Caccini Puppet Opera

Francesca Caccini at the Medici Court

January 11th, 2011 1 comment

Suzanne Cusick has graciously provided the following essay on Francesca Caccini and La Liberazione di Ruggiero. The essay is an adaptation of remarks made on February 3, 2006 at Smith College on the occasion of a performance of La Liberazione directed by Drew Minter. The essay benefits from Professor Cusick’s lifelong research into this remarkable woman and much of the material became part of her extraordinary monograph published earlier this summer: Francesca Caccini at the Medici Court: Music and the Circulation of Power (2009, University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-13212-9).

Francesca Caccini

Francesca Caccini

Francesca Caccini was born in mid-September 1587, the first-born child of two singers then on salary to produce chamber and theatre music for the Medici court–Lucia Gagnolandi, and Giulio Caccini (who was himself the second son of an ambitious wood dealer from Pisa). By 1587 Giulio was already one of the best-known singers and singing teachers of his generation, and the one professional singer known to have regularly participated in the conversations at courtier Giovanni de’Bardi’s Fiesole villa (known as La Camerata) that are supposed to have led to the two most stunning musical innovations of the 17th-century–the invention of a new kind of solo song, and the closely-related invention of new ways of setting plays to music that led directly to the emergence of opera as a genre.

At 13 Francesca sang in the first more-or-less publicly performed opera, L’Euridice, joining her sister Settimia, her step-mother Margerita, and various other pupils of her father to sing the female and the choral parts of the show that had been assigned to Giulio’s composition. At 17, she so impressed the King of France, Henri IV, with the literary sensitivity of her singing in French that the King asked to have her as a musical servant to his household. In the winter before she turned 20 she composed her first theatrical work for the Medici court–a kind of mock sword fight preceded by musico-dramatic dialogue called a barriera. The show’s success seems to have led directly to her hiring by the Medici court as a musica (an all-round musical servant) two months after her 20th birthday; in keeping with local custom, she was married to another musical servant the same week she appeared on the court’s payroll (although, contrary to the prevailing custom, her dowry was paid by her father, not by the court).

According to a biographical sketch penned between 1627 and 1630 by a man who had then known her as a court colleague for 15 years, Cristoforo Bronzini, the adult Francesca was an industrious, talkative woman who compensated by talent, charm, cheerfulness and gracious manners for the fact that, in his words, “she had not been well endowed by nature”.  Francesca had been alone among her father Giulio’s 10 children in receiving something close to a humanist education. This “girl of the sharpest intelligence”, as Bronzini called her, was taught Latin, some Greek, rhetoric, grammar, and languages well enough that she was remembered for writing, as a 12-year-old, a commentary on books 3 and 4 of the Aeneid, and for her adult ability to improvise songs to poetry in Latin, Italian, French, Spanish, German, and several Italian dialects. Constantly eager to learn new things, Francesca seems to have been especially interested in mathematics–arithmetic, geometry and astrology–in the occult sciences, and in philosophy, which, Bronzini says, “she would have studied further had she been able, like Astenia and some others, to wear boy’s clothing to attend the public schools”. Her musical studies, he tells us, were at first a minor part of her education, pursued as a pastime, and “to please her father”.

By the time she impressed the King of France, she was known as much for her skills on the harp, harpsichord, lute, theorbo and guitar as for her singing, and she was said to be able to play any stringed instrument well. Sometime before she was 20, Tuscan Granduchess Christine de Lorraine noticed her talent, and arranged for her to study counterpoint, to marry a handsome, impoverished, respectable tenor on the court’s staff, Giovanni Battista Signorini, and to be hired as a musician of the Granducal court.

In the 20 years that followed, Francesca Caccini performed regularly for the private pleasure of the Medici family–that is, for two Grand Dukes, and for their wives, children, cousins, nephews, nieces, and guests. Annually, during the last three days of Holy Week, Florentine melophiles could be sure of hearing her publicly, when she participated in the poly-choral performances of “the Offices”, singing from the balcony, and behind the grate where the ruling family themselves sat–as if her voice, mixing with those of her own family and pupils, sang in the place of the rulers’. Witnesses to her performances reported that:

“…whenever it suited her, this same woman …could by her singing and playing kindle astonishment and boldness in the breasts of her listeners, so that they would agree to any undertaking, no matter how burdensome…with the soft sound of her playing and the sweetness of her song she invited every breast (even if opposed to chaste intentions) to pure self-containment and integrity…as matched her own…”

In addition, Francesca composed hundreds of songs and duets in the new style her father claimed to have invented, all but 36 of them lost; she taught the daughters of Medici servants or of Florentine professionals who aspired to musical positions at court, paid for her work either by the court or by the girls’ parents, and she taught music to the Medici children, to the daughters of their favorite government ministers, and perhaps to the daughter of Galileo (in whose home conversazione she is known to have participated); and, often collaborating with colleagues Marco da Gagliano and Jacopo Peri,  she composed some of the music for at least 17 court-based entertainments–balli, comedies for Carnival, mascherate, sacred operas–many of them shows authored by  and little shows put on by and for the households of the two Medici Grand Duchesses (that is, their dame and donne, their children, and such professionals as were needed to serve as ‘ringers’ or onstage coaches–these last were usually Caccini herself, along with some of her artisan-class pupils).

