Two pieces about female power make for a poignant and thought provoking evening.
Francesca Caccini’s La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina of 1625 is generally acknowledged as being the first opera to be composed by a woman. She wrote it during the only 7 year period of female rule within the Medici’s 200 year principality (1621-28), and quite how early her work comes in the history of opera is illustrated by the fact that there is only one written before that date, Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo of 1607, that is still regularly performed today. The story is taken from Ludovico Ariosto’s epic 16th century poem Orlando furioso, and follows the same overall plot as Handel’s Alcina (1735) and Riccardo Broschi’s L’isola di Alcina (1728), as all work from the same source material with Handel having actually used the libretto from Broschi’s creation.
The opera is presented as Longborough Festival Opera’s 2022 Emerging Artist production, a programme that the venue runs to help up-and-coming singers and players. Director Jenny Ogilvie, who was the choreographer for La traviata here in 2018, works from the idea that while Ruggiero is the subject of the title, he is actually quite passive in the story as it is Bradamante (who reinvents herself as the sorceress Melissa before disguising herself as the sorcerer Atlante) who fights against the other sorceress Alcina for his release. So, the evening, which also features Freya Waley-Cohen’s Spell Book, looks at sorceresses as powerful individuals on their own terms, and considers a witch to be a woman who simply does not conform to society’s expectations regarding the role she should play. In line with this, this highly intelligent production suggests that the spell everyone, including Alcina herself, is under is that of modern expectations concerning beauty.
The action consequently takes place in a present day beauty salon, with this constituting Alcina’s island realm and the weight of expectations being the force that holds everyone there. April Dalton’s set reveals a gaudy pink interior, Alcina’s mirror becomes a huge poster of her assuming a seductive pose, and as the Messenger sings he administers Botox treatment to her alongside other uncomfortable beauty therapies. Thus, Alcina losing her powers proves to be a positive thing for her as much as for anyone else as it sees her realise she does not require any false adornments. With a sense of release, she orders the huge poster to be torn down and dons simple clothes as if discovering her true self once more. Similarly, Bradamante attempts to reconcile herself with Alcina while also believing she can stand as her own person. The implication at the end is that she realises she is capable of raising her family and being happy without being dependent on Ruggiero.
Alongside this strong overarching concept, there are some excellent touches. The Prologue is also set in the modern day and here seems to constitute a form of briefing to clients who are about to have a session in the salon. This proves to be a clever way of making what are largely allegorical words, designed to have a moral dimension and to flatter authority, fit the production’s concept. All the people who have been magically transformed into plants are portrayed by these clients hiding behind the type of potted plants that might be found in such an establishment, with the wholesome green of these contrasting with the sickly pink outfits they wear. The opera is presented in a new arrangement by the evening’s conductor Yshani Perinpanayagam, and the most obvious insertion sees Ruggiero grabbing a microphone and singing ‘You’re the first, you’re the last, my everything’ in Italian as if he is performing karaoke.
“This highly intelligent production suggests that the spell everyone… is under is that of modern expectations concerning beauty”
Caccini’s score is simply wondrous and is brought out to the full by some superb principal performances. As Alcina, Lauren Joyanne Morris has the right balance of allure and vulnerability in her voice as much as her character, Simone Ibbett-Brown gives a highly thoughtful and nuanced performance as Bradamante, while Oskar McCarthy asserts his highly pleasing baritone to excellent effect as Ruggiero. Some of the singing by the chorus or small groups is particularly sublime as it brings out the beauty and intelligence of the original score to the full. The three Ladies – Nia Coleman, Bernadette Johns and Sarah Richmond – are especially good, while as the Messenger Keith Pun’s countertenor is a thing of wonder.
At around 90 minutes without pause, La liberazione di Ruggiero is too short to create a summer opera experience on its own and lacks an interval for picnicking. It does not, however, want to be paired with something of a similar length and so coupling it with Freya Waley-Cohen’s 30 minute dramatic song cycle Spell Book is perfect, given that the themes of the two works complement each other. The cycle is inspired by the composer’s encounter with Rebecca Tamás’s collection of poems, WITCH, and Longborough’s presentation constitutes its first ever complete staging.
When Waley-Cohen came across Tamás’s 21 ‘hexes’, each described as a ‘small, bright, filthy song’ that ‘clings to your body like sweat’ she felt the urge to set them to music and the result is Spell Book which features six of these, namely the Spells for Lilith, Sex, Women’s Books, Logic, Joy and Reality. In Ogilvie’s presentation some of the instrumentalists of the excellent CHROMA Ensemble (the orchestra for both pieces) occupy the stage alongside the singers as, in most cases, a different performer (either Sarah Richmond, Bernadette Johns, Nia Coleman, Keith Pun or Jessica Robinson) takes on each of the Spells. However, the other singers are not merely passive but react, move, writhe and scribble things on a paper backdrop that they also rip and eventually tear down. At one point the performers who will go on to play Alcina and Bradamante process down the auditorium and enter the pit, which suggests the inversion of conventional values as we see players on the stage and singers in the pit. It is all in all very well executed, meaning that not only does Spell Book create the perfect lead into Caccini’s opera, but shows itself to be something that it would be worthwhile to present in many different places on many different occasions.
• Details of Longborough Festival Opera’s 2023 season, which includes productions of Götterdämmerung, L’elisir d’amore, L’Orfeo and The Fairy Queen will appear soon on its website.