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Francesca Caccini’s Alcina

Boston Early Music Festival

Sunday June 25, 2023 at 4:00pm

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Sunday June 25, 2023 at 4:00pm

Spend a late afternoon on a magical island with a beautiful enchantress, a vengeful sorceress, a valiant knight, and an eager lover who gets seduced, then cursed and turned into a rock. This passionate paradise awaits you in the tent of Caramoor’s Venetian Theater.

Full of wit, drama, and melodious arias, this first opera by a female composer will cast its spell as Caramoor’s gardens are transformed through song, people shapeshift into trees, and true love prevails.

Pre-Concert Events Included with Ticket

3:00pm / Join us for a conversation with Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs.
3:00pm / Toast Pride Month with LGBTQ+ friends, family, and allies at our annual Pride and Prosecco reception!

Garden Listening / For those who prefer a more casual concert environment, Garden Listening tickets are $20, and are free for Members and children under 18 years old. Listen to the concert broadcast onto Friends Field (audio only) while enjoying a picnic, admiring a starry sky, or relaxing with the family. We recommend you bring your own seating for Garden Listening.

Summer Season Shuttle / Take the FREE shuttle from Metro North’s Katonah train station to and from Caramoor! The shuttle runs before and after every summer afternoon and evening concert. No need to RSVP to get on the shuttle, it will be there when you arrive (in the parking lot side of the station). And if it’s not there, that means that it just left and will be back in 5-10 minutes!

Francesca Caccini: Alcina

Boston Early Music Festival
Paul O’Dette & Stephen Stubbs, Musical Directors
Gilbert Blin, Stage Director
Melinda Sullivan, Dance Director
Mireille Lebel, mezzo-soprano (Alcina)
Colin Balzer, tenor (Ruggerio)
Cecilia Duarte, mezzo-soprano (Melissa)
David Evans, tenor
Brian Giebler, tenor
John Taylor Ward, baritone
Michael Galvin, bass-baritone

About Caccini’s Alcina

A contemporary of Monteverdi and a colleague of Galileo, Francesca Caccini came of age in Florence during the earliest years of opera as an art form. Both a composer and a performer, she was one of the most important musical figures at the Medici court during the regency of Christina of Lorraine and her daughter-in-law Maria Maddalena. In 1625, amid this time of female leadership, she created the first opera by a woman composer, La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina. Alcina is a brilliant entertainment, full of wit, magic, and drama, with a demanding title role first sung by the composer herself. At the center of a struggle of illusion and destiny, the sorceress Alcina stands between the valiant magician Melissa and her quest to save the warrior Ruggiero and liberate the captives who Alcina has transformed into plants and trees to ornament her island.

Francesca Caccini’s creation of Alcina, by 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.

Amazons, Saints, Sorceresses, and La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina, by Kelley Harness

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 of 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. 

Dance in BEMF’s Alcina, by Melinda Sullivan 

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 


Learn More About the Artists

Stephen Stubbs, conductor

Stephen Stubbs, who won a Grammy Award as conductor for Best Opera Recording in 2015, returned to his native Seattle in 2006 after 30 years in Europe as one of the world’s most respected lutenists, conductors, and Baroque opera specialists. In 2007, he established his new production company there, Pacific MusicWorks (PMW); its inaugural presentation was of South African artist William Kentridge’s acclaimed multimedia staging of Claudio Monteverdi’s opera The Return of Ulysses in a co-production with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. PMW’s performances of the Monteverdi Vespers were described in the press as “utterly thrilling” and “of a quality you are unlikely to encounter anywhere else in the world.” Stubbs is also the Boston Early Music Festival’s Artistic Co-Director along with his long-time colleague Paul O’Dette. They are the musical directors of all BEMF operas, recordings of which were nominated for six Grammy awards, including one Grammy win in 2015, two Echo Klassik awards, the Diapason d’Or de l’Année, and the Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik. Stubbs has also conducted many operas throughout North America and in Europe. His extensive discography as conductor and solo lutenist includes well over 100 CDs, many of which have received international acclaim and awards. 