The show that Magnificat will present October 16-18, La liberazione di Ruggiero, is the only one of these  to survive nearly intact (excerpts from several others exist). When she got the gig to compose it (probably working from a barely-sketched libretto and scenic plan), Francesca was the highest paid musician at the Medici court, an intimate of the royal’s domestic spaces (though always a servant in their eyes), and a person whose special gifts to the court were her ability as a composer to make her patrons “laugh from the heart” and her ability, as both a singer and musician, “to make her listeners do whatever she wanted…”

By the time Caccini’s first husband died in late December 1626, she had borne him only one child, Margerita, born 14 years after her parents married. Left only with the property her own dowry had bought, the household goods her husband’s will specified had all been purchased with her salary, and a nice collection of jewels given to her by those who admired her performances, she arranged immediately to remarry.

Two weeks after her 40th birthday, she married a minor nobleman from Lucca, Tomaso Raffaelli, a man about whom others noted his intense melophilia, the richness of his instrument collection, and his Ganymede-like manner. When Raffaelli died three years later, Francesca had borne him a son. As Raffaelli’s widow and the guardian of his noble son, Francesca enjoyed the lifelong usufruct of his estate and something even more precious–a tenuous but plausible hold on the noble status for which her education but *not* her 20 years of hard work had prepared her. She returned to Florence in 1634, where she again served the Medici women (never singing again in public, but apparently making music and teaching the princesses in their convent home) until her daughter Margherita was settled in life–life as a virtuosa musician in a convent that adjoined the principal Medici palace–in 1640.

In May, 1641, Francesca left Medici service forever, and disappeared from the public record.

Looking Back on Last Season: Caccini’s La Liberazione di Ruggiero

August 22nd, 2010 No comments

Magnificat’s 2009-2010 season opened with a somewhat irreverent production of Francesca Caccini’s La Liberazione di Ruggiero on the weekend on October 16-18, 2009. The production marked the return of The Carter Family Marionettes, with their troupe of wooden trouble-makers, to Magnificat’s series.

Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle expressed what many of the audience felt when he commented that “the Carters have wooden stand-ins not only for the main human characters but also for dragons and demons, birds and gamboling lambs, transformed trees and dancing sea horses, and the level of theatrical magic on display was enchanting.” The full review can be read here.

Of course, Caccini’s magnificent work was not originally intended for interpretation by puppets, but the subject of the opera – the legends of Orlando as told by Ariosto and Tasso – was shared with the repertoire of the Sicilian puppet tradition, a specialization of the Carters and it seemed like a good fit. To this already polyglot stew was added the spice of commedia dell’arte characters, creating a unique and enjoyable experience for performers and audience alike.

Here’s an excerpt from the performance on October 18, 2009 – featuring countertenor José Lemos who will also appear in Magnificat’s upcoming production of John Blow’s Venus and Adonis in October. In the first, the good sorceress Melissa appears and announces her intention of saving Ruggiero from the enchantment of Alcina’s isle by appearing to him in the guise of his mentor Atlante. José is accompanied by Katherine Heater.

Photo Gallery
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Another Review: Francesca Caccini’s La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall’ Isola Alcina

October 23rd, 2009 No comments

The following thoughtful review was posted at the blog Exotic and Irrational Entertainment by “Pessimissimo”. I especially appreciate the recognition of the excellent program notes by Suzanne Cusick, who contributed tremendously to my understanding of Francesca and her “show”. The reviewer’s comments about Pulcinella are well taken, I would only point out that, the commedia figures were not only associated with Sicilian theatre, but with Italian theater in general and the performance of commedia troupes at any event like the visit of a foreign dignitary, especially during Carnival was taken for granted (and in fact mandatory for the companies enjoying the protection of the Medici). That being said, they certainly were not part of the original performance in 1625, but then neither were puppets of any sort. Thanks for such a well considered review!

This past week in the Bay Area the Baroque vocal group Magnificat (in collaboration with the Carter Family Marionettes) performed Francesca Caccini’s La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall’ Isola d’Alcina (The Liberation of Ruggiero from Alcina’s Island, 1625) as a puppet opera. (Images from the website of Magnificat.)

Francesca Caccini was a remarkable figure. According to scholar Suzanne Cusick‘s informative program notes, Francesca was the daughter of the famous singer and composer Giulio Caccini (of “Amarilli, mia bella” fame). Francesca sang at age 13 in the first opera to have survived complete, Jacopo Peri and Ottavio Rinuccini’s L’Euridice (1600), to which her father also contributed music. Francesca not only had a beautiful singing voice by contemporary accounts, but was a multi-instrumentalist and later a teacher and composer as well. She wrote hundreds of songs and music for at least 17 entertainments for the Medici Court in Florence. Unfortunately most of her songs are lost, and the only one of her operas that survives in performable form is La Liberazione di Ruggiero. Read more…

SF Chronicle Review and Photos of Magnificat’s Ruggiero

October 21st, 2009 No comments

Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle attended last Saturday’s sold out performance in Berkeley and has posted a review available online here.

