[PHOTO: Mireille Lebel (Alcina) and Cecilia Duarte (Melissa) in BEMF’s 2023 production ofFrancesca Caccini’sAlcina. Photo by Kathy Wittman]
We asked Stephen Stubbs to explain a bit more about the creation of Francesca Caccini’s Alcina, an opera that will be performed at Caramoor on June 25th by the Boston Early Music Festival.
Written by co-Musical Director, Stephen Stubbs
At the moment when Francesca Caccini composed her opera La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina—which she called a “balletto”—in 1625, she was living and working in the epicenter of the ideas and artists which had led to the creation of opera. The various academies in Florence (commonly called the Florentine Camerata) in the 1570s and 1580s where artists, scholars, and interested “amateurs” considered the nature of ancient Greek drama and music, provided the intellectual backdrop to the artistic experiments by the poets, particularly Ottavio Rinuccini, and the composers, including Jacopo Peri, Emilio de’ Cavalieri, and Francesca’s father, Giulio Caccini. There was a shared sense amongst these artists and thinkers that something momentous was in the works as the turn of the century approached and several musical leaders, including Caccini, Peri, and Cavalieri, rushed to the printing presses in 1600 to stake a claim for their innovations.
The Florentine wedding celebrations for Marie de Medici and Henri IV in 1600 were the site of the birth of opera in the form of Peri’s setting of Rinuccini’s libretto Euridice performed at the Pitti Palace on October 6, 1600. In this context, the intense rivalry between Peri and Caccini became obvious. Caccini demanded that his students (including his daughter Francesca in her singing début) would only be allowed to perform their roles if they sang them in his own musical setting rather than that of Peri. Thereafter Caccini exacerbated the affront by rushing his complete setting of Euridice to print on December 20, 1600, without mentioning the performance of Peri’s version—or even the name of the librettist! Peri followed soon after with the publication of his own score, but Cavalieri had beaten them both to the punch with the publication of his own Rappresentazione di Anima, et di Corpo on November 10, 1600. The various claims to primacy included the new style of composition, the new style of singing, and who had been doing it the longest. At this distance of time, those petty arguments recede, and artistic merit of composition comes to the fore. In that, Peri was holding the best hand, and Francesca Caccini (and, by the way, Claudio Monteverdi as well) clearly knew it. Peri had forged a musical language that was more expressive of the nuances of text and simultaneously more continuous than that of his rivals. Caccini’s attempt at theatrical monody kept coming to a cadence, giving the impression of a series of discrete songs with no cumulative force of continuous narrative.
Indeed, Giulio Caccini was to stake a more valid claim to fame with his publication of Le Nuove Musiche in 1601. This collection of continuo songs was not only the first of its kind (preceding a flood of similar publications over the coming decades which includes Francesca’s own contribution, Il primo libro delle Musiche, in 1618) but more importantly, in the preface, he sets out a manifesto of the merits and techniques of a new way of singing and of composing for the voice. Even if Giulio Caccini had not been the father of Francesca, his manual of the aesthetics of singing would still have been the best extant guide to the performance of her music, but as her mentor, it holds double force. Many details from this preface are worthy of intense study by modern performers, but beyond the exact notation and execution of certain ornaments, the overarching message of this work is that the dynamic shaping of long notes (with shapes that we would describe as varieties of crescendo and decrescendo, but which Caccini calls “crescere e scemare della voce,” and especially: esclamazione) is the locus of emotional expression in singing, and that decorative ornamentation for its own sake (unless underlining a particular meaning in the text) is just empty posturing, to be shunned by true artists and connoisseurs. The other most important feature of Caccini’s preface is his emphasis on the concept of sprezzatura, a term going back to the enormously influential manual of courtly behavior, Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano from the early sixteenth century. This untranslatable term is close in meaning to our use of the word “nonchalance” in the sense of someone who exhibits extreme accomplishment with seeming effortlessness. In Caccini’s usage, this extends to a certain freedom or “flow” in the performance of solo song which includes what we might describe with accelerando and ritardando, but Caccini denotes with the expressive phrase “quasi favellando in armonia con la suddetta sprezzatura.”
Considering what works and composers could have exercised influence or inspiration on Francesca Caccini’s creation of Alcina, we can start with Peri’s Euridice, possibly her first public performance at the tender age of thirteen. Besides the overall style of recitar cantando which Francesca adapted from Peri (as did Monteverdi) rather than the alternative models of her father or Cavalieri, the element of tre flauti (three recorders) to usher in the pastoral atmosphere (for Peri’s shepherd Tirsi, or Francesca’s shepherd simply called Pastore) was not just similar, but almost a variation in triple time of Peri’s original. Shortly after the wedding celebrations of 1600, King Henri IV of France issued an invitation to the entire Caccini clan to come to his court in Paris, which they did in 1604. Henri declared Francesca to be the best singer in France and his Queen applied to the Florentine court to retain her there. The request was denied, but Francesca returned to the Medici court with her own reputation on the rise. We don’t know what music she encountered in France, but her virtuoso song for the Siren in Alcina has all the earmarks of pieces that Monteverdi called in stile Francese. Francesca must have been aware of the great twin achievements of Monteverdi in nearby Mantua in 1607 and 1608—first his Orfeo, then his lost Arianna. Arianna’s iconic lament influenced all laments to follow including Alcina’s, but it is Orfeo, which, in its variety as well as its emotional intensity, provides the closest precursor to Alcina in general. Marco da Gagliano’s La Dafne for the Medici court in 1608 must have been known to Francesca, and his paean to Apollo there, Almo Dio, is a clear model for hers called Biondo Dio in the prologue to Alcina. The prominence of ensembles for three sopranos in Alcina, given to the title character’s entourage of damigelle, can be traced back to the prominent concerto delle donne of Ferrara and Luzzaschi’s publication of their repertoire in 1600, but find an even more exact precursor in the Three Euretti (little breezes) which flew around the figure of Aurora in Stefano Landi’s 1619 La Morte d’Orfeo. Was this idea simply “in the air” or did she actually know Landi’s piece? We don’t know, but one element in Alcina, that of the chorus of monsters, takes an idea of grotesquery in theatrical music which goes back at least to Cavalieri’s portrayal of the damned souls in hell, but gives it a rollicking demonic energy which goes far beyond anything which precedes it.
Francesca Caccini, in composing Alcina at the height of her powers as a singer and as a composer, gathering all these strains together, not only created a brilliant and multifaceted musical work, but also fashioned a role for herself—that of Alcina—which carried echoes of Monteverdi’s iconic abandoned woman, the lamenting Arianna. Yet, this moment of lament and abandonment is only one station on her trajectory from magical seductress to her final state of vengeful sorceress, and in this, Francesca Caccini created a prototype of the powerful and dangerous woman that went on to take so many imposing shapes in the history of opera.
— Stephen Stubbs