[PHOTO: Mindy Ella Chu, Hannah De Priest and Megan Stapleton (Coro delle Piante Incantate), and Colin Balzer (Ruggiero) in BEMF’s 2023 production of Francesca Caccini’s Alcina. Photo by Kathy Wittman]
Written by Dance Director, Melinda Sullivan
We asked Melinda Sullivan to explain a bit more about how dance is incorporated into Francesca Caccini’s Alcina, an opera that will be performed at Caramoor on June 25th by the Boston Early Music Festival.
The blending of dance, verse, and music to create a sublime connection has great interest for me. All three forms of expression reflect upon one another, highlighting the transformative power that is Baroque opera. While the verse and music for La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina were notated, the dance was not.
Dance was at the core of seventeenth-century Italy, with moral, political, and aesthetic concerns. Contemporaneous writing about dance has proven incomplete. Dance treatises describe steps, but we miss the essential connection between teacher and student, choreographer and dancer. Dance tunes were often written by multiple—and at times anonymous—composers with no choreography attached. And eyewitness accounts often describe the energy or affect of a ballo, but were imprecise about the specific dance forms, steps, and floor patterns. Any reconstruction requires invention.
For this production I went back to the dance manuals of Negri (1602), Caroso (1600), and Arbeau (1589); the paintings, tapestries, sculptures, and gardens of Caccini’s Florence; Ovid’s Metamorphoses; and to many secondary sources written by dance historians. These sources helped inform my own inspiration to create the movement and dance of the characters in this story. When the Siren commands a dance of love and delight, all dance a flirtatious passo e mezzo. The ladies set free from Alcina’s spell dance a springing pavaniglia, and when the men are freed they dance a lively saltarello.
For the added Epilogue, Cavalieri’s ballo “O che nuovo miracolo” from the end of La pellegrina, we do have original notation of steps and floor patterns. This rare notation, from the 1589 wedding festivities of Grand Duke Ferdinando de’ Medici and Christine de Lorraine, offers insight to theatrical dances of the time. We see that while the dance steps are similar to those of the social dances of the day, the use of space is more presentational toward an audience. The original entertainment was filled with moving scenery, and featured twenty-five instrumentalists, sixty singers, and twenty-seven dancers, all elaborately costumed. Dances from the work’s six intermedi included a battle between Apollo and a dragon, celestial and infernal demons, and in the final intermedio the gods bequeath harmony and rhythm. Only this last intermedio’s choreography is notated in Cristofano Malvezzi’s publication of the music and text. I have distilled the choreography to fit our space while retaining the harmony and order of the original. Dance, verse, and music come together in a glorious conclusion.
— Melinda Sullivan