A wicked sorceress turns her former lovers into singing plants and holds the Saracen hero Ruggiero captive on an enchanted island. A good sorceress rescues him. Neptune brandishes his trident before a river god. Monsters terrify and assorted damsels cavort in gorgeous dresses and shapely doublets, all garnished with imposing pleated ruffs and accessorized with wigs and masks galore. Reason and fidelity ultimately triumph over unbridled passion. This elaborate courtly entertainment, first staged in Florence to celebrate the visit of Prince Władisław of Poland during Carnival in 1625, made for a fine chamber entertainment for a post-Thanksgiving audience at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall on Saturday. The show repeated on Sunday afternoon.
The composer of La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina (The Liberation of Ruggiero from the Island of Alcina), the court singer Francesca Caccini (1587-ca. 1641), called her entertainment a balletto. Yet she grew up in Florence surrounded by composers who had been involved in the creation of early opera around the turn of the 16th century, including Jacopo Peri, Emilio de’ Cavalieri, and her own father, Giulio Caccini, a champion of a new way of expressive singing. Francesca’s career as virtuoso singer, teacher, and composer took her from Florence to Rome, Lucca, and back to Florence. The verse libretto, by the Medici court poet Ferdinando Saracinelli (d. 1640), reworked three cantos from Ludovico Ariosto’s century-old epic romance Orlando furioso, with passages borrowed from another well-known epic, Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Liberated) added for good measure. The feminist agenda of the libretto was certainly no accident. Grand Duchess Maria Magdalena, co-regent of Tuscany and also a Hapsburg princess, commissioned several works presenting virtuous, forceful female heroines. She also had dynastic ambitions. In commissioning La liberazione to honor the state visit of her nephew Prince Władisław, and setting its first performance in her own grand villa, she hoped to flatter him into marrying her daughter Margherita. More specifically even, the downfall of the wicked sorceress Alcina symbolized the recent heroic defeat of the invading Ottoman Turks in Moravia by Władisław and other Polish commanders.
Given the exigencies of the Jordan Hall stage, the direction by Gilbert Blin and choreography by Melinda Sullivan were remarkably fluent and graceful. Costume Designer Anna Watkins dressed principals and members of the vocal ensemble in elegant court clothes, with just a few identifying props, such as blue sashes for the opening Prologue for Neptune and the water gods, leafy headdresses for the enchanted plants, and masks for the chorus of monsters. In the absence of scenery, Kelly Martin’s astute lighting changes worked their magic. The on-stage chamber ensemble consisted of strings (3 violins, viola, and viola da gamba) and a trio of recorders on one side, led by concertmaster Robert Mealy, who also prepared the new performing edition, and the continuo group on the other. Music directors Paul O’Dette, chitarrone (a large lute with unstopped bass strings outside the fingerboard) and Stephen Stubbs, lute and Baroque guitar, Michael Sponseller, harpsichord, organ, and regal, Maxine Eilanger, Baroque harp, Laura Jeppesen, viola da gamba, and Erin Headley, viola da gamba and lirone, made up the large and colorful ensemble.
At the completion of the opening Sinfonia, members of the vocal ensemble swept down the center aisle to take their places on stage as the “chorus of water deities.” As Neptune, baritone David McFerrin opened the Prologue with a strophic aria in praise of the Polish prince in the form of successive variations over a repeated bass, alternating with instrumental ritornellos. McFerrin’s flexible delivery claimed the variations as integral melodic exploration, going beyond mere ornamentation. Further praise of Prince Władisław followed from tenor Jason McStoots embodying the (Polish) River Vistula in a mellifluous invocation to Apollo, the only musician who could adequately honor the Prince. Addressing the Prince directly, Neptune proffered him the upcoming enactment of Ruggiero’s exemplary tale. A further invocation to Apollo by the Chorus of Water Deities rounded off the Prologue.
In the first scene, Melissa appeared on the enchanted island of Alcina to announce her intentions in a dramatically intense recitative: she vowed to win back Ruggiero to the path of true glory and defeat the wicked enchantress. Mezzo soprano Kelsey Lauritano was ideally cast for the role, with a powerful voice that maintained its clarity even in her lowest range. The following scene opened with a series of airy canzonetta-like stanzas sung by the Chorus of Damsels, punctuated by ritornellos for the three recorders (Kathryn Montoya, Héloïse Degrugillier, and Christel Thielmann). As the lovesick Ruggiero, tenor Colin Balzer voiced the pangs of his love for Alcina in an impassioned monologue. Answering in a similar vein, Alcina (soprano Shannon Mercer) declared her undying devotion. Left alone, Ruggiero listened as a shepherd recounted his love trials in a miniature pastoral scene, a triple-time dance song with ritornellos by the three recorders. Substituting for Brian Giebler, who was ill, tenor Thomas Albanese sang the role with lighthearted assurance. The virtuosic siren song of soprano Teresa Wakim was persuasive enough to lure Ruggiero into a deep sleep. Dressed as a man and transformed into Ruggiero’s former tutor Atlante, the magician Melissa wakened him from sleep and in suitably martial tones exhorted him to forsake Alcina and take up arms. Weak and vacillating, Ruggiero was no match for Melissa/Atlante’s bravura. Alcina returned to find her lover departed. In a scene whose narrative recitative recalled the famous messenger scene in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, Oreste appeared to tell her she had seen Ruggiero who had renounced her forever. Soprano Margot Rood held us in suspense as she delivered the news with mingled fear and urgency. When Ruggiero reappeared, Alcina resorted first to pleading, then to lamenting, finally invoking the Furies in her unbridled rage. Shannon Mercer brilliantly displayed a full range of Alcina’s emotions, both human and supernatural. In her final appearance, surrounded by a grotesque chorus of masked and painted monsters, the vengeful sorceress revealed her true colors, only to flee from her impending fate. In the final scene, Melissa’s moralizing recitative inveighed against uncontrolled passions and worldly pomp. She freed the enchanted ladies and knights, who joined in celebratory dancing and a final madrgal in praise of Tuscan ladies. By way of an Epilogue, choreographer Melinda Sullivan recreated the final intermedio from Emilio de’ Cavalieri’s 1589 ballo “O che nuovo miraculo,” the only one for which the choreography has survived along with the music and text. The trio of principal ladies, sopranos Shannon Mercer and Teresa Wakim, and mezzo Kelsey Lauritano, alternated with a chorus consisting of all 15 members of the vocal ensemble. All joined in the dancing, displaying elegant footwork and stylized hand gestures in intricate patterns, a tribute both to their versatility and to Sullivan’s skillful adaptation of Cavalieri’s ballo to a small stage.
Franceca Caccini’s magical “balletto” calls out for elaborate machinery: ascents and descents to and from the celestial realms and down to Hell, rapid changes of scenery and costumes. The carefully crafted BEMF chamber version allowed us to concentrate on the delights of some fine music by a little-known composer, expertly performed.
Virginia Newes, who lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.