We have posted more photos on our Flickr Photostream. Everyone perfromed beautifully and we had standing ovations for each performance. Thanks to everyone – performers, audience, staff and board – for making last weekend a tremendous success!

Back Stage on Saturday Night

Back Stage on Saturday Night

The Stage on Saturday in BErkeley

The Stage on Saturday in Berkeley

Sold Out in Berkeley

Sold Out in Berkeley

SFist: Puppet Opera: La Liberazione di Ruggiero

October 17th, 2009 3 comments

Cedric Westphal posted this preview of Magnificat’s performance of La Liberazione di Ruggiero on yesterday.

Alcina and one of her minions

Alcina and one of her minions

La Liberazione di Ruggiero is arguably the first opera written by a woman, and features strong feminist themes and a challenge to patriarchal society, but honestly, they had us at Puppet Opera. And not just any kind of puppets: three foot tall, forty pound puppets from Sicily, getting into sword fights and romance. It is actually quite common that your opera singers act stiff and wooden, and these puppets are no exception.

Written in 1625 by a woman, Francesca Caccini, for a woman, Maria Magdalena de Medici, who wanted to impress the visiting prince of Poland to her court of Tuscany, it is based on Ariosto’s “Orlando Furioso“. Magnificat Baroque will perform the score, under the baton of artistic director (and blogger) Warren Stewart, while the Carter Family Marionettes will do the visuals. We caught up with Warren Stewart and Stephen Carter during a break in their rehearsals. It became quite obvious that they were an excellent match to collaborate, as both of them share a charming volubility, and combine an obvious passion with an erudite scholarship for some rather arcane artistic forms: 17th century music and puppetry.

“There certainly was a tradition of performing opera with puppets,” Warren said, “going back to the beginning of opera. Unlike previous productions we have done with the Carters, this opera was never done with puppets. This opera was performed only once for a specific occasion in 1625, and not performed again until the 20th century.” It is not a US premiere, however. “We have done plenty of modern premiere of 17th century music,” Warren acknowledged, “but in this case it has been done. This opera received a lot of attention since it is the first opera by a woman. So there has been musicological work on it and several productions in the last couple decades.

Actually, apart from Kaija Saariaho and the upcoming commission of the SF Opera from Jennifer Higdon we could not come up with another opera written by a female composer. “We should advertise this as the only opera by a woman,” joked Warren.

Read the Entire Article

More Photos of the Puppet Cast of Liberazione di Ruggiero

October 14th, 2009 No comments

Lots more photos of the wooden cast of La Liberazione di Ruggiero can be viewed on our Flicker Photostream. Here’s a few:

Ruggiero prepared for battle

Ruggiero prepared for battle

The Hippogriff

The Hippogriff



Assembling the Puppet Stage for La Liberazione di Ruggiero

October 13th, 2009 No comments

The Carter Family arrived and assembled their puppet stage for today’s rehearsals of La Liberazione di Ruggiero. More photos can viewed at our Flicker page.

The Skeleton

The Skeleton

Almost Done

Almost Done

Stephen Carter Backstage

Stephen Carter Backstage

Photos from Monday’s Ruggiero Rehearsals

October 13th, 2009 No comments

We’ve created a Flicker Photostream for this week’s rehearsals of Caccini’s La Liberazione di Ruggiero. Setting up the puppet stage now – photos soon!

Here are a few:

Single Manual Italian meets 5 speed Subaru

Single Manual Italian meets 5 speed Subaru

Hugh meets Cassie's understudy Molly

Hugh meets Cassie's understudy Molly



The Cast of La Liberazione di Ruggiero

October 10th, 2009 2 comments

Introducing the cast – both human and wooden – for Magnificat’s upcoming production of La Liberazione di Ruggiero. Presenting an opera with puppets allows the freedom for one singer to take on several roles. La Liberazione di Ruggiero features three primary roles: the galant, if temporarily mis-guided, knight Ruggiero and two sorceresses: the evil Alcina and and the benevolent Melissa. In addition there are shepherds, sirens, damigelle, and enchanted trees. (Full bios of all the musicians (and puppeteers!) in the production can be viewed here.)

Catherine Webster - Alcina

Catherine Webster - Alcina

Catherine Webster has been singing with Magnificat for ten years now. Since her unforgettable debut as a last minute addition in our first performance of the remarkable music of Chiara Margarita Cozzolani in 1999, Catherine has become an audience favorite. In this production she will sing the role of the evil sorceress Alcina, who has seduced Ruggiero, like so many knights before him, with her charm and beauty and the sensual delights of her palace. Though her beauty turns out to be an illusion, the pathos of her lament/complaint after Ruggiero abandons her, the high point of the opera, both thematically and musically is genuine.

