Every year the Royal Irish Academy of Music (RIAM) can be trusted to pick delightful if little known or little performed operas that span the whole four centuries of opera’s history up to new or newly commissioned work to showcase the achievements of their students. The evident double draw of these events is the discovery of both new talent and ‘new’ operas.
This was the round of La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola di Alcina (1625), the first known opera to have been written by a woman, the Medici court musician Francesca Caccini. What stands out listening to this work for the first time is the discovery of another of the many semi-hidden gems that opera history keeps giving us. Within a musical style that is very reminiscent of Monteverdi (the so called ‘stile moderno’), Caccini has her own voice, weaving beautiful melodies, incisive recitatives and seductive ‘canzonette’, as alluring as her “Siren’s song”. The most interesting historical fact, to me, is that this is the first opera – of the many more to come – whose plot is taken from the Italian epic poem Orlando Furioso (1516-1532), the masterpiece of Ludovico Ariosto.
The reason why the episode of the sorceress Alcina and the knight Ruggiero has had endless appeal throughout the centuries has to be found in the perfect metaphor that the story provides for the common but, at the same time, mysterious experience of being in love: falling in (and out of) love is exactly like falling under (and out) of a magic spell. The exact same object of veneration can become, in a moment, source of contempt (“No more I burn of love, I burn with disdain”; “Annoying to my eyes more than death” says Ruggiero of Alcina).
Director Hélène Montague – with the students of The Lir National Academy of Dramatic Art for the set, costumes, lighting and make-up – put together a playfully modern version of the story with success. David Adams (at the harpsichord) conducted the students playing baroque instruments in an adaptation of the score, with the recorder solo of Daire O’Connell underlying nicely the ‘honeymoon’ phase of Ruggiero and Alcina. The singers generally rose to the challenge of baroque opera: if baroque style does not particularly strain the voice, it places an emphasis on the meaningful pronunciation of single words in the many recitatives.
Soprano Clodagh Kinsella was well cast as the beautiful Alcina, while Dylan Rooney displayed a promising baritone voice as Ruggiero. The authoritative role of Melissa would have ideally been taken by a contralto, but mezzo-soprano Aebh Kelly played her part well, especially in the scene where she brought Ruggiero ‘back to business’ from his enchanted state. To be noted, and contrary to what happens in opera in later centuries, that the ‘good woman’ (Melissa) is given here the low vocal range, while the evil sorceress is a soprano. Notwithstanding the explicit moralistic conclusion of the opera, which warns against the dangers of not controlling one’s own passions, for the whole opera it’s evil and error that have the sweetest sound (Alcina, the Siren).
A plethora of secondary roles left a strong impression, starting from Alcina’s Damsels and, in particular, soprano Caroline Behan. Megan O’Neill sang beautifully the most memorable aria of the opera, the – literally! – enchanting Siren’s song “Chi nel fior di giovinezza” (“Who, in the flower of youth”). Soprano Breffni Fitzpatrick was assured in the role of the Messenger, handling the recitatives very well both for phrasing and Italian pronunciation. Ava Dodd as the Formerly Enchanted Lady towards the end closed the opera with impact, together with the strong final chorus. Tenor Vladimir Sima, finally, was very expressive in the role of the Shepherd, showing an excellent control of the singing and superior ease with the Italian.
*Picture: Soprano Megan O’Neill. © Mark Stedman