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

(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.

Caccini’s sound design for La liberazione complements and complicates the effect of the scene rhythm, communicating the process of ‘liberation’ through changing the relationships of sounds to each other, and of individual characters’ relationships to music-making. Before the liberation, we hear a world that is tonally static (the music of everything and everyone centers on one of two closely related ‘keys’, some kind of G and some kind of D). During and after the liberation, the tonal world widens, at first gradually and then as if exploding in Alcina’s long scene of complaint against Ruggiero for abandoning her. In that scene, Alcina and her ‘back up singer’ damigelle fill the entire tonal world known to 17th century music theory with the sounds of female complaint.

Before the liberation, two distinct vocal styles–sharply metrical, strophic, rounded songs then called canzonettas, and through-composed, speechlike singing then (and now) called recitative–articulate a class-based social hierarchy. The principal characters, Melissa, Ruggiero and Alcina, sing the “rational” recitative, while the watery spirits of the prologue and Alcina’s underlings–the damigelle, the shepherd and the siren–sing the tuneful, aurally appealing but not verbally significant canzonettas. At and after the liberation, these vocal styles are re-organized, gradually articulating a new hierarchy based partly on class and partly on normativity. For a brief time after the liberation, everyone sings recitative; but as Alcina grows increasingly irate in her complaint scene, she, her damigelle and the monsters, on whom they call to avenge her betrayal revert to rounded forms, just before they are all driven from a recitative-filled stage. [The one exception, and to me an important one, is the brief interjection of the Dama disincantata, pleading for the liberation of the male plants. She sings her first speech in rounded form, and her second as through-composed recitative, her vocality literally enacting her own liberation.]

Before the liberation, only Ruggiero sings in the harmonic style then associated with the term second practice. The dissonances and surprising harmonies that seem like ‘expressiveness’, would also have seemed, then, like sonic disorder, and sonic marks of the feminine. After the liberation, only female characters–the Nunzia who tells Alcina about Ruggiero’s liberation, Alcina’s companions, and Alcina herself sing in this ‘feminine’ style. Thus their singing marks the liberation as a restoration of gender order.

Before the liberation, everyone on stage has a voice, but only the damigelle dance. After the liberation, everyone on stage is gradually silenced, except Melissa. Or, a bit more precisely, Ruggiero, Alcina, and the individual voices, who supported her reality are systematically silenced and driven from the stage, leaving the final word to the sorceress who had the first word, Melissa. Her magic liberates the plants to sing and dance in heterosexual consort, before the men withdraw to join their bodies to horses for the final, outdoor horse ballet.

Interestingly, the fulcrum of this design is not the scene in which Melissa, dressed as the aged African general Atlante, awakens Ruggiero from the spell Alcina’s world of rounded, strophic canzonettas has cast on him. Rather, the exact center of the show is the scene immediately after. Just at the moment when Ruggiero’s mind is set free, we hear first one voice, than many voices, that seem to come from nowhere and everywhere at once. Seeking the source of the voices, adjusting our expectations of who or what in the world can sing, we eventually realize that the voices come from entities we (like Ruggiero) have assumed had neither ears, subjectivity nor voice–the trees, flowers and potted plants of Alcina’s garden– begin to sing.

More than any other scene in La liberazione, I think, this comically improbable–and therefore delightful– moment shifts the axis along which power flows in the performance space. As spectators, we are as jolted out of our complacent delight in the show staged for our benefit as Ruggiero was (and, like him perhaps, we experience the jolt itself with delight). We are jolted into questioning, who, besides, Ruggiero, has been seduced by the show’s concatenating entertainments; who, besides Ruggiero, might need to be liberated; who of the beings around us we might have failed to acknowledge as sentient, reasoning, desiring creatures because we have imagined them to be of a different, lesser order.

Spectators in 1625 would have experienced this jolt, and this chain of questions, while simultaneously reckoning with a cascade of associations the presence of singing plants would have unleashed in their minds: plants were among the entities most often claimed to have been moved by the musical magic of Orpheus; some plants–notably the laurel tree and the sunflower–had once been women (Daphne who became a tree to escape Apollo’s rape, Clizia who became a flower as punishment for loving Apollo too much); given Giulio Caccini’s equal fame as a teacher of women singers and a cultivator of citruses and roses, they might be a joke on the probable casting of the show from among his daughter’s pupils; given the Medici family’s creation of the gardens at Castello–the traditional women’s villa–as an allegory of the Tuscan state, and given the meaning of “Fiorenza”–flowering place–they might be the Florentines themselves.

