Francesca Caccini, daughter of the Florentine composer Giulio Caccini, was evidently a fine and successful composer in her own right. This opera, entitled 'La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall'isola di Alcina', was composed for the Florentine Carnival of 1625 and billed as a 'commedia in musica' in the form of a prologue and four scenes. It was also staged later in Warsaw, hence the brief appearance of a character representing the River Vistula. Its plot is based on the story, from Ariosto's 'Orlando furioso', of the escape of the hero Ruggiero from the island domain of the sorceress Alcina to return to his (offstage) fiance Bradamante, with the help of the more virtuous sorceress Melissa.
As is often the case in Italian mythology, the love-rat is portrayed as the hero of the tale. However, such morally dubious details can easily be overlooked in favour of the obligatory presence here of the usual intricacies of baroque operatic love including joy, misery, falsehood, betrayal, desire, guilt and revenge. Characters include Ruggiero, Alcina, Melissa, Neptune and other water-gods, maidens, a shepherd and a siren - many of these roles giving ample opportunities for fine, expressive singing by a wide range of solo and ensemble voices. They are accompanied by the players of the period instrument ensembles Allabastrina and La Pifarescha, combining to form a very effective baroque band of string and wind instruments and basso continuo. The entire team is directed in superb style by harpsichordist Elena Sartori, demonstrating once again the depth of well-informed talent which nowadays graces the Italian early music scene.
The music itself moves from recitative through arioso to aria, with the occasional short instrumental sinfonia or dance movement. While this work lacks the memorable melodies we would expect from the likes of Monteverdi or Cavalli, the music is never dull for a moment. Everything is most beautifully sung and played, with recitative sections moving along very nicely indeed – again with the help of fine singing and inventive instrumental support. The wind instruments also enhance their passages, including the choruses, with superb ornamentation. All the solo voices are first-class, with especially outstanding interpretations from contralto Gabriella Martellacci as Melissa, baritone Mauro Borgioni as Ruggiero, and tenor Raffaele Giordani as Neptune and a shepherd. The vocal ensemble passages, with up to five interwoven voices, are also beautiful.
Booklet notes by Elena Sartori are first-class, including a very useful synopsis as well as libretto and translation. Recorded sound is also excellent. Francesca Caccini's opera is perhaps more of a curiosity than a masterpiece, but this performance is so stylish and well-considered, and the musicianship so very fine, as to make this single-disc opera recording a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable experience.
No wonder we haven't heard of Caccini before, she's just too damn good and we can't have girlies going around smashing up our glass ceilings can we? All in all, a total revelation largely reminiscent of Monteverdi with a touch of French baroque thrown in. This year's surprise delight