What’s in the first opera composed by a woman? ‘Absolutely fantastic ideas.’
This weekend, the Boston Early Music Festival presents Francesca Caccini’s “La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina,” the latest in its annual series of chamber operas. First performed in 1625, it is known as the first opera to have been composed by a woman. Yet in talking about the piece with Stephen Stubbs, co-artistic director of BEMF and co-music director of the performances, there was no sense that the production was being undertaken just for the sake of checking off a box.
“I’ve done this piece once professionally and several times with students over the years, maybe five times altogether,” Stubbs said by phone during a rehearsal break. If he’d simply wanted to be able to say he’d performed the first opera by a woman, “I would have done it once with some students and then said OK, that’s that. I keep coming back to it because I think it’s an extremely strong piece, one of the strongest of the early 17th-century operas.”
In addition to its own artistic strengths, “Alcina” opens a window onto a particularly fecund time in the arts. Caccini, whose father was a famous voice teacher, was perhaps the most renowned singer of her era. She lived in Florence, which Stubbs called “the epicenter of everything that led to the creation of opera.” In fact, she was present at the literal birth of the art form: The oldest surviving opera is Jacopo Peri’s “Euridice” (1600), the work with which Caccini made her professional debut, at age 13. She also sang the title role in “L’Arianna,” Monteverdi’s now lost opera, the only fragment of which survives is a lament, which Caccini quotes in “Alcina.”
“She was extremely aware of the developments going on around her,” Stubbs said. He added that he and Paul O’Dette, BEMF’s other artistic director, are both aficionados of early 17th-century operas. Working on “Alcina,” they constantly discovered echoes of other works from the period. “We’re finding, in other words, [that] she was a professional who knew all the tricks of the trade. And she threw in the kitchen sink in this piece, which is why it’s so full of absolutely fantastic ideas.”
Caccini wrote the role of Alcina for herself to sing. She is a sorceress who seduces every knight who comes to her island, but then loses interest in them and turns them into plants. The magician Melissa comes to the island to free her latest prey, the knight Ruggiero, who has assured Alcina of his love. But Melissa convinces Ruggiero that he ought to be fulfilling his destiny as a knight in glorious battle. As he leaves, Alcina becomes first despondent at being deserted, and then enraged at Ruggiero’s betrayal. As Stubbs put it, “all hell breaks loose” as the island is set afire and the captive knights are turned into monsters.
Stubbs credits Caccini with particularly innovative writing during the “chorus of monsters,” in which the singing takes on a grotesque tone. Yet the real innovation of the piece lies in the trajectory that Alcina’s character follows. “She goes from seductress to abandoned woman to all-powerful, vengeance-raking sorceress,” he explained. “There’s no place in Monteverdi that has a female trajectory of that scope.
“I would go so far as to say that by creating this substantial female heroine, she sets the pattern for this powerful and slightly dangerous central female character,” he continued. “And that has a really long shadow in operatic history,” one that perhaps reaches as far the mad scene in “Lucia di Lammermoor.”
Caccini’s originality is all the more striking when you consider that this historical moment sees what Stubbs calls “the emergence of the professional woman. Until then, your career choices as a woman were wife or nun.” Beginning in the late 16th century, though, women’s voices and acting skills made them prized members of commedia dell’arte troupes. By the time of “Alcina,” Caccini was “the most decorated performer and composer in the Medici court,” Stubbs said. “This is the most public a woman could be about her talents. In that way, I would say that she’s the tip of the spear . . . part of the emerging echelon of professional woman artists.”
In terms of BEMF itself, “Alcina” deepens the tradition, begun in 2008, of mounting chamber opera productions in Jordan Hall on the weekend after Thanksgiving. Not only did it establish that there was a ready audience during what was previously thought to be a cultural dead zone; it helped keep active the operatic impulse in between the grand productions during the biennial festivals themselves.
“By doing only big productions every two years, it was kind of like having to get a whole company up and running again from scratch again,” Stubbs said. “But by having this smaller-scale thing every year, it keeps the motor oiled, and it keeps us in action as a company. I think that’s been very good for us.”
Presented by Boston Early Music Festival. At Jordan Hall, Nov. 24-25. Tickets $25-125. 617-661-1812, www.bemf.org