F Caccini La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina
Michaela Riener, Axelle Bernage, Sabine Lutzenberger, Katelijne Van Laethem, Achim Schulz, Matthew Vine; Huelgas Ensemble/Paul Van Nevel
Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 88985338762 88:36 mins (2 discs)
Affectionately nicknamed ‘La Cecchina’ (the little magpie) by contemporary Florentines, Francesca Caccini became something of a celebrity in early 17th-century Florence as a professional singer, instrumentalist, composer, and teacher of sundry Medici. La liberazione di Ruggiero (her only surviving opera and the first by a woman) was extravagantly performed, complete with equestrian ballet, to celebrate the visit of the Polish crown prince to Florence in 1625. Ferdinando Saracinelli’s libretto – inspired by Ariosto’s epic Orlando furioso – warns of the dangers of intemperate passion through an exotic fable of enchantresses and monsters and Saracen knights, to which Caccini responds with an equally fabulous musical tapestry. Supple recitatives, lyrical arias, light canzonettas and choral interjections deftly interweave with instrumental sinfonias, dances and ritornelli.
This live performance by the Huelgas Ensemble has all the intimacy of chamber music, thanks to its conversational ensemble playing and unforced singing. Mezzo Michaela Riener is aptly silver-toned as the conniving sorceress Alcina, and her grief-laden centrepiece, the lament ‘Ahi, Melissa’, is so poignantly realised it almost has the audience rooting for her. The more honeyed mezzo of Sabine Lutzenberger (as the enchantress Melissa) makes the perfect foil. Tenor Achim Schulz, the love-struck eponymous hero, negotiates Caccini’s intricate recitatives with fluent lucidity – despite his spell-bound state. Director Paul Van Nevel imbues an air of courtly restraint to this account, with subtle expressive nuances and measured tempos. Caccini’s writing is seldom dissonant, so the piece can lack dramatic charge and propulsion, not least since Van Nevel rather underplays the contrasted ‘affects’ that create the work’s tensions.