[PHOTO: Mireille Lebel (Alcina) in BEMF’s 2023 production of Francesca Caccini’sAlcina.Photo by Kathy Wittman]
Written by Kelley Harness, University of Minnesota
Francesca Caccini’s Alcina, an opera that will be performed at Caramoor on June 25th by the Boston Early Music Festival.
Midway through Ferdinando Saracinelli’s libretto for La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina, the benevolent sorceress Melissa, temporarily disguised as Atlante, the former (male) tutor of Ruggiero, berates the errant young knight for allowing himself to be drawn into a feminine world of sensuality and luxury while the world is at war. When she mocks him for having profaned his sword by using it to declare his love for Alcina and orders him to remove the jewelry and necklaces that adorn his body, she reminds him—and the audience—that Ruggiero has foolishly exchanged valor for sensuality, squandering the most crucial masculine virtue in favor of one of the most dangerous feminine vices.
Audience members well-acquainted with Lodovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, the sixteenth-century chivalric poem on which Saracinelli based the libretto set musically by Francesca Caccini, might have viewed the scene with some puzzlement. Where was the magic ring Melissa carried for the express purpose of jolting Ruggiero to his senses? And why no mention in this passage of Bradamante, Ruggiero’s intended bride, with whom he was destined to found the Este dynasty? Some perceptive listeners might have recognized Melissa’s words from a different, albeit similar context, for Saracinelli borrowed parts of the speech directly from another well-known Renaissance epic, Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata [Jerusalem liberated]. There, an actual (not disguised) male figure utters the words, as the Christian knight Ubaldo attempts to break through the enchantment afflicting his comrade Rinaldo, who like Ruggiero is under the spell of an enchantress, this time Armida.
Francesca Caccini’s Melissa has no need for a magic ring. In melodically and harmonically controlled musical speech she orders Ruggiero to divest himself of his emasculating garb. And her words have the desired effect; Ruggiero immediately throws off his bangles and other ornaments and declares his readiness to rejoin the battle. Melissa goes on to liberate not only Ruggiero, but all Alcina’s enchanted captives, eventually emerging victorious in a showdown with Alcina herself.
Forceful commands emanating from female mouths would have been quite common in Florence of 1625, the year of the work’s first performance. At the time the city was under the direct control of two women: Grand Duchess Maria Magdalena (1589–1631), widow of Grand Duke Cosimo II (1590–1621), and Christine of Lorraine (1565–1636), Cosimo’s mother. This had been the case since February 1621, when Cosimo’s death left his ten-year-old son Ferdinando II as the heir to the throne. Cosimo II had established in his will that his wife and mother should serve as regents, supported by a council of hand-picked advisors, until his son reached his eighteenth birthday. It was Maria Magdalena, who was also a Habsburg archduchess and sister to the current Holy Roman Emperor, who commissioned La liberazione to honor the state visit of her nephew Władysław, heir to the Polish throne and hoped-for husband to her daughter Margherita. The work was performed at her own recently renovated Villa Poggio Imperale. And she was the dedicatee of both its published libretto and score.
La liberazione was but the most recent in a string of commissions through which Archduchess Maria Magdalena promoted images of assertive, virtuous women, figures with which she wanted to associate herself. She sponsored operas featuring heroic female protagonists, one of which, Marco da Gagliano’s La regina Sant’Orsola [Queen Saint Ursula], received its second performance as part of the Polish prince’s state visit. (The first performance had taken place just three months earlier.) In Andrea Salvadori’s libretto for that work, Saint Ursula barks out orders similar to those of the opera’s other, male generals. These generals direct armies of Hun and Roman troops, while Ursula commands her band of 11,000 virgins (only eleven actually appeared in the opera), as well as Ireo, her jilted ex-fiancé. Like her male counterparts, and like Melissa, Ursula expects to be obeyed. Saint Ursula also appeared in a painted lunette fresco in the archduchess’s audience room in her villa, the physical space most closely linked to Maria Magdalena’s political persona. Nine other female sovereigns and saints joined Ursula in the room’s frescos, including the queens Matilda of Canossa, Isabella of Castile, and Costanza of Sicily and the saints Pulcheria, Clothilde, and Catherine of Alexandria.