To learn more about Stephen Stubbs, please visit his website (https://stephenstubbs.com). 

Gilbert Blin, director

Gilbert Blin was awarded a Doctorate from Leiden University for a thesis dedicated to his approach to Historically Informed Staging. He has established himself as a sought-after opera director for the early repertoire, collaborating with the Paris Opéra-Comique, Prague State Opera, Drottningholm Theatre, Opéra de Nice, and Boston Early Music Festival, among others. As Stage Director in Residence at BEMF beginning in 2008, and as BEMF’s Opera Director since 2013, Blin has staged and designed all of its Festival centerpiece productions and staged every BEMF Chamber Opera Series production. These include a trilogy of English operas, Blow’s Venus and Adonis, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, and Handel’s Acis and Galatea; Handel’s first opera, Almira; and Monteverdi’s three extant operas, Orfeo, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, and L’incoronazione di Poppea. In 2011, after staging Steffani’s Niobe, Regina di Tebe, he presented Charpentier’s La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers and La Couronne de Fleurs. Blin returned to French chamber operas in 2016, creating Versailles: Portrait of a Royal Domain, a spectacle comprising pieces by Charpentier, Lully, and Lalande, and he staged additional French works in 2022. Other recent productions include Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice for Seattle, Campra’s Le Carnaval de Venise, and Steffani’s Orlando generoso for Boston, and Caccini’s Alcina for New York. 

 To learn more about Gilbert Blin, please visit his website (https://gilbertblin.eu). 

Robert Mealy, BEMF orchestra director

One of America’s most prominent Baroque violinists, Robert Mealy has been praised for his “imagination, taste, subtlety, and daring” by the Boston Globe. The New Yorker has called him “New York’s world-class early music violinist.” He has recorded and toured with a wide range of distinguished early music ensembles in the U.S. and Europe, from Sequentia to Les Arts Florissants. He has led orchestras for Masaaki Suzuki, Nicholas McGegan, William Christie, Andrew Parrott, Paul Agnew, and Helmuth Rilling, among many others. Mealy is Orchestra Director of the Boston Early Music Festival. Since 2005 he has led the BEMF Orchestra in their festival performances and award-winning recordings. In New York, he is principal concertmaster at Trinity Wall Street for their concerts of the complete Bach cantatas. He is also co-director of the acclaimed 17th-century ensemble Quicksilver. In 2018, Mealy made his recital début at Carnegie Hall. A devoted teacher as well as a performer, Mealy has directed the graduate Historical Performance Program at The Juilliard School since 2012, and before that he taught at Yale and Harvard. In 2004, he received Early Music America’s Thomas Binkley Award for outstanding teaching and scholarship. He has recorded over 80 CDs on most major labels. He still likes to practice. 

Melinda Sullivan, dance director

Melinda Sullivan is the Lucy Graham Director of Dance at Boston Early Music Festival. She is a well-known movement and dance coach for singers. Her recently produced A Retrospective: The Story of the BEMF Dance Company is available on BEMF’s YouTube page. Sullivan danced in her first BEMF production in 1995. She returned to dance and assist the late choreographer Lucy Graham in all subsequent BEMF opera productions over the next twelve years. In 2008, Sullivan assumed the role of BEMF Ballet Mistress, training dancers and singers in Baroque and Renaissance style and technique. She has choreographed extensively for BEMF since 2010, including productions and revivals of Charpentier’s La Couronne de Fleurs and La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers, Monteverdi’s Orfeo, and Pergolesi’s La serva padrona and Livietta e Tracollo .A graduate of Boston Conservatory, Sullivan quickly established herself as a dynamic performer in Boston’s modern dance scene. Her studies in Renaissance dance led to performances with the Ken Pierce Baroque Dance Company. She created a unique movement and dance program for singers, and taught for 30 years, primarily at New England Conservatory and Boston University Opera Institute. Since 2008, Sullivan has also been Resident Choreographer at Central City Opera.  

