Francesca Caccini’s La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall’Isola di Alcina, performed at the Medici court in Florence in 1625, is said to be the first opera composed by a female composer. To put it in context, this was less than 30 years after the first opera ever written (Jacopo Peri’s Dafne in 1597, although lost), which seems an astonishing feat for the time. Moreover, judging from the lively and eye-opening production by the Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF) – this year’s theme was Women in Music – the work surely deserves a place in the history of early Baroque opera regardless of the gender of the composer.

Anna Devin (Alcina) and Nick Pritchard (Ruggiero) © Robert Piwko
Anna Devin (Alcina) and Nick Pritchard (Ruggiero)
© Robert Piwko

So who was Francesca Caccini? Baroque music fans may have heard of her father Giulio Caccini, a singer and composer who was a member of the group of musicians and poets in Florence called Camerata that contributed to the birth of opera. Francesca, born in 1587, was his eldest child and was given a good education in literature, languages and philosophy, as well as a thorough musical education – not only did she sing professionally, but she was a accomplished performer on the harpsichord, lute, theorbo and harp. She became a court musician at the Medici court before she was 20, under the patronage of Medici regent Archduchess Cristina of Lorraine, and subsequently Archduchess Marie Maddalena of Austria. It is certain Francesca was able to have such a successful career because of this strong female culture at the court, and she composed hundreds of songs and 16 stage works (of which only La Liberazione di Ruggiero survives). It was at the villa of Archduchess Marie Maddalena where this opera (or “commedia in musica”) was first staged with invited guests of 160 ladies and their husbands.

© Robert Piwko
© Robert Piwko

The libretto (by Saracinelli) is based on the well-known section of Ariosto’s Orlando furioso: a warrior Ruggiero (tenor) is lured by the wicked sorceress Alcina (soprano) to a life of pleasure on her island, but eventually he is liberated by the good sorceress Melissa (disguised as the god Atlante – hence sung by a doubly cross-dressed countertenor!). Handel fans may recognize it as similar to the plot of Alcina, composed roughly 100 years later for the London stage. Apparently, at its première, La Liberazione di Ruggiero concluded outdoors with a horse ballet(!). Befitting of a court spectacle, there are plenty of supporting roles including Neptune, Alcina’s ladies, a Siren and even a chorus of plants!

The BREMF production set Alcina’s island on Brighton beach in the Edwardian era, with a retro bathing hut and a painted fairground on the backdrop. I don’t think by this relocation they were trying to re-interpret the plot in any meaningful way; rather, they were giving the mostly local audience some sense of familiarity to this unknown opera by setting it in their town and also by simplifying the plot to more or less an ordinary love-triangle. It was sung in Italian, but instead of digital surtitles, they had hand-held and handwritten surtitles (brilliantly operated by the singers) which gave witty summaries of the lyrics. The Edwardian seaside costumes were colourful and somwehat parodic, and the ensemble players contributed to the atmosphere with striped sailor shirts too.

Musically, the obvious reference point for Francesca Caccini’s work would be Monteverdi, 20 years her senior. This opera sits between his two popular operas Orfeo (1607) and L’incoronazione di Poppea (1646), which are almost the only two operas we are familiar with from this period. Stylistically this work is closer to Orfeo (which was also written for the court), with the narrative unfolding mainly by thorough-composed recitatives from the principal characters, but with some tuneful canzonettas from the Siren and the shepherd (here a sailor). The chorus of enchanted plants (who are Alcina’s former lovers) sing movingly, accompanied by the archaic sounds of four sackbuts, viol, lirone and organ.

Denis Lakey (Melissa) © Robert Piwko
Denis Lakey (Melissa)
© Robert Piwko

The three lead roles were excellently sung with a secure grasp of style: Anna Devin as the sensuous and fiery-tempered Alcina, Nick Pritchard as the rather weak-willed Ruggiero, and countertenor Denis Lakey as the liberator Melissa/Atlante. There were some lovely young and fresh voices taking the smaller roles such as Alcina’s ladies and the Siren, and as Neptune Andrew Robinson sang the prologue with impressive command of text. The music director Deborah Roberts, who also made an edition for this performance, conducted a fine group of leading early music specialists including violinist Oliver Webber and the excellent continuo team, who successfully created the distinctive early Baroque sonority in this small Brighton theatre. A final word – I attended the family-friendly performance with lots of children and was impressed by how receptive and involved they all were. Well done to BREMF for nurturing a keen public for Baroque music.