Integrity Matters, Staging an opera from 1625

Haymarket Opera Company, cast, musicians, crew and set for La Liberazione di Ruggerio dall'isola d'Alcina
Haymarket Opera Company, cast, musicians, crew and set for La Liberazione di Ruggerio dall’isola d’Alcina


On September 29th, 2023The Haymarket OperaCompany presented a rare Italian opera from the early Sixteenth century, La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina (The Liberation of Ruggiero from the Island of Alcina.) This opera is rare in part because it was composed by a woman, Francesca Caccini, and first performed in 1625. Any number of operas and plays at the time were influenced by an extremely popular text by Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso. Caccini was the first woman to compose an opera, and this opera was the first Italian opera performed outside of Italy. As the Haymarket concertmaster explained to me, “This is like landing on the moon!”


For 21st century audiences, the miracle that lives in Chicago, Haymarket Opera Company, provides the opportunity to hear period music under the helm of one of the Baroque music scene’s most committed and talented music directors, Craig Trompeter, and see stage direction and choreography from one of the world’s leading specialists in 17th and 18th century performance, Sarah Edgar. Sarah is herself a dancer with an international pedigree in training and performance of Baroque performance arts, including posture, gesture, dance, and stage movement. Some of the loveliest moments of this performance were rather still scenes between two performers, adorned with the other cast members sitting, standing and responding in gesture– because it created a complete atmosphere with authentic historical style and dynamics. This dedication to a total aesthetic experience distinguishes the work of Haymarket, of Craig Trompeter, and of Sarah Edgar.


I’d like to make a comparison that came to mind during the performance of this opera from 1625. It helps to understand why experiencing these historical operas as live performance matters to the understanding of these early Western performance forms. Almost fifteen years ago, I was privileged to see a Broadway production of Exit the King, by Eugene Ionesco.This play is considered a masterpiece of Absurdist Theater, otherwise known asTheater of the Absurd. It was a short-lived but important movement in theater during the late 1950s and into the mid-1960s, inspired by the writing of AlbertCamus, who pronounced, in 1942 – in an existentialist manner  – that human existence was meaningless, in fact, absurd. Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is the most well-known of these absurdist plays. Jean Genet is another playwright who worked in this mode.


The absurdist plays are not often performed, and even less commonly performed by world-class actors. The chance to see an absurdist play doesn’t come around very often. One reason is that there are not many directors and theater companies skilled enough pull it off. Ask anyone who has seen Waiting for Godot, and many of them will tell you it was boring and stupid.However, when it is performed well, it isn’t boring and stupid, it is actually a philosophical position on the nature of human existence: how we deal with the condition of humanity. These are plays, not texts, and the scripts as texts are not at all the point.


The cast I saw was superlative: Geoffrey Rush, SusanSarandon, Andrea Martin, and Lauren Ambrose. What made the production extraordinary was their ability to congeal it into a coherent, if absurd, artistic act. Everything is high-flown, from the ridiculousness of the plot, to the archetypical if fatalistic way characters act toward each other, to the overall context of a world collapsing. It is a hyperbolic style of acting, something that easily spins out of control and loses the intention and intregrity of the artistic act. Everything usual about theater is turned on its head. Few actors have the chops to sustain the level of absurdity and interaction, at the same time making a coherent theatrical and philosophical statement.


After seeing the performance in New York, I said to myself,“Ah! This is absurdist theater! Now I get it.”


Even as Haymarket presents rare and difficult early operas, they also tend to produce what were in some cases, very popular shows.  One such play, The Dragon of Wantley, ran for 45 years! Part of the interest to see these period productions, is not only to see and hear real dedication to authentic historical performance, but to have a chance to understand why these performances were so popular?


As with the absurdist production I saw, period historical production needs to be whole, complete, all the parts committed to an aesthetic, and skilled enough to sustain it, even shine in it. Most productions of baroque opera are not such things, very often staged like any other opera, played on modern symphonic instruments – not authentic instruments from the period -and so, the music is shared in a fashion, but the buzz – the artistic tension and stretch –  of the original performance is lost because the all the parts don’t hang together, either in style or period accuracy.


Many lovers of opera cling to the limiting notion that opera is about the music. No – music is about music. Opera is a stage production of combined arts. Music is great, but it ain’t opera. Opera was once – and for a very long time – a popular form of entertainment. By our time, it is an elite form of art. Haymarket restores a balance to the grittiness, popularity, and ensemble excellence of the experience: an un-amplified period performance, allowing, even requiring, all the singers and musicians to modulate while creating an authentic, complex, historical sound. Hearing it, it sounds like another time. Haymarket is always a great experience of live music. Superb musicianship undergirds everything.


Here is where Haymarket really succeed: the set, the hairstyles, the costumes, the singing, the movement, the staging, the instruments themselves – often built by these extraordinary musicians – come together in a coherent whole, making for a single artistic experience.

There are a number of distinguishing aspects to this opera, that musically, are more closely aligned to the Renaissance than to the robustBaroque. In fact, this opera was said to have been composed in the grand manner of Monteverdi, most often identified as a late Renaissance composer. The chorus in Liberazione was small but, along with the magnificent voice of Ruggiero ( Scott J. Brunscheen ) offered the best singing of the night. When the chorus sang, it was easy to connect it to the sound of madrigals, more than to the sophistication of later, royal, Baroque performance.


Liberaztione should be required viewing for any student of theater. In this elegant production, it is clear to see how music, libretti, and staging evolved from medieval to baroque times.  Glimmers from both ends are evoked in the manner of this production. It is early drama as much as early music.


The music itself reflects an earlier stage of development, as does the plot, which in the archaic manner, tells stories of humans by means of gods and their interaction. The plot of Liberaztione is essentially a long-distance love triangle, and deals with a warrior who has fallen prey to the vice of sexual pleasure. Virtue finally arises in him, and he returns to war, only after thoroughly condemning and annihilating the sensual goddess Alcina – who is treated like a witch for her powers to seduce men. The simple group dance that closed the performance looked indeed like people from that time, almost breaking the fourth wall, as the social dance of simplicity and propriety played and order is restored to the world. Haymarket doesn’t trade in symbols or use music like some hammer to dominate every other operatic element. Haymarket presents old operas anew, with precise historical elements that combine and synthesize into an entertaining performance, relying solely on the devices of another time.


Ah! this is early Baroque opera. Now I get it.