|Colin Balzer, Kelsey Lauritano, and Shannon Mercer in Caccini's Alcina|
It was 1625 in the Grand Duchy of Florence and the Archduchess Maria Maddalena of Austria was Regent, following the death of her husband Cosimo II, one of the last of the Medici dynasty. How would she entertain her nephew, the visiting Crown Prince Vładysłav of Poland (to whom she hoped to marry off her daughter)?
Perhaps this powerful woman was a proto-feminist for she commissioned an opera from Francesca Caccini, the daughter of the well-known early Baroque composer Giulio Caccini, composer of "Amarilli mia bella" which was the first Italian art song we heard and with which we instantly fell in love.
The beautiful Francesca was a singer, composer, lutenist, music teacher, and poet; nonetheless, she chose as her librettist one Ferdinando Saracinelli. His libretto was, as so many other libretti were, derived from Ludovico Ariosto's epic poem Orlando Furioso. In this episode, the Christian knight Ruggiero must be rescued from the evil sorceress Alcina who seduces men and then transforms them into trees and plants.
You may, dear reader, be familiar with Händel's version, in which they are transformed into beasts. Ruggiero's beloved Bradamante, disguised as a man, comes to the island to rescue him, accompanied by Ruggiero's former tutor Melisso. The plot is very complicated.
In Saracinelli's rather simpler version, Bradamante has remained at home and Melisso is transmogrified into Melissa, a good magician whose power will triumph over Alcina's manipulations and evil spells. It is interesting that there was no role in this opera for a castrato and we wondered whether the gender transformation was instituted because there was a marvelous mezzo or contralto in the city-state of Florence.
In this Boston Early Music Festival production at the Morgan Library, there certainly was a marvelous mezzo in the person of Kelsey Lauritano, an impressive Juilliard-trained singer who relished the role and enhanced her expressive singing with gestures which seemed informed by the study of baroque dance. At one point in the story, she appeared in travesti as the wizard Atlante who was once Ruggiero's mentor. We noticed subtle variations in vocal coloration and body movement--a truly impressive performance.
As the eponymous evil sorceress we heard soprano Shannon Mercer who sang beautifully whether she was deceiving the knight with seductive promises, manipulating him with her tears, or snarling at him with rage. She certainly rose to the occasion by means of vocal coloration and facial expression, the over-the-top nature of which delighted us.
The role of Ruggiero, well sung by tenor Colin Balzer, was not nearly as interesting and we keep coming back to the fact that the commissioner of the work and the composer were both women!
Alcina's three henchwomen were particularly well sung and enacted by Sophie Michaux, Margot Rood, and Teresa Wakim. The men who portrayed the bewitched suitors were similarly excellent, as were their sweethearts who begged for their restoration, readily accomplished at the end of the opera by the lovely Melissa.
The story was bookended by a prologue and epilogue which must have served political purposes. The prologue comprised an homage to the visiting Polish crown prince and the epilogue praised the deceased Duke Ferdinand and the power of the Duchess Maria.
It didn't take too much reflection to realize the similarities with Wagner's Tannhaüser. A man must be rescued from the wiles of a dangerous and seductive woman! The epilogue also praised loyal loving Florentine wives.
We speculate further that the Thirty Years War occurring in Europe at that time might have required the glorification of the military and, indeed, Melissa urges Ruggiero to discard the trinkets bestowed upon him by Alcina and to pick up his sword and shield to restore his honor as a warrior.
Enough history and politics! Let us now praise the enchanting performances by the Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble, featuring concertmaster Robert Mealy. The parts we liked best were those in which the voice was accompanied solely by the continuo. The sound of the Baroque harp, theorbo, and lute pleased our ear and allowed us to hear more of the singer than when the tutti played.
The costuming by Anna Watkins added enormously to our pleasure and looked very much like Renaissance paintings, especially in the palette of colors. The men who had been converted into trees were costumed with particular creativity; leaves sprouted from their heads and hands.
Although the playing area was small, sharing the stage with the musicians, Stage Director Gilbert Blin utilized the aisles and the area below the stage for the dancing.
Choreography by Melinda Sullivan looked exactly the way we imagined it to look. It was evening of delights to both eye and ear. Let it be noted that Prince Vładisłav did not wed Maria's daughter. However, he must have loved the opera because he had it produced in Warsaw in 1628, making Francesca the first female composer to have an opera produced abroad!
(c) meche kroop