By Anne E. Johnson
NEW YORK – The real title of Francesca Caccini’s only surviving opera is La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina (The Liberation of Ruggiero from Alcina’s Island). That Boston Early Music Festival shortened the title to Alcina for their new production, seen Nov. 27 at the Gilder Lehrman Hall in the Morgan Library and Museum following its two performances in Boston, was significant: This show was all about the women.
As music directors Stephen Stubbs and Paul O’Dette explained in a pre-concert talk, the 1625 work was commissioned by two powerful women (Archduchess Maria Magdalene and Christina of Lorraine, acting co-regents of Tuscany from 1621-1628), and the story features two powerful women (evil sorceress Alcina and good sorceress Melissa). There’s only one male lead, the crusader Ruggiero, who doesn’t really do anything, and whose views always reflect those of whichever woman has spoken to him last.
Six of the 13 choristers were women, and they got all the best writing. And, while it was certainly not true in the 1625 production, the BEMF orchestra was two-thirds women. Oh, and this is also the earliest known opera by a woman, who starred in the title role. Caccini, a singer as well as composer and multi-instrumentalist, was the daughter of famed madrigalist Giulio Caccini and protégé of opera pioneer Jacopo Peri. (In fact, in 1600 at age 13, she performed in the earliest existing opera, Peri’s L’Euridice.) Alcina, with a libretto by Ferdinando Saracinelli, is based on Ariosto’s beloved epic poem, Orlando Furioso.
The semi-staged production had no sets, but the elaborate late-Renaissance costumes by Anna Watkins made it easy to extrapolate the setting. Alcina has a nasty habit of turning her ex-lovers into plants, along with the women who try to rescue them; Watkins fitted the victims’ heads and hands with plastic leaves and twigs, an inexpensive but effective way of reminding us that they were actually people, and facilitating their return to human form at the end when Melissa frees them from their plight.
At stage right were the melodic instruments, three violins and three recorders; across from them sat a large continuo team, including violas da gamba, lirone (a gamba-like instrument with a bridge so flat that it can only play chords), baroque harp, harpsichord, organ, chitarrone (played by O’Dette), and lute and guitar (played by Stubbs, who also conducted from his seat). The instrumentalists understood their role as emotional underpinning to the vocal music; that concept seems obvious to us today, but it was a brand-new idea (thank you, Claudio Monteverdi) in the early 17th century. The 12 players produced an incredibly wide range of textures that helped listeners jump from romantic passion to the terror of hellfire in a matter of seconds.
Although it was interesting and acoustically satisfying to have the orchestra onstage, it certainly made things crowded in the small recital hall. The opera was designed to include several balli (dance sequences), but the music for these is almost certainly not by Caccini. Choreographer Melinda Sullivan did her best to provide simple but attractive movements for the choristers. Unfortunately, some singers were not particularly graceful, and all of them suffered from trying to do their steps in such restricted space.
As Alcina, soprano Shannon Mercer displayed perfect technique in the first half, complete with embroidery flow and click-stop precision in the vocal ornaments so essential to this period. After intermission she showed us her acting ability as her character swung madly from jealousy to scorn to heartbreak to literally becoming a monster. In many instances Mercer cleverly used the “trillo” – a cadential decoration where a note is repeated quickly on one syllable – to represent petulant crying when Alcina didn’t get her way. And oh, did she milk those dissonances! Gesualdo would have loved it.
Tenor Colin Balzer played the passive Ruggiero as if he were lost, which was entirely appropriate: Having been bewitched by Alcina’s beauty, he has forgotten both his duty to his army and his love for his own fiancée. Although many singers onstage had excellent Baroque vocal skills, Balzer stood out for his mastery of the subtler aspects of intonation. A slight off-hand slide into a note, a pitch held just a hair flat or sharp for effect – he sang like he was born in 1585.
The story’s hero is the compassionate sorceress Melissa, who sings one of her scenes disguised as the male wizard Atlante in order to snap Ruggiero back to reality. Kelsey Lauritano, only 24 years old, made both roles shine with her lustrous and commanding mezzo-soprano voice.
As usual, the BEMF Vocal Ensemble displayed exceptional training in period performance. When they sang individually, some of the male singers had weak voices (I had to wonder: Was this some kind of feminist statement?), but all the women were first-rate. The writing for groups of three and six women in this opera was inspired by the Concerto delle donne, the all-female madrigal singers who were the 17th-century Ferrara equivalent of rock stars. The BEMF ensemble’s training also extended to their physical presence onstage. Never once did we see a 2018 posture – hands, feet, arm gestures, and contrapposto balance were always just so.
Several of the ensemble members took on small roles. Holding a trident and welcoming the King of Poland (who was guest of honor at the opera’s premiere), David McFerrin sang Nettunno with clarity and strength in the prologue. Teresa Wakim was a standout as the Siren, as was Margot Rood as Alcina’s spy, Oreste.
Throughout the evening of mostly excellent playing and singing, I did wonder about the audience reaction to this piece. Although there were a couple of snickers, it was mostly respectful silence and appreciation. Yet I had the sense that this opera was probably quite funny when it was new. The libretto offers some outrageous circumstances and lines, and it was originally performed at a party. For the last scene, according to O’Dette, everyone repaired to an outdoor area so they could watch the “balletto a cavallo” (horse ballet), a popular type of opera finale.
There was no sense of that riotous good time at the Morgan Library, and of course there was no room for horses. Perhaps the direction and declamation could have been broader from the outset, encouraging the audience to expect humor. Or perhaps the fault lies not with the production but with our determination to hold this music up as high and lofty art.
Anne E. Johnson is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her arts journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Classical Voice North America, Chicago On the Aisle, and Copper: The Journal of Music and Audio. For many years she taught music history and theory in the Extension Division of Mannes School of Music.