Longborough Festival 2022 – Francesca Caccini’s La liberazione di Ruggiero & Freya Waley-Cohen’s Spell Book

Freya Waley-Cohen
Spell Book – Songs to a text by Rebecca Tamás [sung in English with English surtitles]

Francesca Caccini
La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina – Opera in a Prologue and four Scenes to a libretto by Ferdinando Saracinelli after an episode in Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso [sung to an arrangement by Yshani Perinpanayagam, in Italian with English surtitles]

Spell for Lilith / Spell for Logic – Sarah Richmond
Spell for Sex – Annabel Kennedy
Spell for Women’s Books – Nia Coleman
Spell for Joy – Keith Pun
Spell for Reality – Jessica Robinson

Alcina – Lauren Joyanne Morris
Bradamante / Melissa – Simone Ibbett-Brown
Ruggiero – Oskar McCarthy
Neptune – Joe Chalmers
River – Ruairi Bowen
First Lady – Nia Coleman
Second Lady – Annabel Kennedy
Third Lady – Sarah Richmond
Shepherd – Xavier Hetherington
Siren – Jessica Robinson
Plant / Monster – Aaron Holmes
Messenger – Keith Pun

CHROMA Ensemble
Yshani PerinpanayagamJenny Ogilvie – Director
April Dalton – Designer
Jake Wiltshire – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 28 July, 2022
Venue: Longborough Festival Opera, Longborough, Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire, England

Francesca Caccini’s La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina (1625) was the occasion for several firsts in operatic history – the first surviving opera written by a woman; after its premiere during the carnival season in Florence, it possibly became the first Italian opera to be performed outside of the peninsula of Italian states (in Poland in 1628); and it was the first of many settings based on stories from Ariosto’s celebrated epic Orlando furioso. Not insignificantly, it may also have been the earliest opera to include a metatheatrical element in its choreography in that, for the final scene where Alcina’s former lovers are returned to their human forms, having been transformed by her into plants, the audience were invited to look out of the windows of the theatre to view the horse ballet that comprised its finale.

As a court masque in form, it is ostensibly a didactic work: although written as part of the entertainments for the visit of the Polish Crown Prince Ladislaus (later IV) it was also connected with the engagement of Grand Duchess Maria Maddalena, daughter of Caccini’s patron the Archduchess Maria Maddelena and her husband Cosmo II de’ Medici. After Neptune calls upon other water deities and the River Vistula to praise the royal guest at the Florentine court, the main part of the work tells the story of Alcina and Ruggiero as a lesson in conjugal devotion and fidelity. In reality the drama makes very little apology for its vivid exploration of Alcina’s unfettered sexual character and motivations, and Ruggiero’s infatuation with her. Fascinatingly, composed as it was within one generation of the very first operas – which tended to set high-minded Classical myths, especially the Orpheus legend, such as Francesca’s father, Giulio’s own Euridice (1600) as well as Monteverdi’s famous Orfeo (1607) – La liberazione already ironically reverses, even subverts, the expectations which had been laid down for the new form of opera. 

Instead of treating ancient myth, it adapts an episode from a recent, fantastical literary epic, purporting to deal more with human than heroic characters; the drama revolves around a story not of wholesome, married love (even if tragic, as between Orpheus and Euridice) but of Ruggiero’s hedonistic passion for the enchantress Alcina, having been duped to forget his wife Bradamante; the plot turns on a dramatically arresting episode with the appearance of a messenger which radically alters the course of events (in the case of Orpheus, announcing the death of Euridice, in Alcina’s, to tell her that Ruggiero has escaped her clutches once and for all); the pastoral lyrics of many operas, lauding the beauties of nature, contrast with the unnaturalness of Alcina’s spells which have transformed her lovers into plants; or the depth of Orpheus’s sincere love being proved by his descent to the Underworld to reclaim Euridice, compared with the ostensible paradise of Ruggiero’s self-indulgence with Alcina on her island of false pleasures. The ironically theological overtones of some aspects of the libretto – Ruggiero addressing Alcina in terms more redolent of a liturgical devotion to the Virgin Mary, and the release of her captive ex-lovers, like souls in purgatory, to freedom and salvation – also cannot have been lost on its first audiences in Counter-Reformation Catholic Italy.

What could all too easily have been a trite Love Island type of scenario fortunately avoids that temptation. Just as the opera was originally written in prospect of a marriage (and the entire genre of opera grew out of the looser series of entertainments that were mounted for aristocratic wedding ceremonies in Renaissance Tuscany) so Jenny Ogilvie’s colourfully dynamic production sets its framing prologue and epilogue as the wedding celebrations of Ruggiero and Bradamante, set around the 1970s, with Neptune as something like the best man or master of ceremonies. Instead of the concluding balletto a cavallo, a crooner ballad is substituted as part of the festivities. Tellingly the wedding guests become Alcina’s victims in the intervening drama as the transmogrified plants, and the actor who plays the silent part of Ruggiero’s wife, Bradamante, turns out to be the singer for Melissa, the conscientious sorceress who warns Ruggiero of the danger of remaining on the island. Alcina’s realm is a sickly pink, hemmed-in cell without natural light, dominated by a leering picture of her, recumbent amongst various exotic plants, like one of Henri Rousseau’s jungle paintings, particularly the fierce creature in Surprised! Tiger in a Tropical Storm. Melissa’s appearance there in a bright red suit strikes a potently discordant visual note against the set’s pink backdrop: just as the collision of any two notes nearest to each other in the Western musical scale as a semitone causes the most unstable harmonic clash, so the discrepancy between those two near colours on the spectrum symbolises the contradictory types of amorous attraction that Alcina and Bradamante represent for Ruggiero which must be resolved exclusively in favour of one or the other.

