Tuesday 10 November 2015

La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d'Alcina

Nick Pritchard, Denis Lakey, Ensemble - La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d'Alcina - BREMF - photo Robert Piwko
Ruggiero, Melissa & Alcina's monster - Nick Pritchard, Denis Lakey, Ensemble
La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d'Alcina - BREMF - photo Robert Piwko
Francesca Caccini La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d'Alcina; Anna Devin, Nick Pritchard, Denis Lakey, dir: Susannah Waters, cond: Deborah Roberts; Brighton Early Music Festival at the Old Market, Hove
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 8 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Wit and imagination in this delightful revival of Francesca Caccini's only surviving opera

Francesca Caccini was the daughter of the Florentine composer Giulio Caccini, she received a fine musical training and rose to being the highest paid musician at the Medici Court in Florence. She wrote around 16 dramatic musical works of which only one survives, La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d'Alcina As part of their focus on women in Early Music, BREMF staged Francesca Caccini's opera at The Old Market in Hove. We caught the performance on Sunday 8 November 2015. Directed by Susannah Waters and designed by Ellan Parry, the performance included Anna Devin as Alcina, Denis Lakey as Melissa and Nick Pritchard as Ruggiero, with Hannah Ely, Cally Youdell, Camilla Harris, Roberta Diamond, Nancy Cole, Bethany Horak-Hallett, James Way, Josh Cooter, William Bouvel and Andrew Robinson. Deborah Roberts conducted The Liberation Singers and The BREMF Renaissance Players.

Anna Devin, Nick Pritchard - La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d'Alcina - BREMF - photo Robert Piwko
Anna Devin, Nick Pritchard - photo Robert Piwko
First performed in 1625 for the visit of the crown prince of Poland to Florence where his aunt, Maria Maddalena of Austria, was Archduchess of Florence, La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d'Alcina was described as a commedia in musica and performed, not in a theatre but in the loggia of the Villa Poggio Imperiale. It finished with dances involving members of the court and a horse ballet! The plot is based on Ariosto's Orlando Furioso but with a few changes. So that in Francesca Caccini's opera, Ruggiero (Nick Pritchard) has been seduced by the sorceress Alcina (Anna Devin) and his held captive on her island, surrounded by Alcina's young ladies. The sorceress Melissa (Denis Lakey) arrives to rescue Ruggiero which Melissa does disguised as the god Atlante (Atlas). Alcina's former lovers and their wives have been transformed into plants, and these are freed too. The whole has a prologue with Neptune dedicating the opera to the noble Prince who was the Medici's guest.

The production was set on Brighton beach in the early 20th century, and this became the seductive world which has captured Ruggiero, and Alcina and her 'young ladies' are clearly exotic and probably rather louche and used to entertaining young men. The whole production had a delightful, light tone which perfectly in keeping with the comic nature of the original opera. A depiction of the fun-fair formed the backdrop, and Alcina and her young ladies made their entrances and exits through the door of a bathing machine, even the band was costumed. The 'surtitles' were on boards held up by members of the cast and evoked the early silent films, but with a wry sense of humour in their language.

Nick Pritchard, Denis Lakey, Ensemble - La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d'Alcina - BREMF - photo Robert Piwko
Ruggiero, Atlante & the singing plants
Nick Pritchard, Denis Lakey, Ensemble
photo Robert Piwko
Francesca Caccini's opera survived because it was published (just five years after the first printed opera in Italy), but details of the composer's full scoring have not been preserved so that the work was performed in an edition by Deborah Roberts using an instrumental ensemble (led by Oliver Webber) of three violins, bass violin, viol, violone, four sackbuts, lirone, chitarrone, harp, harpsichord and organ. The ensemble of soloists was supplemented with the Liberation Singers and ensemble of eight amateur singers.

