After nearly 400 years, a composer gets her premiere

Louise Jury,Arts,Media Correspondent
Sunday 03 October 1999 00:00

THE UK premiere of the first opera to be written by a woman took this month - nearly four centuries after its creation.

THE UK premiere of the first opera to be written by a woman took this month - nearly four centuries after its creation.

La Liberazione di Ruggiero, by Francesca Caccini, is being hailed as a masterpiece by British early music experts. Leah Stuttard, a harpsichordist, found one of five surviving published copies of the work in the British Library when she began to investigate other forgotten works by female composers.

The work was performed, semi-staged at the start of a series of musical events, under the title Unsung Heroines: Women Composers in Early Music.

Ms Stuttard said that what was surprising about the Caccini opera, which dates from 1625, was its "amazing" quality.

"One of the things which is often levelled at women's works is that they haven't survived because they're not good enough. Sometimes the women were behind the times, but in this case she really wasn't."

Caccini was the daughter of a Florentine composer, Giulio Caccini, who wrote Euridice, the oldest opera to have survived to this day. It dates from 1600. It is probable that Franceca sang in that opera before pursuing her own career as a lute-player, singer and composer in the Medici court. There, she was the highest paid musician for a number of years.

Monteverdi was among those impressed by her musicality, and wrote in 1610 that she sang and played lute "molto bene". Her abilities were referred to as "una musica stupenda", according to research by Ms Stuttard.

The diary of a courtier, named Cesare Tinghi, reveals that opinion of La Liberazione di Ruggiero was extremely favourable. It is Caccini's only surviving operatic work, but she is thought to have written at least nine. Like Handel's opera Alcina, La Liberazione is based on Ludovico Aristo's story "Orlando Furioso", about a wicked sorceress who lives on an island. By coincidence, the English National Opera is reviving the little-performed Handel this autumn.

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Anthony Rooley, who led the revival of interest in early music and its performance on authentic instruments, said he had been aware of the work. In the past 15 years, there have been performances in Japan, Sweden and the United States. But Mr Rooley suspected few in Britain will have heard it.

"It's of considerable importance," he said. "Giulio Caccino was at the forefront of creating a new operatic style, and Francesca is the next generation. She played a very important part in what was a man's world. The fact that she was a woman is almost secondary.

"La Liberazione is a major work, historically speaking, and of considerable artistic interest. Whether it appeals to modern ears, we'll see."

Other women composers to be featured in the six concerts spanning 700 years of music include Barbara Strozzi, Lucrezia Vizzana and Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire - who became the subject of Amanda Foreman's recent biography. The best known is Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th-century abbess.

The series is the brainchild of Calliope Productions, a collective of young professional musicians which includes established names such as the soprano Deborah Roberts.

Clare Norburn, the organiser, said: "Early music has a very stuffy reputation and we want to get away from that."

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