The highly accomplished young singers of Longborough’s Emerging Artists programme capture both the rhetorical urgency of the score and its more lyrical passages, above all Lauren Joyanne Morris as Alcina, in her long soliloquy when she learns that Ruggiero is to escape. She brings intensity and allure to the role, in contrast to which Simone Ibbett-Brown’s Melissa is the glowing, warm-hearted voice of reassurance as she calls Ruggiero back to his senses. Oskar McCarthy is the calmly besotted knight, whilst Xavier Hetherington expresses a controlled ardour as the Shepherd who sings of his happy, simpler love. Keith Pun cuts through the cloying enchantments with his crisply focused countertenor voice as the Messenger, whilst Jessica Robinson sings the very physically present role of the Siren with unworldly clarity. Joe Chalmers commands attention as Neptune in the opening and closing sections of the work.

In CHROMA Ensemble’s performance of Yshani Perinpanayagam’s arrangement of the music, modern string instruments create a dramatic range of colours. Despite some spicy realisations of the chords implied by the continuo accompaniment, the harpsichord’s unequal temperament creates a more deliciously weird counterpoint to that, subtly destabilising the apparently consonant, modern tonal harmony of the strings’ support. Piano takes the place of the harpsichord to create a more forceful musical enactment of the fight which occurs on stage between Alcina (now disempowered in a drab grey pyjama suit) and Melissa. The flute predominates as the woodwind sonority in this version of the score, providing an ethereal (and not necessarily more innocent) contrast with the more curdled sonority of the clarinet in the Spell Book which had preceded this. Lack of brass takes away that quintessentially solemn aura of seventeenth-century vocal and choral music, but as the production unflinchingly and unashamedly concentrates on the human dimension of the drama, the omission of any sonic gravity hardly registers as a deficiency.

The premiere of the complete two parts of Freya Waley-Cohen’s song cycle Spell Book in this staged form proves to be a rewarding, complementary preface to La liberazione di Ruggiero. It is cast (if the pun will be forgiven) as a sequence of six ‘Spells’, enacting a series of incantations of female power and agency, transgressing traditional expectations of women’s social roles and behaviour, and in this double bill serves to make up for the absence of any actual spells meted out by Alcina in the succeeding opera. Although they invoke various Scriptural imagery (principally from the Jewish Bible, or what Christians refer to as the ‘Old’ Testament) these spells are also as much exorcisms, perhaps, of the classic tenets of organised Judaeo-Christian religion traditionally used to hold women in subservience to patriarchal codes. The first section, however, gives voice to the Jewish folkloric figure of Lilith – the alternative first woman who willingly assumed the role of a demon, as opposed to the orthodoxly archetypal figure of Eve in her penitent submission after the Fall in Eden. Although Rebecca Tamás’s text is not newly written, the reference to “reproductive injustice” is alarmingly prophetic of the recent curtailing of abortion rights in the American Supreme Court’s ruling on the Roe v. Wade case.

In part, Ogilvie’s production picks up the reference to “cat shit vellum” in one of the spells, as some of the staging sees phrases from the text written upon broad sheets of canvas to drive home their ritualistic purpose. The elusive concatenation of images – if seemingly fragmented and disconnected, and often apparently absurd in themselves – evokes the high Modernism of T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. Or, as a sequence of songs with an overall narrative that readily lends itself to staging (even if not originally intended for that by the composer) it also recalls Pierrot lunaire, that masterpiece of musical Modernism. It is the sun, rather than the moon, however, which takes centre stage in the ecstatic Bacchanalia of the ‘Spell for Joy’ at the climax. Interestingly, those revels are heralded by a male soprano singer – that is, a man taking on female vocal characteristics, amidst the frenzied gyrations of the group of women, like Maenads, around him.

If less systematic in its musical vocabulary and style than Schoenberg’s score, Waley-Cohen’s setting is nevertheless as astringent and highly charged, especially in this alert performance by CHROMA Ensemble under Perinpanayagam’s detailed conducting. The strings are often wiry and tense, contrasting with Stuart King’s expertly versatile rendition of the clarinet, with its eerie swooning on the one hand, and shrieking excitability on the other. The singers all demonstrate searing virtuosity in this often desperate or panicked music, particularly Sarah Richmond as the voice of Lilith, who convincingly executes various gasps, cries, shouts and sighs which transcend ordinary musical discourse, around the razor-sharp precision of her more conventionally sung, if angular, passages. Although acted on stage by Emily Ling Williams, it makes no different that the ‘Spell for Sex’ is delievered with haunting mystery by Annabel Kennedy from the pit, stepping in for an indisposed singer. Pun channels a chaste but electrifyingly pure shaft of sound as the manifestation of joy, following which Robinson brings the cycle back down into line with something like normality – or at least repose or exhaustion – in the concluding ‘Spell for Reality’ with steady and calm vocal force.

Although divided in time by four hundred years, the two compositions in this double bill highlight and relate to each other in stimulating ways, even as they often also shun immediate accessibility or inciting mere entertainment. Instead they surely excite surprise, and disrupt expectations, exactly as drama should. In the case of La liberazione di Ruggiero, just as Gluck reformed the structures of eighteenth-century serious opera (not least in his Orpheus-themed opera), and Mozart turned upside down the conventions of opera buffa in Cosi fan tutte, Caccini’s little-known work is a landmark in musical history which all those who care about opera should consider. On disc its masque-like structure can seem stilted or artificial, and its musical expression less directly intense than Monteverdi’s contemporaneous operas. But this performance also demonstrates to audiences more generally that the work can be wrested from historical curiosity and transformed into vital musical drama, capable of reinterpreting Baroque formalities to address our modern preoccupations and provoke our sensibilities anew.

Further performances to August 2

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