Francesca Caccini, La liberazione di Ruggiero

La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’ isola d’Alcina
Music : Francesca Caccini 1587 – after 1640
Libretto : Ferdinando Saracinelli 1583 – 1640
1. The circumstances
Florence, early February 1625.  The Medici court is preparing for some grand festivities on the occasion of the state visit by the crown prince of Poland, Wladislaw Sigismund. The highlight of the visit is the performance of the commedia in musica   “La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina”, an opera specially written for the occasion and commissioned by the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, Maria Magdalena of Austria, who married Cosimo de’ Medici (1590-1621) in 1608. The libretto of this “Balletto” (as it is described on the front page of the score) is the work of Ferdinando Saracinelli, the superintendant of performancesat the Medici court.  The music is by the court composer Francesca Caccini, who thus became the first female opera composer in history. The première took place on 3 February in the Villa di Poggio Imperiale. The work made an overwhelming impression on the Polish crown prince, and the opera was given its Polish première in Warsaw in 1628.

2. The libretto
In writing the libretto, Saracinelli chose as his main source the romance epic “Orlando Furioso” by Lodovico Ariosto (1474-1533), but also integrated into it details from “Orlando Innamorato” by Matteo Maria Boiardo (1441-1494) and from “Gerusalemme Liberata” van  Torquato Tasso (1544-1595).  
The libretto consists of a prologue and four scenes (scenae). In the prologue Neptune calls upon the water gods of the Polish river Vistula to strike up a song in honour of Wladislaw Sigismund and the Tuscan princes. In the first scene the good sorceress Melissa rides on the back of a dolphin to the island where the Saracen warrior Ruggiero has been bewitched and seduced by the wicked sorceress Alcina.Melissa has been sent by Ruggiero’s lover, Bradamante. Melissa disguises herself as Atlas, Ruggiero’s protector.  In the second scene Melissa releases Alcina’s former lovers (and their former mistresses) from the spells cast on them, which turned them into trees and plants. Melissa exploits Alcina’s absence to convince Ruggiero to flee with her. Alcina discovers the plot, and after some vain seduction attempts and entreaties, she leaves the island in a rage. In the third scene the sea is set ablaze by Alcina’s wrath. She realizes that Melissa’s magic powers are stronger than hers. Accompanied by a choir of monsters who are out for revenge, she leaves the coast on the back of a winged sea monster. In the fourth scene Melissa warns against unruly passions, after which a party with song and dance in honour of the Grand Duchess may begin. The final dance is a “balletto  a cavallo”, which was performed on the lawn in front of the castle by the liberated knights on horseback.
Saracinelli’s libretto is full of references to political situations both local and international. So the wicked Alcina of course represented the Turks who had been defeated by the Christian Polish army. The good fairy was the Grand Duchess herself, who hoped in this way to polish up her tarnished reputation as an over-arrogant ruler. And last but not least : the Grand Duchess was attempting by means of this opera to bind her daughter to the Polish crown prince.

3. The music
Court composer Francesca Caccini’s score is one continuous dazzling alternation between gripping recitatives, each with a different accompaniment, the most melodious arias which disclose a subtle female touch, vivid choral interludes (canzonettas and madrigals) in constantly altering formations (court ladies, demons, bewitched trees, liberated knights, the final madrigal) and colourful instrumental  sinfonias, ritornelli and intermezzi. In terms of tonality the work is meticulously structured, with each solo role being in the same key, but not always the same mode.  And finally, the didascaliae (production notes)contain several indications concerning instrumentation that leave no doubt whatever about possible colourful ways of interpreting the basso continuo.
All of which makes this well-nigh unknown opera a prominent milestone in Italian music of the first half of the 17th century.
                                                                                                              Paul Van Nevel
                                                                                                              translation: Robert Coupe

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