Two things are really valuable when we approach the unknown or the unfamiliar in the arts.
One is for people who know about a bit about the unfamiliar experience to share their knowledge: give us some background, help us understand why we don’t know about it, point out what we might enjoy, what we might find challenging, and, maybe, share their informed enthusiasm for this new, strange experience that awaits us.
The other is for the performance itself to be wonderful – for all those involved in it to have imagined, worked tirelessly on, and then delivered something vital and engaging and transformatory.
If you have the latter, you can live without the former. (It doesn’t work the other way round – a humbling realisation for someone like me who only writes about music…)
Sometimes, if you are very lucky you get both, as I did when I saw the Brighton Early Music Festival’s production of Francesca Caccini’s La Liberazione di Ruggiero on a windy, rainy night in November on the south coast of England. Here’s an image from the closing minutes – channelling ‘Votes for Women’ from Mary Poppins – or is that just me?
You really did have to be there but trust me, it worked, the audience loved it, and (cultural historian hat on) it was yet another delightful nod to the gender politics which surrounded Caccini’s work back in 1625, and which were explored intelligently and creatively in the programme notes by Laurie Stras.
Caccini’s opera is rarely performed. (Ok, it’s not strictly an opera, but that’s how it gets into the music history books – as the ‘first opera’ written by a woman – and I’ll take any media hook that’s going if it helps to get her work performed.) When writing about La Liberazione in my book, I believed that it was unlikely I would ever see a live performance. How wrong I was – and how lucky I was that the first performance I saw was the one in Brighton.
Witty, exhilarating, beautiful, thought-provoking…but don’t take my word for it, the reviews were glorious, and rightly so. http://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/nov/09/la-liberazione-di-ruggiero-review-francesca-caccini
As I walked back to my airbnb room that night, I truly was lightheaded with excitement. In one evening of entertainment, that performance had done more to make the music of women a normal, natural, glorious part of our shared culture than anything else I’d come across in the years I have been engaged in exploring women’s work in the classical tradition. I could even dream that La Liberazione di Ruggiero might become part of the repertoire.
So, it was with great anticipation that I headed to Paris this last weekend to see a second performance of La Liberazione in the Palace of Versailles. I was particularly excited because I thought that to see the work in such a splendid setting – La Liberazione was originally written for princely patrons, first performed at a Medici palace in the hills above Florence – would reveal yet another side to Caccini.
The first disappointment was that it was a concert performance. Now, I know I should be grateful that the programmers at Versailles decided to put even one work composed by a woman into their entire season, but part of the thrill of Caccini’s work is that it is multi-media entertainment. In the original 1625 production, one character arrived on stage on a dolphin; magical transformations, of sets and costumes, occured before the audience’s very eyes; and there were dancing horses. Dancing horses.
Even if you strip out the visuals, however, there’s still a spicy threesome at the heart of the drama. Put simply, a wicked (but oh so attractive) sorceress, Alcina, seduces a knight, Ruggiero, to her island and entraps him there in order to take her pleasure. Worse still, he, and a host of other previous victims, seem thoroughly to enjoy the experience. Fortunately, however, a ‘good’ witch, Melissa (bigendered, because s/he can appear as either male or female), triumphs over Alcina, and liberates Ruggiero and his fellows. Having seen the Brighton production, I can report the subplot – concerning some enchanted plants, and which, having read about it, I had previously dismissed as a bit of a bore – was, in performance, just as compelling.
So, maybe any concert performance was going to fall a bit flat. I take my hat off to Michaela Riener who did her damnedest to make Alcina the sexy threat to world peace that Caccini makes her (no time here to go into the political message of this work, but rest assured, it’s there and, yes, Brighton brought it out). But Riener didn’t stand a chance, with the overwhelming physical presence of the conductor – do we really need an old-style ‘look at me, I’m the boss’ conductor in music from this era? – literally standing between her and her lover Ruggiero – who looked a little lost – and her arch-enemy, Melissa, sung here by a woman rather than a counter-tenor (because….? Who knows?)
A far cry from November in Brighton. Here Ruggiero attempts (not very successfully) to resist Alcina, watched from behind the bath-house by Melissa. You can almost hear the latter tutting his/her disapproval.
Other factors conspired to take the edge off my enjoyment. The seating arrangements in the Salon d’Hercule at Versailles left a lot to be desired. I paid 50 euros for a seat in the back row. This was my view.
The acoustic wasn’t great either. A couple of the singers were pretty disappointing, although the fact that the room was very, very chilly might not have helped. There was no libretto available (as far as I could tell) – certainly no-one around me had one, and I’m not sure how anyone could have worked out who was who, let alone what was happening, without it.
There was, however, a paragraph in the season guide which left me gasping, although it shouldn’t have done, since I’ve been living with these sexist cliches for years. Apparently Caccini’s arias are very melodious, and one perceives the subtilty of the feminine hand/writer in them. I searched the rest of the season’s offerings, and couldn’t find anything similar written about the male composers who fill up the programme. (I’m not blaming the performers for this. Having tracked down their website, the phrase is missing. It’s the Royal Opera of Versailles that’s the culprit.)
Overall, I was left with the impression that the evening was more about sitting in a big room in the palace of Versailles than about the music. Having said all that, my companion for the evening (a nineteenth-century opera fan, for whom this was a first Ruggiero), enjoyed the performance far more than I did. He was pleasantly surprised by the variety in the music – I’d warned him about the dominance of recitative – and was delighted in all sorts of ways by Alcina.
Now, a little voice tells me that I should be oh so grateful to anyone for putting on any music by women. But damn it, there are performances which transform their audiences’ lives and create a space for new music (for this IS new music), and there are performances which keep women composers safely in their ‘feminine’ box, specimens to be viewed from time to time, but never truly freed to take their rightful place in our musical culture. That’s why the hashtag for the Brighton performance #freeruggiero was just so, so right.