My Caccini Runneth Over

29/11/2018

The Morgan Library and Museum in partnership with the Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Opera Series – Francesca Caccini, La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall’Isola d’Alcina: Soloists, Boston Early Music Festival Vocal Ensemble, Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble (Robert Mealy [concertmaster]) / Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs (music directors), Gilder Lehrman Hall of the Morgan Library and Museum, New York City, 26.11.2018. (CP)

BEMF’s La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall’Isola d’Alcina (c) Kathy Wittman

Production:

Stage director – Gilbert Blin
Costume designer – Anna Watkins
Dance director – Melinda Sullivan
Executive producer – Kathleen Fay

Cast included:

Alcina – Shannon Mercer
Ruggiero – Colin Balzer
Melissa – Kelsey Lauritano

November and the Caccini family have been generous to New York Early Music fans. Just a few weeks ago, Rome-based Ensemble Ricercare Antico, featuring tenor Riccardo Pisani, performed the engaging Giulio Il Romano: A Concert for Caccini at the exquisite Library of the House of the Redeemer, built in 1607, before some of the music on the program was composed. Produced by Salon/Sanctuary Concerts, that concert commemorated the 400th anniversary of the death of Giulio Caccini. Then this week (November 26-27), the Boston Early Music Festival Vocal Ensemble and Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble delighted audiences at The Morgan Library and Museum’s Gilder Lehrman Hall with two performances of the opera Alcina, which was composed by Francesca Caccini, daughter of Giulio. It’s been an embarrassment of riches, to say the least.

La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall’Isola d’Alcina is one of the earliest operas ever composed and the first composed by a woman, in 1625. Francesca Caccini’s name is often uttered, with often a subtly patronizing tone, as an ‘important female composer’, but after this week’s performances audiences here know that she was an equal to her peer musical artists, male and female alike, and earns her rightful place in the same pantheon as her father, his fellow Florentines Jacopo Peri and Marco da Gagliano, his Venetian successor Claudio Monteverdi, and others. Indeed, the many comments that note her success despite the great oppression of her time reveal an ignorance of her time and place, a brief and shining moment in the late Renaissance when it was not uncommon for a woman born to the right parents to hold the reins/reigns in governance, arts, or letters.

Indeed, it was female leadership – the patronage of Grand Duchess Maria Magdalena and Christina of Lorraine – which made the Florentine work possible, just as Isabella d’Este patronized many artists in Mantua. The source from which the libretto derives, the touchstone epic poem Orlando Furioso of Ariosto, features the fearless female warrior Bradamante, who ventures forth to bravely rescue her beloved Ruggiero from the clutches of the temptress Alcina, with the two lovers will becoming the progenitors of the d’Este dynasty. No Bradamante appears in Ferdinando Saracinelli’s libretto, but we do get the noble and heroic sorceress named Melissa, who rescues the hapless Ruggiero from an Alcina character drawn with impressive dramatic depth. Although the Ariosto legend received treatment subsequently by Handel, Vivaldi, and others, it is Caccini’s version, with the battling sorceresses and passive hero which offers us a bracing picture of a moment in time when some women held actual, temporal authority.

The performance was semi-staged, with costumes but no stage set. The behind-the-scenes sorcerers (Gilbert Blin [stage director],Melinda Sullivan [choreographer] and Anna Watkins [lighting designer]) created an engaging physical presence for Caccini’s work, enhanced by lavish Renaissance-style costumes. That the superb musical performance outshined the staging I do not ascribe to any lacuna in the combined forces under the direction of BEMF co-Director Stephen Stubbs and Paul O’Dette. Rather, it was the concert hall itself, a less than ideal venue for such elaborate activity, which created one of the only few downsides to the evening. The performers in their expansive costumes often seemed overly mindful of not stepping on the skirts of their neighbours or accidentally catching a musician’s bow in their voluminous sleeves, and the dances seemed to want to grow beyond the barriers of the limited stage space and first row aisle to which they were confined.

The overall impression for me of the staging was of something not quite ready for prime time, which is a shame, because anyone familiar with the heights that the BEMF team can achieve knows that there is no need for this collection of notables to be painted with the same dread brush of amateurism that afflicts so many lesser attempts at period staging. This production needs to be in a space where all elements can breathe in order to do it justice and Gilder Lehrman Hall left me unconvinced. The Morgan Library and Museum is one of the more exquisite buildings in New York, and my seat was in close enough proximity to the stage to appreciate the quality of singing, instrumentation and stage direction, but I wonder if those qualities were apparent to audience members perched behind and above me in the stadium seating. Even from my close spot, not all the voices carried well. This observation is more a recognition of effect of space on Early Music and operatic performance than a criticism of the hall itself, which is often an ideal choice for straightforward opera recitals and chamber music performances.  If an appropriate space cannot be found in all of New York for whatever reason, is there really any shame in keeping these productions to Boston, where they can comfortably unfurl themselves on stages of adequate magnitude?

That said, the three leads would have excelled in a shoebox. Shannon Mercer’s Alcina boasted a wide dramatic range in her character’s arc from sensuous temptress to agonized crone, while the Melissa of Kelsey Lauritano commanded the stage with a heroic presence and lush burnished mezzo. That Mercer has already recorded a CD of Caccini’s songs (a collection which celebrate its 400th anniversary this year) comes as no surprise, as one hears in her voice the security with the style, ornamentation and text that separates a true baroque singer from the rest of the pack. That the Juilliard-trained Lauritano’s background is in conventional operatic singing of later periods does come as a surprise, as she seemed completely at home with declamatory style, gestural language, and restrained vibrato of the early baroque. It was a true delight to hear in these ladies, as well as in the leading man Colin Balzer, a well-husbanded (as it were) vibrato, which is an element that often goes missing when more operatic voices decide to dip their toes into this earlier repertoire. Balzer’s elegant vocalism served as an anchor to Melissa’s heroics and Alcina’s anguish.

The supporting female characters were well served by Sophie Michaux, Margot Rood, and Teresa Wakim, who all sang with bell-like tones and charming ease. The secondary male characters were less consistent, with some reedy timbres coming from a couple of the tenors, one a BEMF regular and the other a last-minute substitution doing his best given the circumstances. This only set off Ian Pomerantz’s plush bass-baritone to best advantage however, making him all the more of a standout in his too small role. We look forward to hearing more from him and hope BEMF has more to offer him in the future. The Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble was its usual excellent self. It was a particular pleasure to hear Stubbs and O’Dette lead from the lutes, and the biting sound of Erin Headley’s lirone underlining a dance of demons.

In the stunning Italian theaters and Florentine spaces where operas such as Alcina actually happened, assorted modern day Auteurs are allowed to do violence to the works, the spaces, and their own history by imposing so-called ‘post-modern’ productions of historicidal intent that betray a distrust of both the music and historical context. With that, I’ll close with a one-item wish list. Who among the audience at the Morgan Library (and I dare say Early Music fans everywhere) would not love to see and hear this Alcina performed in Florence where the composer, the artists and the audience first gave it life? Book the palazzo and I’ll be there!

Chris Petitt

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