Jennifer Paulino - Sirena

Jennifer Paulino - Sirena

Fresh from her triumphant performances with Les Grâces on the SFEMS series last month, Jennifer Paulino will sing the role of the Siren sent to entertain Ruggiero in Alcina’s pleasure garden, as well as several other roles. Jennifer first sang with Magnificat in our 2007 performances of Stradella’s La Susanna and has returned frequently since then. In contrast to the three principal characters, Ruggiero, Alcina, and Melissa, who sing entirely in syllabic recitative, the other roles, like the Siren, sing in strophic, metered poetry, often in triple meter.

José Lemos - Melissa

José Lemos - Melissa

It is a pleasure to welcome back José Lemos, who sang the role of Nino in Magnificat’s production of Stradella’s Il Tespolo tutore in 2007. This time José will sing the role of the good sorceress Melissa, who is actually the agent of Ruggiero’s “liberation” from the enchantment of Alcina’s island. In order to demonstrate to  Ruggiero of the error of his ways and convince him to return to his knightly duties, Melissa transforms herself into the appearance of Atlante (Atlas in Orlando furioso), who had been a mentor/father figure to both herself and Ruggiero. José will also sing the role of Alcina’s servant Oreste, who delivers the news that Ruggiero has forsaken Alcina.

Scott Whitaker - Ruggiero

Scott Whitaker - Ruggiero

Tenor Scott Whitaker will be reviving the role of Ruggiero, which he sang in the Carter Family’s production in 2007. Scott has sung many times with Magnificat over the past decade, most recently in Schütz’ Resurrection Story in 2005. In the particular episode of Orlando furioso captured in Caccini’s opera, Ruggiero is initially depicted as emasculated and weak, having succumbed to the powers of Alcina, affording the opportunity for a love duet based on the conceit of the mirror, drawn from Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata. After his “liberation” though, he dons his armour and returns to his heroic ways, conquering dragons and various demons in pitched battle.

Daniel Hutchings - Shepherd

Daniel Hutchings - Shepherd

A familiar face (and voice) to Magnificat audiences, Tenor Daniel Hutchings has appeared with Magnificat for many years. In this production, he will sing a variety of roles, most notably a lovesick shepherd who entertains Ruggiero in Alcina’s garden with his aria about love lost and then re-affirmed. The pastoral topic of the amorous adventures of shepherd and shepherdesses was well established by the 1620s, owing in no small part to the remarkable popularity of Guarino’s Il Pastor Fido, along with Orlando furioso the most popular literature in Italy at the time.

Hugh Davies - Neptune

Hugh Davies - Neptune

Baritone Hugh Davies first sang with Magnificat in our 1994 prodcution of Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo. Among his roles in that production was a “damned soul in Heaven” for which he wore a flaming red body suit. (Hugh is thankful that Facebook and cell phone cameras didn’t exist in 1994!) In this production, Hugh will sing the role of Neptune, who appears in the Prologue to welcome the guest of honor – the Crown Prince of Poland, who was visiting Florence for Carnival. Neptune urges the mighty Vistola river (sung by Dan Hutchings), which flows through Warsaw, to join him in the welcome, and then sets the stage for the drama to follow.

Palo Alto Online Preview: Marionettes Meet 17th-Century Feminism

October 10th, 2009 No comments

Palo Alto Online posted this preview of Magnificat’s upcoming performances. The original can be viewed here.

Marionettes meet 17th-century feminism
The Magnificat ensemble explores the lost art of puppet opera

by Be’eri Moalem

“Marionettes are able to do fantastic things,” Carter said. “They can fly through the air. They can burst into flames. You can chop a character’s head off. We built a wave machine.”

Lovers of classical music all know masters such as Bach, Mozart and Beethoven; their music is performed year after year.

Some may even know 17th-century names such as Monteverdi and Purcell. But what about composers such as Peri, Allegri, Melani or Caccini? Cazzati, Rovetta and Rigatti?

When examining the music of the 17th century, Stanford-trained musicologist Warren Stewart was amazed at its beauty, and how relatively rarely it is performed. So he co-founded Magnificat, a San Francisco early-music ensemble that promotes and performs 17th-century music.

Magnificat’s performers try to give authentic Baroque-style concerts, using special instruments such as valve-less horns and working within an entirely different style of musical organization and style (clefs and key signatures did not function as they do today).

“The 17th century was a big experiment,” Stewart said, referring to the arts as well as science. “Suddenly Earth was not the center of the universe but a tiny speck in space, and suddenly exaggerated human emotions were depicted in painting and in this new art form, opera.”

Next week, Magnificat brings to Palo Alto an opera that is particularly pioneering — Stewart says it’s the first opera composed by a woman. Francesca Caccini’s “La Liberazione di Ruggiero” is a tale of two powerful sorceresses who battle over the political fate of a young prince. Over the course of the story, monsters are conjured up and one of the women magically transforms into a man and then back into a woman.

According to Stewart, the political subtext and symbolism were not lost on Archduchess Maria Magdalena, who commissioned the opera as the prelude to an equestrian ballet. She was struggling to hold on to power in the early 1620s after her husband died and his heir was only 10 years old; feminism and gender power struggles are age-old themes.

