IN: Reviews

Seduction and Magic at the Mahaiwe


Colin Balzer and Mereille Lebel at Jordan Hall (Kathy Wittman photo)

After the completion of the 2023 Boston Early Music Festival in Boston proper, a welcome two welcome performances of the first opera written by a woman, Francesca Caccini’s Alcina, came as a runout to Great Barrington’s Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center June 23rd and 24th. The composer called it a balletto, implying the presence of dance, but genres were still developing at the time—1625, just a quarter-century after the first works that we call operas today—and BEMF sensibly designated it as a chamber opera.

As such, it fit nicely onto the modest stage of the Mahaiwe. Though the straightforwardness of the set was a far cry from the Medici villa of Poggio Imperiale, nonetheless it accommodated the space well, both for the performers and the audience, which likely numbered rather more than the Medici guests included.

Without the elaborate settings of the early Baroque style, the production limited itself to a simple curtain at the rear, marking off the backstage area and slit at the middle to allow exits and entrances. In front of it, the only “stage set” consisted of the 12 members of the orchestra, divided into two groups that functioned in their physical locations rather like Baroque fountains or groups of statues, left and right. Interestingly, the two groups sat in sections that suggested the more “modern” instruments of the violin family (which were becoming more and more standardized), on audience’s left along with concertmaster Robert Mealy, while the older instruments that would gradually fade away in the next century and a half (gambas, Baroque harp, harpsichord, and instruments of the lute family) to the audience’s left.

This placement of the instruments allowed the singers to enter from the back, left, center, and right, or to move and dance in a figure eight pattern if desired. Melinda Sullivan coordinated patterns of stage movement and the formal dancing that occurred in various places.

The singers’ costumes suggested more closely the kind of clothing that would have been used for stage actors, with colorful robes and selected jewels or necklaces, and weapons, though still rather simpler than might have been created in the 17th century. One group of singers appeared cleverly made up to resemble the victims of Alcina’s magic, having been turned into plants and trees—men formerly seduced by her magic charms, but whom she has tired of, and their sweethearts bereft at their transmutation. Green twigs and leaves attached to the costumes presented the vegetable inhabitants of Alcina’s island; their quick removal when her magic spells were broken happily restored them quickly to the human race for the denouement.

The plot of the opera—its formal title was La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina (The liberation of Roger from the island of Alcina) was adapted by Ferdinando Saracinelli (d. 1640) from the most popular book of the Renaissance, Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlaando furioso. Written a full century before the opera, Ariosto’s epic tale deals in general with the struggle of European Christendom against the attacks of the Islamic world. The armies of Charlemagne and his followers a half-millennium earlier, formed the basic element, though Ariosto wove hundreds of characters, historical and legendary, into elaborately intertwined stories that evoke love and martial arms. The knight Ruggiero was the legendary founder of the Este family of Ferrara; with this tale Ariosto was paying tribute to his patrons and the city of his birth.

The plot is simple (and Saracinelli made it still simpler, in some ways, from the original poem. Alcina has been captivated by the brave and handsome knight, whom she draws into her love-net by magic, causing him to forget that he is betrothed to Bradamante, a female warrior, and committed to war, not love with another woman. He is saved from this fate by the good sorceress Melissa, who disguises herself as Ruggiero’s mentor, the wizard Atlante. In this way he reminds Ruggiero of the responsibilities in the wars being fought. He recovers his memory; Alcina pleads with him not to abandon her, but he is forthright. Before parting, Melissa turns all of those who had been turned into trees and plants back into their human form.

Francesca Caccini (1587-ca. 1641) belonged to a remarkable member of a remarkable musical family; her father was the significant composer and singer Giulio Caccini (who was no doubt responsible for her vocal training). Other singers in her family included her sister, her husband, and her children. She made her first professional appearance at the age of 13 in the opera Euridice mostly by Jacopo Peri, though Giulio Caccini insisted on writing the music that his daughter would sing. Francesca became a highly regarded singer and a prolific composer. Of the several theatrical works she is known to have written, only Alcina survives. Francesca herself sang the role of Alcina.

Having grown up in the very heart of the world in which opera emerged as a new musical genre, Francesca certainly also knew the operatic work of her father’s Florentine colleagues Peri and Cavalieri, and she most likely had opportunities to hear the earliest operas of the greatest master of the early opera, Claudio Monteverdi. The music of Alcina bears some elements that seem to have been learned for Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607), including strophic areas for lyrical grace as well as the parlando manner of “speaking” crucially significant lines to make them dramatically expressive. And the presence of choral passages and sections of dance also recall Monteverdi’s manner of enriching the variety and expressive quality of the musical content.

Three singers carried the main roles with well differentiated vocal color and dramatic style. Mereille Lebel was assertive and brilliant in her representation of the evil sorceress, and intense in her useless pleas to Ruggiero to remain with her. Cecilia Duarte’s Melissa offered a strong sense of masculinity when she took on battle gear for her first encounter with Ruggiero. Her voice rose effectively when she reappears as a woman, producing an effective contrast with both Alcina and Ruggiero. Colin Balzer’s firm tenor made the heroic tone of his liberation palpable. The members of the chorus took small individual parts at various points of the opera, and also sang and danced effectively as groups of characters.

At the period of the debut, it was common—indeed required—to establish a purpose for the event, in the form of a prologue hailing the reigning monarch or an important international visitor. In this instance the opera hailed the prince of Poland, who was in Florence for a possible marital alliance with the Medici princess. To that end, the prologue paid tribute to him and his country. It has nothing to do with the opera except political connections (which did not, in the end, take place). The fulsome program festival booklet clearly explained this. But in the single sheet handed out at the Mahaiwe, the explanation of prologue was lacking, other than a brief summary of the text; this this omission robbed it of its relevance.

Since an epilogue of dancing seemed wanted for the close, Melinda Sullivan chose to employ the “Grand Duke’s ballo” from the 1588 wedding of Ferdinando de Medici and the French princess Christine of Lorraine, a dance that survives not only in the music by Emilio de’ Cavalieri, but also contained a notation of the choreography, which Sullivan shaped to the original music from 1588 to bring a festive conclusion.

Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

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