Favola in musica, in 5 acts
Composer: Claudio Monteverdi
Libretto: Alessandro Striggio
First performed: Mantua, 1607 Carnival season
Orfeo (Orpheus) is the world’s first great musician, and the son of Apollo, god of the sun. He has just married the nymph Euridice – but their happiness is blighted when she is bitten by a snake. Orfeo resolves to descend into the Underworld, and bring Euridice back to the world of the living. He first tries to flatter Caronte (Charon), the ferryman of the Styx, then lulls him to sleep.
Poserpina (Persephone) implores her husband, Plutone (Hades), to release Euridice. The god of the underworld agrees – on the condition that Orfeo not look back at her, or speak to her. Orfeo falters at the last – and loses Euridice. Distraught, he returns to the mortal world alone, where the maenads, deranged followers of the god Bacchus, tear him to pieces. Apollo, his father, then leads him to heaven.
L’Orfeo is the earliest opera that’s still regularly performed; not the first, but the earliest. It’s very, very old, perhaps even older. To put it into perspective: Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice was performed more than 150 years later, while Verdi and Wagner weren’t even born for two more centuries.
Late 16th century Florence. The Camerata, a group of humanist intellectuals, wanted to resurrect Greek tragedy, following the Renaissance maxim of breaking from the Middle Ages by upraising the dead old days of Athens in her glory.
Greek tragedy, they believed, was sung, not spoken. Here, to give you an example, is a chorus from Euripides’ bloody Orestes:
The fashion in Italian music since Palestrina (c. 1525 – 1594) had been for polyphony: several different lines of music heard at the same time. Polyphony, the Camerata felt, may sound beautiful, but it made the text unintelligible. For them, it was very much a case of prima le parole, poi la musica. They preferred monody: one line of singing, to a simple instrumental accompaniment, as they thought the Greeks had used.
Following their notion of Greek tragedy, the Camerata expanded the intermedio (a musical interlude between the acts of spoken dramas) into a drama in its own right – a favola per musica, or, as we would call it, an “opera”.
Francesco Gonzaga, son of the Duke of Mantua, was intrigued by the Camerata’s musical dramas, and commissioned Monteverdi to write a work based on the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice.
Monteverdi, who had recently lost his wife, was inspired by the tale of a musician who enters the realm of the dead in search of his lost love.
The opera was privately performed at the Duke’s palace, probably without scenery, and in one continuous whole. It was performed sporadically through the early 17th century, then forgotten about.
Late 19th-century musicologists arranged concert versions, and then received its first modern stage performance in Paris in 1911, in a version by Vincent d’Indy. Composers and musicologists – among them Paul Hindemith, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Roger Norrington, and John Eliot Gardiner – also edited scores.
Early music enthusiasts consider it a masterpiece, because it adeptly combines all that had been invented hitherto into one emotionally expressive whole.
Despite the early music enthusiasts, Orfeo is a piece I respect, rather than really enjoy.
Opera, for me – as I suspect it does with most people – begins with Gluck, if not Mozart, more than a century and a half later. Monteverdi is in an almost entirely different idiom.
Orfeo belongs to the epic stage of drama; mankind’s first tales, as Hugo said, are about the gods, or the demi-gods. Only later does humanity appear.
The opera seems, from a modern perspective, a cross between a masque and a Mass.
On the one hand, it’s static, even hieratic. It feels like a ritual: a series of frescoes, through which we see emotion depicted, rather than felt on a personal level.
On the other, it’s a pastoral piece, with shepherds (who serve as the chorus), allegorical figures (Music, Hope), and dancing – the staples of Jacobean court entertainment, familiar to Anglophone audiences from Shakespeare’s late romances.
The “tunes”, though, stick in the head: the famous Toccata, a flourish of trumpets; the polyphonic ensembles (notably when Orpheus prepares to go into Hades, and the chorus of infernal spirits); the shepherds’ duet; and Orfeo’s aria to Caronte, “Possente spirto”.
To enjoy it, though, one must make allowances that one doesn’t have to with 18th or 19th-century opera. This may be opera, but it barely resembles what we instinctively think of as opera. Further down the track, it will evolve into Rossini, Rigoletto, and Rosenkavalier, but they’re as far off as Gilgamesh is from The Count of Monte Cristo, or Thespis and Choerilus are from Hitchcock.
Monteverdi may be a mount in opera’s history, but there’s a great distance still to Verdi.