The archduchess commissioned similar frescoes for her bedroom and its antechamber, there focusing on female saints (including Agatha and Cecilia, both of whom were the subjects of dramatic musical works performed on behalf of Archduchess Maria Magdalena) and biblical heroines such as Judith, whose daring decapitation of the Assyrian general Holofernes with his own sword Artemisia Gentileschi depicted artistically for the Medici court around 1620. Judith would return as the title character in Marco da Gagliano’s opera La Giuditta of 1626.
Archduchess Maria Magdalena was also the dedicatee of two literary works intended to remind readers of the long history of women’s contributions to the church, to the arts, and to history more broadly: Niccolò Lorini del Monte’s Elogii delle più principali S. donne del sagro calendario [Praises of the most important holy women of the sacred calendar] (Florence, 1617) and Christofano Bronzini’s multivolume treatise entitled Della dignità, e nobiltà delle donne [On the dignity and nobility of women] (Florence, 1622–1632). Maria Magdalena herself is featured in a biographical essay in the third volume of Bronzini’s treatise.
La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina can thus be viewed within the context of Archduchess Maria Magdalena’s other artistic and theatrical commissions, and its protagonist, Melissa, compared to the saints and biblical heroines that dominated them. Melissa shares with these women assertive texts condemning sensual love, and characters such as Judith and Saint Ursula may well have delivered their texts with the same sort of musical forcefulness Melissa exhibits throughout Francesca Caccini’s work. The music for these other operas, unfortunately, has been lost, so an understanding of them is limited to whatever information their librettos contain.
In general, the music of Caccini’s La liberazione resembles that found in the contemporary operas of Florentine composers such as Jacopo Peri and Marco da Gagliano: characters deliver their speeches primarily in recitative, which ranges from expressively neutral to highly impassioned. All three composers reserved music-focused moments such as tuneful or florid songs for use in specific dramatic situations, such as when the immoderate Alcina imitates the sweet songs of sirens in her own ornamented eruption, the only instance in the entire work in which a principal character sings a florid passage. Choruses serve to add variety to the musical palette and help to articulate an opera’s formal structure.
But La liberazione is not an opera: the title pages of both the libretto and the score refer to the work as a balletto, rather than a favola or azione sacra, the genre designations often associated with other operas of the 1620s. And the work concludes with stage directions indicating the incorporation of an extended, multi-part ballo, which celebrates Melissa’s vanquishment of Alcina. The directions read (in translation), “Here comes the ballo of eight ladies of Her Most Serene Archduchess with eight principal knights, and they perform a most noble dance.” The ballo begins when, in a brief recitative dialogue with Melissa, one of the ladies recently freed from Alcina’s enchantments beseeches her benefactor to liberate the ladies’ lovers, as well, to which Melissa agrees. The ladies and their knights dance, to music not included in Caccini’s score, after which a chorus of liberated knights sings of their joy. Then, according to the score “there follows a ballo on horseback” [ballo a cavallo], again without music included in the published score, although Saracinelli provides stanzas to be sung during the balletto, including three four-line stanzas delivered by Melissa, who enters the arena on a pageant cart pulled by centaurs.
By commissioning a work that incorporated a horse ballet, Archduchess Maria Magdalena visibly aligned her patronage with that of her late husband, the individual most associated with the introduction of dramatic equestrian entertainments to Florence. The first of these, Lorenzo Franceschi’s Ballo e giostra de’ venti [Ballet and Joust of the Winds], took place in 1608 as part of the festivities celebrating Maria Magdalena’s marriage to then Crown Prince Cosimo II. The Medici court would go on to sponsor performances of balletti a cavallo to commemorate the marriages of two subsequent generations of Medici bridegrooms: Grand Duke Ferdinando II (in 1637) and Crown Prince Cosimo III (in 1661), the archduchess’s son and grandson. Her husband Cosimo II not only rode in his own wedding festivities but organized two horse ballets in 1616, the second of which (Guerra di bellezza [War of Beauty]) celebrated the visit of his future son-in-law Prince Federico della Rovere of Urbino. Perhaps Maria Magdalena sought to emulate this event nine years later when she sponsored La liberazione’s concluding horse ballet. One of her principal diplomatic goals for the visit, after all, was to convince her nephew, Prince Władysław, to marry her daughter Margherita.
