|Nobuki Momma and Merav Eldan|
In a season devoted to works by women, Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble made an excellent choice in Francesca Caccini's 1625 opera La liberazione di Ruggiero dall'isola d'Alcina. The life of Donna Caccini would itself make a fascinating opera. As a child prodigy, she appeared onstage as a singer at the age of thirteen, accompanying herself on lute, theorbo, harp, and harpsichord! Hers was the first opera composed by a woman and the first to be performed outside of Italy.
She was born at the right time. Florence was under the rule of the Grand Duchess Maria Magdalena (a member of the Medici family) who commissioned an opera that would depict strong women. This opera filled the bill with two strong women battling for the soul of the warrior Ruggiero--the evil sorceress Alcina and the good magician Melissa. If this sounds familiar to you, dear reader, it is because Händel later wrote his opera simply called Alcina about the very same episode extracted from the epic poem Orlando Furioso. Caccini's librettist was Ferdinando Saracinelli.
We have no knowledge of performance styles of the early 17th century but what we heard last night delighted the ear. The gorgeous Baroque writing, reminiscent of that of contemporaries Claudio Monteverdi and Jacopo Peri, was performed by Music Director Charles Weaver, a star among Early Music performers, leading an ensemble of a half dozen Early Music specialists. There were three violins, a viola da gamba, a harpsichord, and two lutenists who doubled on theorbo.
The writing is interesting with male voices singing in sharp keys and female voices singing in flat keys. Of course, it is not necessary to know this to appreciate the sonic world produced by Caccini.
If the voices did not match the outstanding ones we heard last year at the Morgan Library, it does not take away from the pleasure we experienced in a second hearing of this rarely produced work. One would be hard put to match the Boston Early Music Ensemble which performs this type of work on a regular basis.
Still, it must have been a great experience for the young singers to gain experience in the Early Music style and most of them rose to the occasion. As is typical of the period, the Prologue is a separate entity to introduce the work--here a paean to the visiting Polish prince, a gracious tribute to his glory by the Medicis. The sea god Neptune (baritone Brian Alvarado) and the Polish river Vistula (soprano Robin Clifford) join with other water goddesses in the tribute. This episode is marked by gorgeous harmonic writing.
The story proper highlights the efforts of the good magician Melissa (Stephanie Feigenbaum) to rescue the knight Ruggiero--to get him back for his beloved but forgotten Bradamante (who doesn't appear in this opera but does in the Händel) and to continue fighting for fame in battle in Europe. For this task she disguises herself as his mentor Atlante.
Ruggiero (baritone Nobuki Momma) has been entranced by the devious witch Alcina (mezzo-soprano Merav Eldan) who makes it a habit of putting men under her spell and turning them into plants when she is through with them. Alcina is surrounded by a gaggle of girls faithful to her cause who sing of love in glorious harmony, just as glorious as the sea goddesses in the Prologue.
Also persuading Ruggiero about the glories of love are a shepherd (Christopher Fotis, a particularly mellow-voiced baritone) and a Siren (silver-voiced soprano Alessandra Altieri). Alcina's confidant Oreste (mezzo-soprano Micaëla Aldridge) has observed Melissa/Atlante convincing Ruggiero to cast aside Alcina's gifts and to return to his knightly duties. She tattles.
This leads to Alcina's "mad scene" in which blandishments turn to tears,rage, threats, and recriminations. Ruggiero stands firm. But before they can abandon Alcina's island, Melissa must free all the enchanted men and their sweethearts who have come looking for them. Among them is Ruggiero's friend Astolfo (tenor Tyler Dobies whom we so much admired two nights ago as Joseph Treat in Mrs. President, and as Le Comte Barigoule in Cendrillon).
Once freed from Alcina's spell, the monstrous reality of the formerly appealing inhabitants of the island becomes apparent and Melissa must do battle and conquer them. The moral of the story is that danger awaits those who do not rule their passions. Tuscan women are praised for their beauty and urged to take a lesson in constancy from those loyal liberated ladies.
Sarah Young's direction was astute and included some stunning and graceful choreography that contributed in a major way to the telling of the tale. Joo Hyun Kim's set design included long strands of vines surrounding the stage, lending a verdant atmosphere. Claire Townsend's costume design was long on imagination, if short on funds. We love to see an artist make much from little!
There is only one more performance Sunday afternoon; if you love Baroque music, we urge you to go. Whether or not you go, feel free to take a look at Brian E. Long's excellent photos on our Facebook page--Voce di Meche.
(c) meche kroop