Caccini set the piece in the sort of fluid arioso-like recitative which is familiar from the work of Monteverdi, and certainly evoked memories of the operas of Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini (some of the first operas to survive). To this, she added series of delightful madrigal-like ensembles showcasing the talents of Alcina's young ladies. Sexuality is important in the opera, Alcina is highly sexual and evil, whilst Melissa is sexually ambiguous and good. Melissa appears in the opera as both man and woman. BREMF took this one step further, and had Melissa played by the counter-tenor Denis Lakey which brought a slight hint of end of the pier.

The most notable thing about the performance was that it wore its learning lightly, it was great fun whilst preserving the essence of Francesca Caccini's music. The production, though light-hearted, never sent things up. Also, the entire cast were admirable in the naturally expressive and flexible way that they sang the arioso/recitative. This style of music requires the performer to be alert to all the nuances in the music and text, and if badly done can easily turn boring; something which certainly did not happen at BREMF's performance.

Nick Pritchard, Ensemble - La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d'Alcina - BREMF - photo Robert Piwko
Ruggiero and the Singing Plants
Nick Pritchard, Ensemble - photo Robert Piwko
Anna Devin was a devastatingly sexy Alcina, very much in 'wicked lady' mode and her rage when Ruggiero escaped was highly effective. She sang with quite strong, vibrant tones but all the time keeping the details of the vocal line, so that this was certainly no milk-and-water portrayal. Nick Pritchard as Ruggiero was required to be mainly passive, even his escape is masterminded by someone else. Pritchard did so wonderfully and with a sly hint of humour, but using the great beauty of his voice to fine effect. The two duetted finely in the more erotic opening scenes.

That Denis Lakey did not quite steal the show as Melissa indicates the strength of the performances from the rest of the cast, but he could quite easily have done so. He looked stunning as Melissa and hilarious in 'her' male form of Atlas (here and end of the pier strong man), all done with a lovely sense of humour. Melissa is meant to make her entrance on a dolphin, something solved by having Lakey appear from the auditorium carrying a large inflatable dolphin!

Alcina's former lover and their wives have all been turned into singing plants, her designer Ellan Parry used wit and imagination , and when Ruggiero has escaped, Alcina returns accompanied by monsters, in this case the ensemble turned the bathing machine into one huge monster.

La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d'Alcina - BREMF - photo Robert Piwko
The finale - La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d'Alcina - BREMF - photo Robert Piwko
Caccini's writing was highly fluid providing short spotlit solo moments for many of the ensemble. Andrew Robinson started things off as the god Neptune, Josh Cooter was a water deity who live in the sea, as did Hannay Ely's siren.  Cally Youdell was nicely pert in her solo describing to Alcina, with much embroidered detail, Melissa's first appearance to Ruggiero. And of course, Alcina's former lovers and their wives were all singing plants with William Bouvel as Astolfo one of her exes. James Way was a sailor caught in Alcina's trap too.

The instrumental accompaniment was finely judged (there is no pit in the theatre) with many of the scenes simply a voice accompanied by a few instruments in highly subtle ensemble. All was presided over in masterly way by Deborah Roberts.

I have no idea what the first audience in 1625 thought of the opera, but it was enough of a success that it was revived in Warsaw in 1628 and of course published, so we presume that Francesca Caccini's patron Maria Maddalena and her Polish nephew were amused. Certainly we were, coming out of the theatre smiling, as well as admiring the skill of the singers and musicians.

The opera was going to be recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast, so look out.

Other BREMF reviews on Planet Hugill:

Lucrezia Borgia's Daughter - Musica Secreta, Celestial Sirens, Brighton Festival Youth Choir
Vision: The Imagined Testimony of Hildegard von Bingen - Niamh Cusack, The Telling, Celestial Sirens
Convent, Court and Salon - the BREMF Consort, Deborah Roberts, Clare Wilkinson, Claire Wiliams, Alex McCartney

Handel's Acis and Galatea - the BREMF Singers and Players, John Hancorn, Catrin Woodruff, Benedict Hymas, Giles Underwood

Elsewhere on this blog:

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