The marriage negotiations did not proceed as the archduchess hoped, but La liberazione was a success, according to contemporary accounts. By sponsoring an entertainment that combined opera and horse ballet, Maria Magdalena demonstrated the Medici court’s promotion of two genres which, according to their inventors, revived but also improved on their ancient Greek models. Although she did not actually ride in the event, she attended its rehearsals, and information provided in Bronzini’s biography suggests that she might well have overseen it in some capacity. Bronzini deliberately credits the archduchess with transcending traditional limitations imposed on her gender:
[T]his most serene lady, even though not born to thread and cloth (being born a great lady), nor to horses and arms (being born a woman), activities to which she might by custom have been forbidden, nonetheless understands everything necessary for one who governs family, as well as everything else that the majesty of her state requires.
Bronzini goes on to expand on Maria Magdalena’s equestrian skills, exclaiming “She was born to horsemanship [maneggi] and grand maneuvers; in cavalry drills she robbed (i.e., acquired) with her eyes the discipline learned by all the lords at court.” He thus stresses that the archduchess’s skills were self-taught. He also may have wished to allude to the more general implications of the root verb maneggiare (to mold, to handle) in order to praise the archduchess’s governing abilities. His assertions serve as the topic sentence for a paragraph that actually returns to one of his earlier themes, namely, the well-suited match between Maria Magdalena and Cosimo, and, writing in the 1620s after the grand duke’s death, he reminds his readers of the equestrian entertainments that characterized the happier previous decade. Grand Duke Cosimo may have sponsored and ridden in these spectacles, but Bronzini makes it clear that Maria Magdalena played an equally important role. Once again he returns to the topos of eyes, but this time Maria Magdalena’s eyes exercise authority over the male objects of her gaze, rather than stealing from them:
Nor were festivities or tournaments ever performed . . . at which she did not want to be present, to see everything rehearsed, to hold the script, to be exceptionally attentive (not like a curious spectator, but as a discerning and diligent observer), in order to remind and advise (as she often did), seeing what of this or of that might be lacking something, and to speak her opinion with wise judgment.
Maria Magdalena’s participation in these festivities led to their success, Bronzini claims, and her own equestrian abilities, coupled with her skill with firearms, made her a formidable hunter, worthy of the epithet “a new amazon in Tuscany.”
One important social function of the horse ballets was to allow Tuscan noblemen to demonstrate publicly not only their own equestrian skills and thus their own nobility, but also to display their family’s prestige, visually confirming their family’s ongoing relationship to the Medici family. For the horse ballet that concluded La liberazione, the court diary lists twenty-four such noble participants, over half of whom had ridden in horse ballets with Maria Magdalena’s late husband during the previous decade. Now they demonstrated their loyalty to her. Using Bronzini’s terminology, the archduchess molded their actions for the twenty minutes of the horse ballet, just as she directed the bodies of the event’s spectators, who physically had to shift locations in order to watch the courtyard performance of the balletto, as Susanne Cusick has noted.
Like Melissa, whose own forceful speech, adapted in part from the words of a parallel male figure, joined with the visage of a male authority figure in order to compel Ruggiero to submit to her will, Archduchess Maria Magdalena was able to control what audience members heard and saw. In Villa Poggio Imperiale they witnessed images of forceful women whose actions liberated their people and/or determined the outcome of historical events. This was the role Maria Magdalena appears to have envisioned for herself, both within the grand duchy and as part of the larger European community then engaged in the Thirty Years’ War. Melissa concludes her scene with Ruggiero by encouraging him to join her in quickly taking up arms, for she worries that “a short delay can destroy a great honor.” Archduchess Maria Magdalena, that “new amazon in Tuscany,” undoubtedly concurred.
— Kelley Harness, University of Minnesota
For further reading:
Cusick, Suzanne G. Francesca Caccini at the Medici Court: Music and the Circulation of Power. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Harness, Kelley. Echoes of Women’s Voices: Music, Art, and Female Patronage in Early Modern Florence. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
Harness, Kelley. “Nata à maneggi & essercizii grandi”: Archduchess Maria Magdalena and Equestrian Entertainments in Florence, 1608–1625. In La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina: Räume und Inszenierungen in Francesca Caccinis Ballettoper (Florence 1625), edited by Christine Fischer, 89–106. Zurich: Chronos, 2015.