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A Librettist’s Choices: Saracinelli and La Liberazione di Ruggiero

Archduchess Maria Magdalena

Archduchess Maria Magdalena

To say that La Liberazione di Ruggiero is a “setting” of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso is not entirely accurate. Rather it is a “reworking”, a “re-telling”, in which the librettist Ferdinando Saracinelli, a prominent figure and superintendent of performances for the Medici Court, was engaged in an ongoing tradition. The choices Saracinelli made in his libretto not surprisingly reflect the political agenda of his patroness, the Archduchess Maria Magdalena as well the concerns of the Florentine aristocracy in 1625.

In her survey of women at the Medici Court at the beginning of the 17th Century (Echoes of Women’s Voices: Music, Art, and Female Patronage in Early Modern Florence, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), Kelly Harness points out that Saracinelli’s libretto draws as much from Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata as from Ariosto. His effort was another installment in the multi-generational life of a good yarn. Grazio Braccioli, the librettist for Vivaldi’s Orlando furioso, the unknown librettist of Handel’s Alcina, and many others carried on this process of re-telling in subsequent generations. More recently Italo Calvino has re-told these stories, for example, in The Non-Existent Knight.

The choice of Ruggiero’s tale and Saracinelli’s poetic decisions in the libretto were influenced by political consideration of the Medici Court in the 1620s. The elaborate festivities of which La Liberazione was a part were staged in honor of the visit  to Tuscany of Wladyslaw Vasa, Crown Prince of Poland. The prologue praises, with some deferential exaggeration,  the Prince’s heroism in defeating the Ottoman army in the Balkans (though his “victory” was in fact more of a stalemate) and his heroism versus Muscovy (also indecisive, at least by 1625). Maria Magdalena (a Hapsburg) desired that Poland defend Catholicism and enter into the conflict that we now refer to as the Thirty Years War and in general to stop being so tolerant toward the Protestants in his own land. There were also personal concerns, as Harness describes:

“Unsurprising in light of the archduchess’s plan to arrange a marriage between her daughter and Wladislaw, ensuring dynastic continuity through an appropriate marital alliance emerges as one of the central themes in La Liberazione. And once again Ariosto’s beneficent sorceress Melissa is crucial to the plot. In its principal source, Orlando furioso (cantos 7 and 8), Melissa – disguised as the old sorcerer Atlante and aided by a magic ring – must free Ruggiero from Alcina’s enchantment so that he might return to Bradamante and found the Este dynasty.”

Establishing the noble lineage of the Este dynasty, central to Ariosto and Boiardo before him in pleasing their Ferrarese patrons, was of less importance to Saracinelli of course and it is Melissa/Atlante’s call to battle that is emphasized. The magic ring is missing from Saracinelli’s libretto, rather it is the commanding presence of Melissa (transformed into Ruggiero’s protector Atlante) and her scolding call to military duty that “liberates” Ruggiero from his enchantment. Suzanne Cusick persuasively argues that Melissa – and specifically her relationship to Ruggiero – “can be read as a model of how a woman such as Maria Magdalena might effectively rule in a monarchical and patriarchal world.”

The fact that Melissa turns, in effect, to deception in her liberation of Ruggiero – she assumes the appearance of a male authority figure – creates a complex subtext when viewed from the perspective of a Florentine aristocracy that was never entirely comfortable with the foreign and “mannish” Maria Magdalena. In an illuminating footnote in her article  “Of Women, Music, and Power: An Example from Seicento Florence” (Musicology and Difference, ed. R. Solie, Berkeley, 1993), Cusick notes (n 22, p 294):

“Forced to seem what she is not – to deceive – in order to avoid seeming deceitful, a woman ruler is trapped by the contradictions inherent in the overlap between the gender system and the requirements of monarchy.”

Cusick goes on to suggest that given the Florentine aristocracy’s perennial criticism of the Archduchess’s arrogance and her imperious behavior, the enlarged role given to Melissa by Saracinelli may have been seen to symbolize Magdalena’s usurpation of the noble bureaucracy’s traditional role. While in Orlando furioso Ruggiero, once liberated, heroically seeks to escape from the enchanted island on his own, in La Liberazione he remains dependent on the agency of Melissa, who also graciously releases the previously enchanted knights from their enslavement as plants, from whence they joined in the horse ballet that followed La Liberazione in the courtyard of the Poggio Imperiale.

RinaldoArmidaBelucciCroppedThe two scenes in La Liberazione that feature Ruggiero and Alcina have no parallel in Orlando furioso, drawn instead from Tasso. The first of these scenes, an amorously playful dispute over appearances relies on the conceit of the mirror, a potent and ambiguous symbol of both enlightenment and vanity. Again from Harness:

“[B]oth scenes featuring Alcina and Ruggiero – the first an amorous debate between two lovers and the second an actual confrontation between the sorceress and the knight who has abandoned her – have no clear parallels in Orlando furioso. Although Ariosto describes briefly the sensual nature of their life on the enchanted island (7.30-32), he includes no actual dialogue. Stanzas 17-26 of canto 16 in Gerusalemme liberata, by way of contrast, are nearly identical in content to the La Liberazione episode: Rinaldo and Armida debate the accuracy with which a mirror can reflect a woman’s true likeness. Both Rinaldo and Saracinelli’s Ruggiero conclude that they themselves can provide the truest reflections of their lovers, and their declarations share several key phrases. ”

Their next encounter occurs after Ruggiero’s liberation, and provides an opportunity for both a lament and something approaching a mad scene for Alcina. Her complaint, a tripartite tour de force expressing successively Alcina’s attempts to change Ruggiero’ mind through pleading, seduction, and fury, is itself transformative, displaying “the power of music to rearrange the relations of which the world was made”. (Cusick, 2009, p 224) Again this scene uses Taso as a model. While Ariosto’s Alcina first laments Ruggiero’s departure and then plots to retain him through force, Tasso’s Armida, after tears and seduction fail in regaining Rinaldo’s affections, accuses her former lover of treachery and threatens revenge – better opera for sure.

The relationship of Saracinelli’s libretto to its “source” then is as revealing in its deviations as in its fidelity and his choices in fashioning the libretto – particularly in enhancing the role of Melissa – furthered the goals of his patroness. By drawing from both Ariosto and Tasso and also incorporating entirely new material he engaged with an established tradition while creating a new work with contemporary resonance.

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