La Liberazione Di Ruggiero Dall’Isola Di Alcina review – ‘worthwhile rediscovery’
This year’s Brighton Early Music Festival’s theme is Women, “as creators, enquirers, muses and enchanters”. The programme includes what is apparently the earliest surviving opera by a female composer: The Liberation of Ruggiero from Alcina’s Island, by Francesca Caccini, first performed in Florence in 1625.
These days Francesca’s father Giulio is better known than she is, but in her day she was one of the most admired singers and composers of the time – and not only in Italy. Sadly, this is the only one of her 16 stage works to survive, presumably because it was the only one to be published. The story is a playful comic treatment of the story of the knight Ruggiero and the sorceress Alcina, taken from a once-famous epic poem by Ariosto: Handel’s much later and far more serious setting is reasonably well known.
Caccini’s turns out to be a delightful piece, structured more like Monteverdi’s earlier Orfeo than his later operas, with choral movements interspersing the solo recitatives. Deborah Roberts, musical director of a staging in which a sizeable cast plus chorus and a choice period-instrument ensemble also make their mark, has made her own edition.
Susannah Waters’ end-of-the-pier staging moves the action – appropriately enough – to Brighton beach in the early 20th century. With a painted fairground in the background and a full-scale bathing machine upfront, Ellan Parry’s designs are clever and colourful. The handheld surtitles are a hoot.
While the entire cast enters fully into the spirit of both piece and staging, three central performers stand out. Soprano Anna Devin brings vocal and physical glamour to Alcina. Tenor Nick Pritchard clearly enjoys being the easily led Ruggiero. Countertenor Denis Lakey plays the androgynous Melissa – who saves Ruggiero from Alcina’s wicked spells – as a drag queen. Who would have thought that an early Baroque opera could be so much fun?