International Women's Dayby Francesca Caccini's
/ March 16, 2005
Opus to Woman Power
hundred and eighty years ago, the obscure Baroque composition La Liberazione di
Ruggiero dall'isola d'Alcina (LLRDA) became the first opera written by
a woman, the first opera not to be based on Greek legend, and the first Italian
opera to ever be performed outside of Italy. Thanks to exceptional timing, its
author, the now forgotten Francesca Caccini (1587--c. 1640) was able to express
her incredible talent at a time when virtually every woman was powerless. Both
in historical significance and in its musical treatment of the libretto, LLRDA
became a symbol of woman power.
The eldest daughter of prominent composer Giulio
Caccini (1546–1618), Francesca, nicknamed "La Cecchina" ("the songbird") by the
Florentines for her lovely singing, received early training in singing and
composition from her father at a time when monody and opera were new and
growing genres. She would eventually compose and publish the first collection
of sacred monodies, Il Primo libro delle musiche a una e due voci (published
in 1618), which was the most extensive collection of solo songs by a composer
to be published at the time.
Francesca was admired by the Medici court and famous
intellects of the day, including composer Claudio Monteverdi, Italian
Renaissance poet Gabriello Chiabrera and opera composer Giacomo Peri. Impressed
by Francesca's October 1600 performance at her wedding to King Henry IV of
France, Maria de' Medici took notice of this rising star, asking Giulio to
consider keeping Francesca at the French court permanently. Giulio's refusal
would later benefit his daughter.
On September 15, 1607, Francesca officially entered
the service of the Florentine court receiving a small salary, composing smaller
works and quickly graduating to large-scale operas as well as her
aforementioned Primo libro. She would later become the Medici court's
highest paid singer and composer, earning the second highest salary -- only the
Duke's secretary made more.
In 1620, the death of Cosimo II resulted in the
unusual circumstance that two women came to jointly rule. Since his
ten-year-old son was too young to be in power, Cosimo de Medici's mother,
Christine of Lorraine (1565–1636), and wife, Maria Maddalena of Austria
(1587–1630), were appointed joint regents from 1621-1628. For the first time,
women dominated the Medici court, and Francesca had the perfect environment in
which to compose her greatest work.
During this period, the Grand Duchess Maria Maddalena
commissioned Francesca to compose a work for the carnevale of 1625, in
honour of the forthcoming visit of the Polish Prince Wladislaw Sigismund IV,
who was returning to Poland after a long exile. He had just defeated the Turks
in Wallachia and was headed to Rome where the pope was to bless him. The topic
of LLRDA was most appropriate because in the story a Christian defeats
the "heathens." It was highly unusual in the 17th century for a woman patron to
help another woman artist with her career, and Maria Maddalena not only used
her own private funds to realize the work, but became involved in the
preparation of it, offering Francesca Florentine courtiers and live horses for
the dance scenes.
LLRDA was performed at the Villa Poggio
Imperiale on February 3, 1625. The list of dancers who performed in the balletti
was composed of Florentine aristocrats, demonstrating the artistic stature of
this masterpiece, and the esteem with which Francesca's music was regarded.
Prince Sigismund IV was so impressed by the opera that he had it translated
into Polish and performed in his own country three years later.
A tale of female power and desire, the plot centers
around two women who fight for the possession of the fallen war hero Ruggiero:
the evil and seducing sorceress Alcina and the good and pure sorceress Melissa,
the true hero of the story. Francesca's music displays marked sophistication in
its manipulation of musical structure, harmony, motives, phrase rhythm,
text-painting, and broader issues of musical representation. Her use of harsh
intervals, namely the diminished fourth and fifth, addresses Alcina's seductive
and deceitful words. Unlike Alcina, Melissa's character makes comparatively
little use of harsh intervals, proving that she is good and pure.
The harmonic and tonal means used by Francesca to
portray the characters and dramatic situations throughout her opera were unique
at the time. Examining two significant musical numbers by Alcina shows how she
used tonal centers to depict the wicked sorceress's strength and weakness. The
first segment is relatively stable tonally; moving through the tonal centers a,
F, g and d respectively. Following the first cadence in G major, a sudden shift
to a G minor makes it the new key. The same shift occurs in the second cadence
in D major, which immediately moves to D minor, hence the new tonal center.
Here, the very straightforward harmony reflects Alcina's control.
The second musical segment of two consecutive solo
settings, "Ahi, Melissa, Melissa" and "Ferma, ferma crudele," depicts Alcina's
anger and confusion. Melissa has just broken Alcina's spell, thereby causing
the sorceress to lose her power and self-control, which is depicted in the
tonal instability and very chromatic music. Francesca's choice to move through
many tonal centers throughout this aria -- a, F, g, A and e implied -- is
Gender aside, Francesca was a pioneer of early monody
and opera. Her music has the artistic stature to be integrated with that of the
leading composers of early Baroque music including her father, Jacopo Peri and
Claudio Monteverdi. It is high time that Francesca's talent and contributions
be acknowledged, taught, celebrated and performed.
This essay is dedicated to all the unsung female
heroes--real, fictional, past, present and future.
Bess Vasilakopoulos received her MA (University of
Connecticut) in 1999 with a thesis dedicated to
Caccini's first opera.
La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall'isola d'Alcina
Ars Femina Ensemble/Richard Burchard
Cat. Nº Nanerl NR-ARS 003 (1 CD)
1993/out of print
Pro Musica Camerata/ Wladyslaw Klosiewicz
PMC 012 (1CD)
8 mars : Journée internationale des femmes. La Scena
Musicale suivra de près les activités du festival Maestra,
le rendez-vous international des créatrices en musique, qui se tiendra à
Montréal du 5 au 8 mai 2005