When An Opera Is Not An Opera

2009 August 24
by Warren Stewart

To the extent that Francesca Caccini is known at all to music lovers today it is as the first woman to compose an opera. Imagine the disappointment of learning that the opera for which she is famous, La Liberzaione di Ruggiero, was in fact not an opera at all!

On a certain level, it’s just a matter of how you define your terms, and La Liberzaione di Ruggiero certainly meets the most generic definition in The New Grove: “a musical dramatic work in which the actors sing all or some of the parts”.  That being said, the composer’s own designation and the circumstances and purposes of its composition support Suzanne Cusick‘s flat assertion that “La Liberazione is clearly not an opera”. She goes on to explain:

“It is, as its sources’ title pages attest a “balletto composto in musica” – an entirely sung, plotted entertainment meant to end in dancing that, in keeping with Florentine preference under the late Cosimo II, featured named dame and gentiluomini of the court whose performances deliberately dissolved the barrier between representation and reality.”

Balletto a Cavallo following La Liberazione di Ruggiero, Florence 1625

Balletto a Cavallo following La Liberazione di Ruggiero, Florence 1625

La Liberazione, then, was an extended prologue to further festivities, which in addition to the dancing of members of the court, included a horse ballet, all to celebrate the visit of Crown Prince Wladislaw Vasa of Poland, who had come to Florence for Carnival. Kelly Harness notes that the librettist Ferdinando Saracinelli “expanded the initial dialogue interchange that typically preceded the balletto a cavallo [horse ballet] proper into a potentially free-standing work, whose length approaches that of the earliest favole per musica. La Liberazione consists of 773 line; by contrast, in Le Fonti d’Ardenna [performed during Carnival in Florence in 1623] 230 lines precede the combat scene, while the total number of lines equals 357. L’Euridice by Ottavio Rinuccini numbers 790 lines.”

Perhaps as exceptional as the fact that this full-length entertainment was the work of a woman, was the fact that it was by a single composer, as most of the Florentine entertainments to that time had been the collective work of two or more of the composers of the Medici court, including Francesca on many occasions.

In any case, opera as “musical theater” performed for a paying public was still more than a decade off in 1625. “Favole in musiche” were typically commissioned by a court for a particular occasion, and only rarely revived after the first performance. It was only with the first public opera in Venice in the late 1630s that the democratic institution of theater was merged with the aristocratic experiment of sung drama. And from there came Mozart, Verdi and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

As Magnificat will be performing Caccini’s work (at least this time!) detached from the dances, human or equine, that followed, we will continue to promote the production as an “opera”, as calling it a “balletto” may strike some as confusing at best and at worst, false advertising!

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