Meanwhile, Stewart said, the feminist angle is magnified by the fact that the opera was composed by arguably one of the first women in modern history to make a full career out of music. The main breadwinner in her family, Caccini was a respected lutenist, harpsichordist, singer, writer and composer. Read more…

Puppets and Gender Bending in the Baroque Style: San Francisco Classical Voice Previews Magnificat

October 5th, 2009 No comments

Lisa Hirsch of Iron Tongue of Midnight wrote the following preview of Magnificat’s upcoming production of Francesca Caccini’s La Liberazione di Ruggiero for San Francisco Classical Voice.

And that’s just what you can see next month when Magnificat Baroque, in collaboration with the Carter Family Marionettes, presents Francesca Caccini’s La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’Isola d’Alcina (The Liberation of Ruggiero from the island of Alcina) on Oct. 16, 17, and 18 in three venues.

In La liberazione, the wicked sorceress Alcina seduces the warrior Ruggiero, who dwells happily on Alcina’s island until finally the good sorceress Melissa shames him into returning to battle — and, incidentally, to his fiancée, the warrior maiden Bradamante. The plot comes from an episode in the epic Renaissance poem Orlando Furioso, by Ariosto, which is in turn based on the medieval French poem The Song of Roland.

That’s where the puppets come in.

The Carter Family Marionettes, who are providing the staging for La liberazione, perform in the Sicilian opera dei pupi tradition, a style that flourished in the 19th century, but that stretches back for centuries. Their puppets are large, and the puppeteers control them with iron rods. The entire repertory of opera dei pupi plays comes from The Song of Roland, so the puppets are a natural pairing with La liberazione.

“I’m especially excited to be working with the Carter Family again,” Magnificat Director Warren Stewart told SFCV. “We did some shows together in the 1990s, and they were tremendous fun. Hardly a concert has gone by since then when an audience member hasn’t come up to me to ask when we’ll do another puppet show. The Carters are great at connecting with the audience and already had a very funny and engaging production of La liberazione in their repertory.”

Read the Entire Preview

To Draw from a Thousand Hearts a Thousand Sighs

September 29th, 2009 No comments

In the late Spring of 1608, a tragedy brought together the worlds of comedy and opera in Mantua for a magical performance. The singer of the first great “aria” – Arianna’s famous lament – was best known at the time in the commedia roles of Florinda, Columbina, Isabella or those of the female zanni, Franceschina or Smeraldina.

Callot17croppedThe connection between the nascent Italian theater of the 16th Century, commonly referred to as “commedia dell’ arte”, and the development of opera at the end of that century has been well established by musical scholars. Nino Pirrotta, in a memorable Musical Quarterly article from 1955, observed:

If I may be permitted to make a comparison, I would choose, even though it is old and much abused, that of two branches growing from a common trunk-two branches not quite opposite and divergent, but near each other in their origin, then sometimes separated, sometimes brought nearer by the imponderable factors of air, of light, of the juices running through them and nourishing them.

We tend to think of commedia as rowdy, bawdy, low-brow entertainment and that certainly was a popular and enduring aspect of the commedia. So it is somewhat surprising to learn that in the 16th and 17th century the commedia, whether performed by actors or puppeteers, was equally beloved by the nobility and the lower classes – at least as respected as any professional artist at the time, though that wasn’t all that much.

The Medici, like the delle Rovere in Modena and especially the Gonzagas in Mantua, sponsored several troupes of comici, and their performances were an essential element of any grand occasion and especially during the Carnival season. The troupes were itinerant and would take up residence in different cities in Italy, and eventually in France and Spain, with the various ruling families vying for their services.

Read more…

Francesca Caccini’s La Liberazione di Ruggiero and the Culture of Women

September 24th, 2009 No comments

(This is the third of a three part essay on Francesca Caccini and La Liberzione di Ruggiero, which Magnificat will perform on the weekend of October 16-18. The earlier posts were: “About Francesca” and the second “What is La Liberazione di Ruggiero about?“.)

One could hear these scenes as representing the truth of women’s experience, and of woman-to-woman exchanges; moreover, one could hear them as purging the stage not of effeminacy but of an idea of femininity constructed by male fantasy.

caravaggio-lute-player-c-1600-detailLa liberazione di Ruggiero fits into the Tuscan court’s long-term pattern of representing powerful women. Its setting at Villa Imperiale, its nearly all-female cast, and its plot focus on the contest between two women over the sexual and political destiny of a young man all invited its first audience to imagine they were being given a glimpse of the gynecentric, feminizing world they feared. It invited them to confront and resolve their anxieties about local women’s sexual and political power in an entertaining way, by inviting them to suspend temporarily the boundary separating representation and reality, in the very space most associated with that power. It invited them, too, to a resolution in which they could imagine themselves liberated from effeminacy (or from unreasonable gynephobia) through the agency of an unnaturally powerful but benevolent female, the sorceress Melissa.