To learn more about Melinda Sullivan, please visit her website (http://www.melindasullivan.com). 

Mireille Lebel, mezzo-soprano

Canadian mezzo-soprano Mireille Lebel sings leading lyric mezzo roles in opera and concert internationally. Now based in Berlin, she began her career as a young artist at the Atelier Lyrique de l’Opéra de Montréal and from there moved to Germany to join the ensemble at Theater Erfurt. After finishing her contract, she became a freelance artist singing with theaters including Deutsche Oper, Opera Atelier, Prague State Opera, Tafelmusik, Theater Basel, Opéra-Théâtre de Metz, Opéra de Nice, Vancouver Opera, Aix-en-Provence Festival, Les Violons du Roy, Fondazione Pergolesi Spontini, Staatstheater Nürnberg, Theater Dessau, and Collegium 1704. She has recorded seven opera discs with the Boston Early Music Festival on the CPO label, including Grammy winner La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers. Her discography also includes Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2 with the Richter Ensemble, and the world premiere recording of Alois Broeder’s opera, The Wives of the Dead. In 2020, she co-founded with Rachel Fenlon the artistic collective Crown The Muse, and she was awarded a Canada Council Grant for their first collaboration, a new take on Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine, with stage director Bruno Ravella. 

To learn more about Mireille Lebel, please visit her website (https://www.mireillelebel.com). 

Colin Balzer, tenor

Tenor Colin Balzer has sung acclaimed recitals in London, New York, Philadelphia, and Vancouver, and concerts with the Portland, New Jersey, Québec, Atlanta, Montréal, and Indianapolis Symphonies, Early Music Vancouver, Tafelmusik, Les Violons du Roy, the National and Calgary Philharmonics, National Arts Centre Orchestra, Musica Sacra, and the Oratorio Society of New York. His opera performances with the Boston Early Music Festival include Francesca Caccini’s La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina, Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, Handel’s Almira, Steffani’s Niobe, Regina di Tebe, Lully’s Psyché, and Mattheson’s Boris Goudenow. He has been featured in Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Bolshoi and in Aix-en-Provence, and Mozart’s La finta giardiniera in Aix and Luxembourg. He has also appeared with Collegium Vocale Gent with Philippe Herreweghe, Fundacao OSESP Orchestra with Louis Langrée, Les Musiciens du Louvre with Marc Minkowski, Rotterdam Philharmonic with Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and Akademie für alte Musik with Marcus Creed. His recordings include Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch, and Eisler and Henze song anthologies; he has also recorded operas and the Steffani CD Duets of Love and Passion with BEMF. Balzer earned the Gold Medal at the Robert Schumann Competition in Zwickau with the highest score in 25 years.  

Virginia Warnken Kelsey, mezzo-soprano

Hailed by the New York Times as a “rich-toned alto” with “riveting presence,” two-time Grammy Award–winning mezzo-soprano Virginia Warnken Kelsey has been widely recognized for her dynamic and heartfelt interpretations of 17th– and 18th-century opera and oratorio, as well as avant-garde 20th– and 21st-century works. Virginia is an original member of Roomful of Teeth, a celebrated experimental vocal ensemble dedicated to celebrating the boundless expressive potential of the human voice. She has appeared as a featured soloist with the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Cincinnati Symphony, BBC Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, Seattle Symphony, Philharmonia Baroque, Boston Early Music Festival, Spoleto Festival, and the Carmel Bach Festival, among many others. Her performance as La Conversation in BEMF’s recording of Charpentier’s Les Plaisirs de Versailles earned her a 2019 Grammy Award nomination in the Best Opera Recording category. A longtime resident of New York City, Virginia has made countless solo appearances with the American Classical Orchestra, Choir of Trinity Wall Street, Clarion Music Society, Tenet Vocal Artists, Musica Sacra, and the Oratorio Society of New York. Virginia is happiest when surrounded by nature and loves herb gardening, beekeeping, hiking, and swimming in the ocean. 

