LA LIBERAZIONE DI RUGGIERO DALL’ISOLA D’ALCINA
Commedia in musica: Prologue and 4 scenes
Composer: Francesca Caccini
Libretto: Ferdinando Saracinelli, based on Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso
First performed: Villa di Poggio Imperiale, Florence, 3 February 1625
Here’s the first opera composed by a woman, and (possibly) the first opera to be performed outside Italy.
Caccini, nicknamed “La Cecchina” (“Songbird”), came from a musical family; a virtuosa singer, she appeared in her father Giulio Caccini and Jacopo Peri’s Euridice (1600), the earliest surviving opera.
Caccini, the highest paid musician in the Medici court in the 1620s, was a talented woman. She played the guitar, lute, harp, theorbo, and keyboard; taught singing, instrumental performance, and composition; wrote poetry in Italian and Latin; and was a friend of scientists and thinkers like Galileo.
Ruggiero is her only surviving opera. Commissioned by Maria Magdalena of Austria, Florence’s Regent Archduchess, it’s very much from the time when opera was in its infancy: a sung drama served up as a courtly entertainment, with plenty of spectacle to amuse royalty.
The wicked enchantress Alcina has enthralled the knight Ruggiero, so the good sorceress Melissa rescues him.
The enchantresses ride on dolphins, boats of whalebone that turn into winged sea monsters, and chariots pulled by centaurs. There are sirens, enchanted plants, choruses of monsters (singing very unmonsterishly), and a ballet on horseback.
The style is rather like Monteverdi’s, whose Orfeo (1607) appeared less than 20 years earlier. It’s largely arioso, with the occasional trio. There’s some lovely vocal writing, such as the trio of damsels or the siren’s song, but it’s emotionally low key, and lacks drama and variety.
The opera was composed for the visit of Polish prince Wladislas Sigismund to Florence at Carnival time, and celebrates his victory over the Turks. It was revived in 1628.
Dorota Lachowicz (Melissa), Leszek Swidzinski (Ruggiero), and Agnieszka Kurowska (Alcina), with the Warsaw Chamber Opera orchestra and chorus conducted by Wladyslaw Klosiewicz. Warsaw, 1996.