Avery Fisher Hall.

This was Queler’s farewell from the Opera Orchestra of New York, which she founded 40 years ago to showcase forgotten works like this old thing about Vasco de Gama. “L’Africaine” has one really great tune, “O Paradis,” an ode to India.

A wacky sense of geography (the African slave is really an Indian queen), and unexpected meetings between the two ardent sopranos add to the delight of the piece.

Marcello Giordani delivered the showstopper with spellbinding power and seemed ready to settle down on the Hindu beach with Chiara Taigi, the blonde queen. But then the other soprano, Ellie Dehn, reappeared and off he went.

The opera closes with Taigi expiring under a toxic tree. The fashion-conscious soprano seems a real find, one of many young stars cultivated by Queler during her tenure at the Opera Orchestra.

By then many hours had passed and we all shared the dying queen’s visions of a chariot with white swans taking us home with our memories.

Everyone sang splendidly. Taigi and Dehn were elegant, expressive. Fikile Mvinjelwa made major baritone sounds as the homicidal Nelusko. And Queler, as so often before, controlled her huge forces with a clear beat and a big heart.

In the Green Room after the performance, she spent a good deal of time hugging Agnes Varis, the pharmaceutical tycoon who recently awarded the orchestra a $250,000 grant and further underwrote 500 $20 tickets.

Agnes, 81, and Eve, 80, proved to be the true heroines of the night.

(Amanda Gordon is a writer and photographer for Muse, the art and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)

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