The show is quintessentially Baroque–full of doublings; scenes that mirror each other formally; scenes that entangle listening spectators in momentarily perplexing forms so as simultaneously to give pleasure and provoke surprise (but that go by so fast we cannot quite think about them); and scenes that look and sound like parodies of contemporary chamber or theatrical performances. Shows within shows within shows, and reminiscent of the very kinds of entertainments Caccini and her troupe performed all the time at the women’s court, these scenes are all performed for Ruggiero, and they are all aimed at controlling his behavior (whether toward entrapment on Alcina’s island or liberation from it).

Moreover, the show’s scene rhythm is disquietingly asymmetrical. A good 2/3 of the La liberazione, including much of the post-liberation material, takes place in a single setting, Alcina’s island, where the concatenation of shows within shows within shows easily seduces any spectator to complacency. Once Alcina’s rage (figured as verbal and musical excess) sets her world on fire, the scene changes rapidly, first to a dry, landlocked space whence first the women and then the men imprisoned in the bodies of plants emerged to dance, and then to a piazza whence the entire audience was exhorted to move, with the cast, to a courtyard for the shows’ final number, a ballet for 24 horses and riders, led by the triumphant Melissa who circles the field in a centaur-drawn cart.

The overall experience of the show for its audience, then, is of a prolonged, if entertaining stasis, concocted of shows within the show that suddenly unfurls toward uncontained, rapid change that eventually engulfs everyone present. Brilliantly (given the trope of liberation), it is a show that evades closure–even in its published score, as much a product of the court’s propaganda campaign as the show itself, which lacks music for the final dance numbers. Whatever might be understood to go on emotionally in the stage area never quite receives closure–at least not there. Read more…

What is Francesca Caccini's La Liberazione di Ruggiero About?

September 20th, 2009 No comments

(This is the second of a three part essay on Francesca Caccini and La Liberzione di Ruggiero, which Magnificat will perform October 16-18. The first part, a biographical sketch of Francesca, “About Francesca“, was posted here earlier.)

Villa Poggio Imperiale in the 17th Century

Villa Poggio Imperiale in the 17th Century

On February 3, 1625, sometime in daylight, 160 gentildonne and their husbands, and an unknown number of foreign guests rode in carriages out the southeastern gate of Florence, and half a mile up a tree-lined avenue to a villa atop the nearest hill that had very recently been renovated as the personal palace of Tuscany’s regent, Archduchess Maria Maddalena d’Austria. Leaving their carriages in a grassy courtyard guarded by two squadrons of armed cavalry, the Archduchess’ guests were welcomed into the palace by a military commander, and led to bench seats in a temporary theatre built in the villa’s loggia, to hear a new commedia in musica based on a well-known plot (two sorceresses struggling over the sexual and military future of a hapless young man). The commedia was to be followed, seamlessly, by two balletti danced by members of the court, by a ballet for horses and riders in the paved courtyard, and by a reception at which the gentildonne were served by the men who rode in the final horse ballet (while their husbands watched from above). It was the first performance of Francesca Caccini’s La liberazione di Ruggiero.

So what could La Liberazione possibly have seemed to be about in 1625? First, a bit about the plot, since the story on which it’s based is not nearly as well known now as it was then.

The show opens with a prologue sung by Neptune (a figure for Medici power) and a Polish river, The Vistola, meant to praise the guest of honor in 1625, Maria Maddalena’s visiting nephew, Wladyslaw, the crown prince of Poland. Immediately afterward, the “good witch” Melissa sails up on a dolphin’s back to explain that she has come to rescue Ruggiero from the “bad witch” Alcina’s sexual spells, restoring him both to his military duty on behalf of Christian armies and to his dynastic sexual duty as the fiancée of the woman warrior Bradamante. At Melissa’s exit, Ruggiero arrives with Alcina and her retinue of singing and dancing minions. The lovers exchange perilously mis-communicated vows, and then Alcina leaves to manage government affairs while her retinue lulls Ruggiero to sleep. Dressed as his aged African teacher Atlante, Melissa returns, awakening Ruggiero with an exhortation to return to the battle for Libya. Previous victims of Alcina’s power, turned into plants by her mind-numbing spells, beg the pair to liberate them, too. After promising to return for them, Melissa leads Ruggiero away.

When Alcina and her retinue return to find him gone, a female messenger explains that Melissa has broken Alcina’s spell. Alcina confronts Ruggiero in a long scene mixed of lamentation and ire, to no avail. Enraged at her loss of power, she calls on monsters for aid. The stage is engulfed in fire, as the now monstrous Alcina rides offstage on a dragon’s back, after which creatures who had been trapped in the bodies of the island’s plants emerge to dance. One such creature pleads with Melissa to liberate the men who are plants as well as the women. They dance, and then everyone–the players and the audience–adjourn to the courtyard to watch the horse ballet, over which the triumphant Melissa presides from a centaur-drawn chariot.

My sense is that like the other comedies on which Francesca had worked La liberazione was meant to be both entertaining and serious–to give the audience the impression they were glimpsing into the ‘real’ entertainment life of the women’s court, and at the same time to engage a particular set of anxieties about that court’s relationship to public power during the regency of the 1620s.

