Seventeenth Century Feminist Opera?

9 Nov

This year’s Brighton Early Music Festival is examining women in early music and gave us the opportunity to see what is, apparently, the first opera by a female composer: La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’ isola di Alcina by Francesca Caccini.  They did four performances of the piece at the Old Market in Hove and I saw the last one, on 8th November.

Caccini was the daughter of singers and, obviously, an accomplished composer at the Medici court in Florence (ruled, at the time by two female regents).  This piece was written for the visit of Prince Wladislaw of Poland in 1625 and is one of the few compositions of hers that survive.  He liked it enough to commission at the very least a translation into Polish and probably performances of it in Warsaw and to commission some more operas from her.

It’s the same subject matter as Handel’s Alcina – the sorceress Melissa succeeds in rescuing Ruggiero who from clutches of Alcina, first by persuading him that the world needs his strength as a fighter and, secondly, by defeating Alcina’s army of spirits, and then releasing Alcina’s other captives (and their wives) from their imprisonment as plants.  It opens with a prologue welcoming the Prince, then Melissa arrives determined to rescue Ruggiero, there’s a love scene for Ruggiero and Alcina followed by one for Melissa and Ruggiero.  Having been persuaded, Ruggiero then has a scene with Alcina where he rejects her.  Melissa then defeats Alcina’s spirits and releases the plants.  It would have been part of a larger entertainment, with dances included (one of them, apparently, for horses).

Structurally, it reminded me most of Handel’s Acis and Galatea – written for a similarly intimate space.  The music struck me as attractive in a generic seventeenth century way.  There were some lovely choruses and the dialogues between the characters seemed to be dramatic and characterful.  There’s little in the way of arias and relatively few opportunities for individual singers to shine.  It’s an ensemble piece with a large number of minor roles and some very grateful, imaginative orchestration.  I’m not enough of an expert in 17th century opera to be able to compare with others but it didn’t strike me as obviously inferior to Cavalli or, indeed, Rossi, given that it was intended to be a piece d’occasion rather than a dramatic piece of work.

Musically, this performance struck me as excellent.  Deborah Roberts conducted by the Brighton Early Music Festival Renaissance Players who seemed to me to play excellently, idiomatically and accompanying the singers well.  The Old Market is an ideal space for this sort of opera – you can fit three or four hundred people in there easily but it feels intimate and the acoustic was fine.  An ensemble of eighteen (ten with solo roles and eight supporters) did the choruses really well and sang their solo roles with varying success – some first rate (Justin Way, Hannah Ely and William Bouvel in particular) others rather less so.

Anna Devin was Alcina and gave an assured, idiomatic, glamorous performance.  Denis Lakey, a counter-tenor based in Germany and new to me, camped up Melissa (who turns herself into Atlas for part of the performance) considerably but seemed comfortable vocally.  Was this role originally written for a mezzo or a castrato or male alto?  Either male or female would work, I think.  Nick Pritchard has an ideal tenor for this sort of music and sang very pleasingly with understandably gauche acting for one of the most passive tenor roles imaginable.

Susannah Waters did the production.  I’m uncertain about how far this piece is intended to be comic or serious or, possibly, both.  She updated it to the turn of the 20th century on Brighton beach.  Melissa was a Lady Bracknell figure, the others in various forms of beach wear with props of buckets and spades and inflatable beach equipment.  The celebration at the end became a celebration of the suffragettes.  The overall tone was of a slightly student-ish, one-off bit of fun.

This was most evident in that, instead of surtitles, characters held up boards which reduced what sounded like several lines of verse into a single, silent film-like line, summarising the words.  These raised quite a lot of laughs.  What I wasn’t able to  do was to understand enough of the Italian to work out whether there is more to the piece than this.  It added to my conviction that, for these early operas, the settings of the words are crucial and you need to understand them.  I imagine that a translation couldn’t have been afforded but those idiot-boards meant that you were distracted from the words and the emotions.  I felt that there was a lot going on that we were missing.  Equally, I may be over-estimating something that was obviously written simply for a celebration and was never intended to be more than a piece of fun.

Either way, it was an interesting evening.  I was glad that I went and to learn more about a period of opera that you rarely get to see and a piece that’s unlikely to be seen outside of this sort of festival setting.  Whatever reservations I may have about the staging, the seriousness of the musical side was beyond doubt.

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