courtesy of Sony Music
This past Friday Sony Music released a new recording of La liberazione di Ruggiero, the only surviving stage work by Francesca Caccini, taken by many to be the oldest existing opera by a woman composer. A contemporary of Claudio Monteverdi, Caccini got her musical training from her father and served at the Medici court. She probably did not see any of the productions of Monteverdi’s operas, written for performance during the pre-Lenten carnival in Venice; but, as a well-educated woman serving an enlightened nobility, she was was most likely aware of Monteverdi’s activities and probably would have seen publications of his scores.
Ironically, La liberazione di Ruggiero may also be the first Italian opera to be performed outside Italy. Like Monteverdi’s operas, it was first performed at Carnival time on February 3, 1625; but the performance also celebrated a visit from Prince Władysław of Poland. The opera made a deep enough impression on the prince that it received a revival performance in Warsaw in 1628. One wonders whether Monteverdi knew about this revival and had any thoughts on the matter!
The full title of the opera is La liberazione di Ruggiero dall'isola d'Alcina (the liberation of Ruggiero from the island of Alcina); and it is probably also the first opera (or at least first surviving opera) to be based on Ludovico Ariosto’s Italian epic poem Orlando furioso (the frenzy of Orlando). This particular tale of Orlando’s knight Ruggiero and the sorceress Alcina is probably better known today through George Frideric Handel’s HWV 34 opera seria Alcina; but, with Carnival in mind, Caccini conceived her opera as a comedy in four scenes with an instrumental prologue. As one listens to the music, it is not difficult to imagine that Caccini was aware of what Monteverdi had been doing and decided to try her own hand at his techniques.
The performance on this new recording is by the Huelgas Ensemble led by Paul Van Nevel. The recording was made during a performance on January 28, 2016 at the St. Augustine Church in Antwerp (Belgium) as part of the series of historically informed performances organized by AMUZ. Van Nevel prepared his own score based on the original manuscript, drawing upon different instrumental colors to accompany each of the characters in the drama. This is also the first recording of the opera to reconstruct the instrumental dances that contributed to the Carnival spirit of the original performances. Thus, while there are the same extended recitative passages that one encounters in Monteverdi, Van Nevel’s performing edition does much to lead the attentive listener through the narrative without giving any impressions of tedium. The result is a recording of a historical composition conceived in a manner that will definitely appeal to contemporary attentive listeners.