Name: La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall’Isola di Alcina (The Liberation of Ruggiero from the Island of Alcina)
Composer: Francesca Caccini
Librettist: Ferdinando Saracinelli
First performed: Villa di Poggio Imperiale, Florence, 3 February 1625
In one sentence: the earliest surviving opera by a woman composer, two sorceresses, the sensual but wicked Alcina and moralistic Melissa, battle for the soul and body of the knight Ruggiero.
The three main characters are Ruggiero, a Saracen champion who is betrothed to Bradamante, the sorceress Alcina, who entices men to her island only to grow bored of them and transform them into plants, and Melissa, another sorceress, but one who is determined to save Ruggiero.
Music you might recognise
This isn’t a well-known opera. It has been revived and recorded only a handful of times. But there are some recordings on YouTube. Check out this one of the song ‘Quando Amor l’arco vuol tendere’, from scene 1 of the opera. It’s sung by baritone Riccardo Primitivo in the role of Ruggiero and soprano Alessandra Borin, playing Alcina.
The opera is based on Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto, an epic poem from 1516 that exerted a huge influence on later culture. The story centres on a battle between two sorceresses, Alcina and Melissa, over the warrior Ruggiero. He is being held captive on an island by the evil sorceress Alcina. She has bewitched him into believing he loves her, despite being betrothed to Bradamante, a Christian warrior maiden. He is ready to abandon his responsibilities as a knight to devote himself to Alcina.
However, the moralistic Melissa, another sorceress, arrives on the island disguised as Ruggiero’s former mentor, the wizard Atlante. She is determined to remind Ruggiero of his duty both as a lover and a knight. The two sorceresses battle for the knight’s body and soul, Melissa using reason and morality while Alcina resorts to emotional blackmail and threats. The former proves more powerful and Ruggiero is returned to his betrothed. Melissa goes on to free all the other men that had previously fallen under Alcina’s spell, only to be transformed into plants when she grew tired of them.
Alcina’s island on fire, a scene from La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall’Isola di Alcina by Francesca Caccini. By set designer Giulio Parigi (via Wikimedia Commons).