Archduchess Maria Maddalena

Arch Duchess Maria Maddalena

When Grand Duke Cosimo II died in late February, 1621, the intermittent de facto regency of his mother Christine de Lorraine was replaced by a de jure regency she was to share with his widow, Archduchess Maria Maddalena d’Austria. Christine had quietly ruled Tuscany since late in 1606, first during her husband Grand Duke Ferdinando I’s final illness and then during her son’s long, losing struggle with what seems to have been several forms of tuberculosis. According to all diplomatic accounts, Christine had been Tuscany’s absolute ruler in this period, yet the same accounts report that she had shared decision-making with her son when he was up to it, and that she had systematically arranged for her daughter-in-law to be trained for what seemed like the inevitable regency of the 1620s. (One possible interpretation of La liberazione’s plot about the struggle of two women over a man, then, would be to imagine Ruggiero as the ailing Cosimo, his wife and his mother as the sorceress antagonists: but all diplomatic accounts also agree that the three worked well together.) Read more…

"Hope Dies Hard in the Artist’s Breast" – Toni Parisi and the Sicilian Puppet Tradition

September 18th, 2009 No comments
Knights of the Opera dei Pupi

Knights of the Opera dei Pupi

Recently while researching the Sicilian Opera dei Pupi tradition, I came across a pair of century old articles in the New York Times archives that tell a touching and compelling story of the impact of emerging technology on established artistic traditions. The first article, “Moving Pictures Oust the Puppets” from December 12, 1909 announces that the Marionette Theater of Antonio (Toni) Parisi has been “forced at last to give way to the march of time”. The subtitle tells the story: “Signor Parisi will follow progress by turning his place into a picture show.”

From the article:

These are the last few lingering days of the Italian marionette theatre in Eleventh Street. Signor Toni Parisi is to shut up shop, stow away the heroes, Kings, knights, giants, Turks, the ladies in distress which have bobbed on his wires for more than twenty years and will run a moving-picture show instead. The reason is simple: The Sicilians in New York have become just enough Americanized to desert the little theatre where the old Italian romances were acted out by puppets. What are the classic heroes of long ago beside the latest prizefight! Signor Parisi doesn’t like moving pictures himself, but a man has to live!

The story goes on to tell how Toni, like his father and grandfather before him, had devoted his life to animating the legends of the Carolingian knights and how, at the height of its popularity, the theater at 258 Elizabeth Street was “the most splendid in New York”. Thanks to the remarkable Shorpy photo archive I found the photo below of Elizabeth Street taken a few years after the Parisi Family moved their theater to Eleventh Street. (The space is now occupied by a designer handbag shop called Token.)

250-268 Elizabeth Street New York

250-268 Elizabeth Street New York

Parisi knew the stories from Orlando Furioso by heart, having spent five years as an apprentice puppeteer in his father’s theatre in Palermo before joining in the great emigration to the New World, first to Boston, then to East Harlem and finally to the Bowery. According to a legend probably as reliable as the tales of Orlando, Toni Parisi’s great-grandfather learned to make puppets from a half-witted prisoner in a jail in Messina, and the Parisi clan had lived with and by marionettes thereafter.

To support his family, Antonio (Toni) Parisi worked as a plumber and mechanic, devoting all his profits into his beloved puppets, numbering over 300, a severe strain on the Parisi’s budget. According to a 1908 NY Times article, there was hope that The Drama Committee of the People’s Institute would help the Parisi theater to survive through promotional advertising to school children, though the outcome of the Committee’s actions is unclear from the article. Apparently it was insufficient in generating the income necessary to meet the theater’s weekly costs of $12.

While there had been several marionette theaters in the lower East Side in the last decades of the 19th century, the Parisi family’s was the only one remaining in 1909. After moving up to 11th Street, the Parisi’s had begun attracting more non-Italian audiences, especially children, drawn no doubt by the sign that Toni’s teenage son Nunzio had painted over the door advertising “Grand Romance of Orlando – Come! The Pope, the Moor, the Dragon’s Cave.” But what had become of his traditional Sicilian audience? As the 1909 article recounts “[o]ne night Signor Parisi watched, and saw crowds going into another place, with electric lights and a phonograph. The moving picture had invaded the Italian quarter. And so the seven volumes of old Italian romances, the hundreds of puppets had all been taken to the attic of the Parisi’s tenement.

Read more…

The Carter Family Marionettes and the Opera dei Pupi of Sicily

September 9th, 2009 4 comments

“Marionettes have a long tradition of being able to bridge worlds and classes”

The Carter Family Marionettes

The Carter Family Marionettes

The Carter Family Marionettes are especially known for their mastery and preservation of the traditional Sicilian marionette theater known as Opera dei Pupi, which employs large-scale puppets manipulated with iron rods. This traditional form of puppetry flourished in the 19th century but the roots of the Opera dei Pupi stretch back to Middle Ages and earlier.

The original repertoire of Opera dei Pupi was based on the 11th-century Chanson de Roland, which recounted the legends of Emperor Charlemagne and his army of Christian knights and their battles with the invading Saracens. These legends passed through many literary re-elaborations during subsequent centuries, notably Ariosto’s Orlando furioso and Tasso’s Gerusalemme libera, served as the basis for Francesca Caccini’s La Liberazione di Ruggiero, which the Carters will be performing with Magnificat next month. In the 19th century, these tales of knights crossing swords in battle, saving damsels, and escaping from enchanted islands were assembled in popular versions that were sold in the streets in the hundreds of installments of the Paladini di Francia, a cycle that made Orlando, Rinaldo, and their fellow knights errant beloved heroes of Sicilian peasant culture for generations.

Ruggiero, in full armor after his "liberation"

Ruggiero, in full armor after his "liberation"

The Sicilian puppet is distinguished by the use of two metal rods, one running through the head and the other linked to the marionette’s right hand, which enable the puppets to be controlled with precise rhythmic gestures. The rod marionette actually pre-dates the string marionette in Europe but most traditions have moved to use of strings – only Sicily, Belgium and Czech Republic maintain rod-marionette traditions. At the height of Opera dei Pupi’s popularity at the turn of the last century, Sicily boasted as many as 25 puppet theaters, along with two or three peripatetic troupes. The two main Sicilian puppet schools that emerged in the 19th century in Palermo and Catania differed principally in the size and shape of the puppets, the operating techniques and the variety of colorful stage backdrops. Pupi were also found on the mainland, especially around Naples, but none of these troupes continue to perform. Read more…

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

September 7th, 2009 No comments
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.”

Read more…

Carter Family Marionettes at Festa Italiana in Portland

August 31st, 2009 No comments

The Carter Family Marionettes, who will be coming to the Bay Area for Magnificat’s production of Francesca Caccini’s La Liberazione di Ruggiero in October, performed at the Festa Italiana in Portland, Oregon over the weekend. As Dmitri Carter noted on Facebook:

Just returned from performing at Festa Italiana in Portland. We had a brave crowd on Friday that sat in the rain! We rushed puppets away as soon as their scene was done. A friend lent an umbrella to put over the sound system to avoid electrocution. Luckily, it was dry for the other shows.

Fortunately the performances in October will be inside! Benjamin Brink of The Oregonian posted a gallery of backstage photographs that can be viewed here, but we wanted to share a couple with you.

Chris Carter, left, and Dmitri Carter, her son, quickly change puppets during a performance at Festa Italiana. (Benjamin Brink/The Oregonian)

Chris Carter, left, and Dmitri Carter, her son, quickly change puppets during a performance at Festa Italiana. (Benjamin Brink/The Oregonian)

The Kinght and the Mermaid at Festa Italiana.  Benjamin Brink/The Oregonian

The Kinght and the Mermaid at Festa Italiana. (Benjamin Brink/The Oregonian)

When An Opera Is Not An Opera

August 24th, 2009 No comments

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.” Read more…

Review of Suzanne Cusick’s Francesca Caccini at the Medici Court

August 22nd, 2009 No comments

CacciniCusickBookReba Wissner of Brandeis University has posted a thoughtful review of Suzanne Cusick’s recently published book, Francesca Caccini at the Medici Court: Music and the Circulation of Power (University of Chicago Press, July 2009.) I encourage you to read the full review at Music Book Reviews, but I wanted to quote a couple paragraphs here.

Francesca Caccini was one of the most prolific female composers and performers of the seventeenth century, and recently, musicologists and interdisciplinarians have generated an extensive body of literature on the role of women in early modern Europe, mainly in Italy. Suzanne G. Cusick’s study of the composer eloquently situates itself within that realm. This, Cusick’s first book, has been long awaited. A scholar known for her enlightening and engaging articles on subjects such as feminist perspectives on early music and the use of music as torture in terrorist containment camps, it is high time for a book by this talented scholar. Additionally, hers is the first extended and in-depth study of one of the most influential female Italian musicians of the Baroque. Cusick deliberately avoids the technical language that pervades most musicological scholarship while still conveying her ideas and analysis of Caccini, her role as a female in a predominantly male world, and her compositions. The author’s copious research brings to light a new side of Caccini that has been neglected far too long; she is portrayed not just as the daughter of famed composer Giulio Caccini, but as a composer, performer, and teacher in her own right, no longer studied in the shadow of her father. Cusick’s study illuminates the life of Francesca Caccini, placing her life within the context of family dynamics, societal norms, and economic implications.

Wissner concludes her review with the following summary:

Suzanne Cusick’s groundbreaking study represents an important addition to recent musicological scholarship on the lives of female composers, particularly those of the seventeenth century; a field that only recently has been burgeoning. This book will be of interest to readers interested in music history, cultural studies, and the role of women in early modern Italy. By examining the historical and cultural elements, the author brings new, exciting, invigorating, and much-needed in-depth analysis, and provides a more accurate portrayal of the composer and her works than has been seen before.

I have found this book to be extraordinarily thought provoking as I prepare for Magnificat’s production of La Liberazione di Ruggiero with the Carter Family Marionettes in October.