102. Euridice (Jacopo Peri)

Composer: Jacopo Peri

Libretto: Ottavio Rinuccini, after Ovid’s Metamorphoses

First performed: Palazzo Pitti, Florence, 6 October 1600


“THE FIRST EVER OPERA,” shouts the Authentic Arts CD. Catchy advertising, but inaccurate; same composer, though. Peri’s Dafne (1594, now lost) is considered the first true opera. Euridice is merely (!) the oldest surviving opera.

Listening to it, I feel like a palaeontologist staring at a single-celled organism from the Pre-Cambrian. I know it’ll turn into armoured fish, nimble Hypsilophodons, lumbering sauropods, powerful T-Rexes, and eventually us – but it has a long way to evolve.

Peri and poet Ottavio Rinuccini were members of the Florentine Camerata, a humanist group who wanted to go back to the Greeks (a cry that would be taken up by Gluck and Wagner).

The camerata believed that Greek tragedy had achieved a perfect blend of words and music; they would resurrect that form.

Their aim was “to copy the drama of the Greeks by setting musical notes to poetry in such a way as both to express the meaning of the words and to preserve their metre and accent accurately” (H.C. Colley, The Growth of Music, 1912).

The text was the important thing, “to be sung with the correct and natural declamation of words” (John Warrack & Ewan West, The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, 1992).

Because the words must be heard clearly, the camerata adopted the stile rappresentativo, or expressive monody: one solo singer with the simplest possible accompaniment (usually a harpsichord).

The camerata also avoided polyphonic writing (several lines of music once), and picturesque madrigalian flourishes: music had to interpret the feeling of the whole passage. They may be beautiful, but they made the text hard to hear.

“There was a distinct difference between their object and that of the mediaeval songs which often kept close to the feeling and metre of the words,” Colley continues, “because the first object of these songs was always to make a beautiful tune, whereas the Florentine experimenters did not want to write tunes at all, but only to express the words in musical notes rising and falling as the voice of a reciter would rise and fall.”

You see the problem?

“And so they eventually established the kind of singing which we now call recitative, because it reproduces the expression of a reciting voice and has no definite rhythm or tune apart from the words.”

Euridice, then, is nearly two hours of arrhythmic, tuneless recitative, accompanied by a harpsichord. It’s quite pleasant arrhythmic, tuneless recitative, accompanied by a harpsichord. But it’s monodonous (so to speak).

The first works performed in the stile rappresentativo were intermedios and cantatas (Vincenzo Galileo’s Il conte Ugolino, 1582). The Camerata achieved its goal of music drama (or favola) in 1597-98, when Peri’s Dafne (composed 1594) was performed at Jacopo Corsi’s palace.

Euridice was written for the wedding of Henri IV of France to Maria de’ Medici, at the Pitti Palace. Peri himself sang the role of Orfeo.

That first audience didn’t warm to the work; even for the 16th century, it was thought dull. One eyewitness account ignored it altogether; others found the recitative “like the chanting of the Passion”; and Camerata founder Giovanni de’ Bardi thought that Peri and Rinuccini “should not have gone into tragic texts and objectionable subjects” (Tim Carter, “The 17th Century”, Oxford History of Opera).

Euridice was, however, “soon recognised as a work of considerable emotional force and originality, and had a notable effect on the early history of opera,” Warrack & West write.

More Orpheus and Eurydice operas followed. Giulio Caccini’s Euridice was performed in Florence in 1602. Some of Caccini’s music had been performed at the wedding, and he had underhandedly tried to sabotage Peri’s work and claim credit for the first opera by having his score published first. (His daughter Francesca was the first woman to compose an opera.)

And Monteverdi’s Favola d’Orfeo appeared in Mantua in 1607 – the first opera to be anywhere near the repertoire.

Peri was their model; “by turning theory into practice,” Warrack & West argue, “he demonstrated the full potential of the new art-form.

“With its effective handling of the stile rappresentativo, finely judged use of the chorus, and illuminating treatment of the mythological story, its impression is still as powerful in modern revivals as it must have been to the audience of the day.”

That may well be true. A historical curiosity, really.

We’ll be looking at more Monteverdi soon.


CHARACTERS

  • LA TRAGEDIA (soprano castrato)
  • EURIDICE (soprano)
  • ORFEO (tenor): Jacopo Peri
  • AMINTA, a shepherd (tenor)
  • ARCETRO, a shepherd (contralto castrato)
  • TIRSI, a shepherd (tenor)
  • CARONTE (bass)
  • DAFNE (boy soprano)
  • PLUTONE (bass)
  • PROSERPINA (soprano castrato)
  • RADAMANTO (tenor)
  • VENERE (soprano castrato)
  • Nymphs and shepherds, shades and deities of hell

STRUCTURE

PROLOGUE

  • Prologo – Io, che d’alti sospir vaga e di pianti

ACT I

SCENE I

  • Ninfe, ch’i bei crin d’oro
  • Vaghe ninfe amorose
  • Donne, ch’a’ miei diletti
  • Credi, ninfa gentile
  • In mille guise e mille
  • Al canto, al ballo, all’ombra, al prato adorno

SCENE 2

  • Antri, ch’a’ miei lamenti
  • Sia pur lodato il ciel, lodato Amore
  • Tirsi viene in scena sonando la presente Zinfonia
  • Deh come ogni bifolco, ogni pastore
  • Lassa! Che di spavento e di pietate
  • Per quel vago boschetto
  • Non piango e non sospiro
  • Ahi! Mort’ invid’ e ria
  • Sconsolati desir, gioie fugaci
  • Cruda morte, ahi pur potesti

SCENE 3

  • Se fato invido e rio
  • Con frettoloso passo
  • Io che pensato havea di starmi ascoso
  • Se de’ boschi i verdi onori
  • Poi che dal bel sereno

ACT II

SCENE 4

  • Scorto da immortal guida
  • L’oscuro varc’onde siam giunti a queste
  • Funeste piagge, ombrosi orridi campi
  • Ond’e cotanto ardire
  • Deh, se la bella Diva
  • Dentro l’infernal porte
  • Re, nel cui sembiante
  • A si soavi preghi
  • Sovra l’eccelse stelle
  • Trionfi oggi pietà ne’ campi inferni
  • Poi che gl’eterni imperi

SCENE 5

  • Già del bel carro ardente
  • Voi, che sì ratt’il volo
  • Quand’al tempio n’andaste, io mi pensai
  • Chi può del cielo annoverar le stelle
  • Gioite al canto mio selve frondose
  • Quella, quella son io, per cui piangeste
  • Modi or soavi or mesti
  • Felice semideo, ben degna prole
  • Ritornello strumentale
  • Biond’ arcier, che d’alto monte

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