Part of the brilliance of the scene lies in the fact that by the time spectators would have identified the source of the voices and experienced a brainstorm of evoked images, its first half could be almost over. Spectators would have heard, in the vulnerable moment of their confusion and their brainstorm, a stunning, miniaturized lament, its tiny (30-seconds long) solo and choral sections entwined around each other and a (30 second) ritornello of ‘infernal’ instruments to produce a 2-stanza strophic form (interrupted by Ruggiero). By the time they heard the chorus’s second stanza, they might have recovered enough to both feel its piteous affect and notice that its texture of narrow-ranged parts restlessly shifting their entangled contrapuntal relation to each other made the singers’ words impossible to hear.

Cognoscenti would have smiled to think that the plants’ piteous, miniaturized imprisonment produced the kinds of sounds against which Bardi’s Camerata had complained–and had been so well aligned with a moment of theatrical magic as to communicate affect all but irresistibly (thus realizing the Bardian injunction that all elements of a musical communication should be focused on producing a single effect, and producing sympathy for the plight of the “plants”). Everyone in the 1625 audience was likely to have got the reference to Bardi’s aesthetic in the second half of the scene, however, when the chorus of plants respond to Melissa’s promise to liberate them as well by singing homophonically, intelligibly, as if with one voice–the choral sound of a united, not a contentious community (who, not so coincidentally, predict with their shared rhythms their eventual liberation into human, cosmologically orderly, dance).

If the first audience were to have heard the plants as representations of themselves, they might well have heard in the difference between the cramped, contrapuntal chorus and the freer homophonic one the trajectory–and “Melissa’s” promise– of their own liberation not just from the thrall of shows staged endlessly to seduce them, but from internal political struggle, from the parochial constraints of Tuscany’s traditional foreign policy, and, indeed, from their very seats in Villa Imperiale’s temporary theatre into the courtyard and the stylized military display that was the show’s end. They could hear in the plants’ second, homophonic chorus the sound of an ideal social order (as locally construed). And because they could hear all these liberations as having been wrought through the ‘magic’ of *some* unusually talented woman (was it Melissa? Caccini? Maria Maddalena?), they might have heard a way to be liberated from their fear of women’s political (or sexual, or musical) command.

I think it is equally possible that the scene might have provoked a second level of liberation from men’s fear of women’s command (and women-centered culture) that I have called gynephobia, by prompting a sudden, sympathetic understanding of the plight of women who struggled to be heard–to be free–through the gynephobic assumptions that underlay the social, spatial and psychic) segregation of women in courtly life. I, at least, hear it that way–though it has taken me the longest time to remember why my experience of a live performance prompted me to do so. (In our time, when a little plastic box can be made to sing, the effect (or, in 17th-century terms, the “marvel” of voices coming from nowhere and everywhere is too easily shrugged off as commonplace; the sound clips of the chorus I have played were no different, as phenomena, from the sound clips I played earlier) In 1625, however, the effect of hearing voices that came from nowhere and everywhere would have been most commonly experienced in the concerts performed from behind the grates in those Florentine churches that were attached to communities of cloistered women.

Wrapped, as it was in La liberazione’s performance, in the trappings of Granducal patronage, it was an effect the 1625 audience might very easily have associated with the only times the astoundingly virtuosic performances of La liberazione’s composer could be heard by the general public–singing, playing, and leading the music of other unseen singers from behind a grate at the annual ‘concerts’ of the Offices in the ruling family’s parish church of S.a Felicita. To me, and I think probably to many listeners in 1625, the singing of the enchanted plants would have evoked memories of music from behind the grate. It would, thereby, have prompted a sudden awareness of the whole system for the containment of women for which the grate of a cloister stood.–a system predicated on fear of entanglement by sirens, or by sorceresses like Alcina.

Indeed, it is only after the plants (the world “behind the grate”) come to sonic life that we in the audience hear (and therefore understand) how the events of the show’s fictive world might seem from a world beyond the gaze of men. It is as if the first half of the show were unfolding in reverse (or as if the two halves, pre- and post-plants, were the two parts of a palindrome. Alcina’s messenger narrates to an all-female audience a different version of the liberation scene from the one we in the audience think we have just witnessed; her version, both more complete and closer to Ariosto’s tale, is, she says, ‘what I heard from behind the branches’. The sexually and emotionally dangerous Alcina fills the stage with mounting outrage at Ruggiero’s betrayal, her anger far more frightening than the Siren’s anodyne little song–for Alcina’s song ignites the stage, purging it of apparent effeminacy. 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. Or by male fears of what women liberated from social constraint and from the obligation to perform femininity in front of men might actually say, and do. But it is all under the narrative control of Melissa, who ends the show as she began it, with a recitative soliloquy that seems to draw the moral point. Her speech is followed, then, by a scene that formally mirrors the prologue’s double-strophic exchange between Neptune and his tributary–except that Melissa’s interlocutor is a woman “liberated” from her life as a plant who persuades Melissa to liberate the still-captive men, in a scene that explicitly banishes both lament and strophic, rounded (containing) forms–replacing them with the Medicean voice of reason, recitative, that Melissa and the former plant share.