To learn more about Virginia Warnken Kelsey, please visit her website (https://www.virginiawarnken.com). 

Learn More About Boston Early Music Festival

Boston Early Music Festival Vocal Ensemble

The Boston Early Music Festival Vocal Ensemble débuted in November of 2008 in Boston with John Blow’s Venus and Adonis and Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Actéon. The ensemble is a collection of fine young singers dedicated to presenting choice operatic and other treasures as both soloists and members of the chorus, under the leadership of BEMF Artistic Directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs. The BEMF Vocal and Chamber Ensemble’s début recording of Charpentier’s Actéon, on the CPO label, was released in November 2010. Subsequent CPO releases include Blow’s Venus and Adonis in June 2011, the Charpentier opera double bill of La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers and La Couronne de Fleurs in February 2014, which won the Grammy Award in 2015 for Best Opera Recording and the 2015 Echo Klassik Opera Recording of the Year (17th/18th Century Opera), Handel’s Acis and Galatea in November 2015, Charpentier’s Les Plaisirs de Versailles andLes Arts Florissants, which was nominated for a Grammy in 2019, and Lalande’s Les Fontaines de Versailles and Le Concert d’Esculape in 2020. The BEMF Vocal Ensemble has mounted several successful tours of its chamber opera productions, including a four-city North American Tour of Acis and Galatea in early 2011 that included the American Handel Festival in Seattle. 

Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble

The Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble was established in October of 2008, and delighted the public a month later at the inauguration of the Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Opera Series with a production of John Blow’s Venus and Adonis and Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Actéon. The BEMF Chamber Ensemble is an intimate subset of the BEMF Orchestra, and is led by one or both of BEMF’s Artistic Directors, Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, or by BEMF’s Orchestra Director Robert Mealy, and features the best Baroque instrumentalists from around the world. The BEMF Chamber Ensemble’s third CD on the CPO label, the Charpentier opera double bill of La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers and La Couronne de Fleurs, won the Grammy Award in 2015 for Best Opera Recording. Their fifth CD, Steffani’s Duets of Love and Passion, featuring sopranos Amanda Forsythe and Emőke Baráth, tenor Colin Balzer, and baritone Christian Immler, was released in September 2017 in conjunction with a six-city tour of North America, and received a Diapason d’Or. The seventh CD, a return to Charpentier featuring Les Plaisirs de Versailles and Les Arts Florissants, was nominated for a Grammy in 2019, and the eighth, Lalande’s Les Fontaines de Versailles and Le Concert d’Esculape, was released in 2020. 

Boston Early Music Festival

The Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF) is universally recognized as a leader in the field of early music. Since its founding in 1980 by leading practitioners of historical performance in the United States and abroad, BEMF has promoted early music through a variety of diverse programs and activities. BEMF is currently producing its 33rd annual concert season, lauded for presenting early music’s brightest stars on the Boston and New York concert stages, and in June 2023 will hold its 22nd biennial weeklong Festival and Exhibition, hailed as “the world’s leading festival of early music” (The Times, London). Through these programs and more, BEMF has earned its place as North America’s premier presenting organization for music of the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods and has secured Boston’s reputation as “America’s early music capital” (Boston Globe). BEMF regularly presents its own Baroque opera productions to great acclaim, from full-length centerpieces of its biennial Festivals to more intimate presentations during the year as part of its Chamber Opera Series. BEMF’s recordings of these operas have won the Grammy Award, the Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik, two Echo Klassik awards, the Diapason d’Or de l’Année, and many other accolades. BEMF also tours and presents operas and concerts featuring the BEMF Orchestra and the BEMF Chamber and Vocal Ensembles. 

To learn more about BEMF, please visit their website (bemf.org). 

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All concerts made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature.