For its annual Thanksgiving weekend chamber opera, Boston Early Music Festival this year presented a piece forged in the crucible of opera: Francesca Caccini’s 1625 “La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina” (The liberation of Ruggiero from Alcina’s island). The production was helmed by the festival’s power trio of stage director Gilbert Blin with music directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs.
The Oxford English Dictionary records the first English-language use of the word “opera” in 1648, two decades after “Alcina.” Opera was not born fully formed like Athena from Zeus’s head, and Caccini (1587-after 1641) grew up in the thick of it. As a young teenager, she sang in the premiere of what is said to be the earliest surviving opera, Jacopo Peri’s “Euridice,” and a few years later, she worked as a court singer for the king of France. Her father was the prolific composer Giulio Caccini, and her sister Settimia also had a fruitful musical career. (Women have always written music; anyone who tells you otherwise is ignorant.)
“Alcina” is Caccini’s only surviving full opera. The story is adapted from the Renaissance epic “Orlando Furioso.” The evil sorceress Alcina has bewitched the warrior Ruggiero into ditching his betrothed and joining her on her island, where she’s transformed past boytoys and the women who’ve tried to rescue them into plants. (This was effectively conveyed via simple masks and gloves fitted with plastic leaves, making for deliciously spooky rattling sounds.) Good sorceress Melissa shows up in disguise as Ruggiero’s old tutor, tells him to man up and get back to fighting, defeats Alcina, and turns the plants back to humans. All rejoice.
With a crack chamber ensemble on the stage and simple, effective props, this production was called “semi-staged,” but I’ve seen fully staged operas use space, movement, and props with much less savvy. No musical moment was wasted. Instrumental interludes were filled with period dances selected by dance director Melinda Sullivan. The word “clockwork” captures the chamber ensemble’s solid cohesion, but not its flexibility or flow.
On Sunday afternoon, soprano Shannon Mercer commanded the stage as readily as the devious Alcina ruled her isle, lacing her pliant soprano voice with increasingly potent venom as the plot progressed. When soprano Margot Rood’s Oreste delivered bad news to Alcina in silken, silvery song, Mercer’s arsenal of Disneyesque wicked-queen reactions almost stole the scene. (Almost. You can’t actually steal a scene from Margot Rood.) Tenor Colin Balzer was in full bloom as Ruggiero, each phrase exquisitely shaped. Once Alcina’s spells over him were broken, he buttressed his sound with a spine of steel, but lost no fullness.
Soprano Teresa Wakim put up a divine showing as a siren, and Jason McStoots contributed his earthy yet angelic tenor to various shorter solos. No better voice than mezzo Kelsey Lauritano’s could be conjured for the gender-bending sorceress Melissa; her enviable low range and resonant, daringly raw chest voice were sublime.
The rest of the cast didn’t have a weak link; special praise goes to tenor Thomas Albanese for stepping in on a week’s notice as the Shepherd. The opera ended with all coming together in a theatrical piece by Emilio de’ Cavalieri composed for a 1589 royal wedding, for which dance notation survives. Sullivan’s tireless research is worthy of commendation, and so are the musicians who brought it to life: leaping, capering, joining in the song without missing a beat, doing it all in heavy full-skirted gowns.
LA LIBERAZIONE DI RUGGIERO DALL’ISOLA D’ALCINA
Presented by Boston Early Music Festival. At Jordan Hall, Sunday afternoon
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.