Monteverdi’s Orfeo

On Tuesday, 4 August I went to a performance of Monteverdi’s Orfeo at the BBC Proms. Sir John Eliot Gardiner was conducting a group of marvellous soloists, the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists. I want to write about this performance, but also about the myth and the opera which is hugely significant for the history of opera.

1. The Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice

Many stories are associated with the name of Orpheus – the best singer, musician and poet of the Greek mythology whose song could enchant wild animals, the gods and even stones. Maybe the most famous of all stories is the one about Orpheus and Eurydice. It is a story about the power of love and music, but also one about the weakness and impatience of human beings and about the irreversibility of death.

There are several sources for the story of Orpheus and Eurydice including one in the fourth book of Vergil’s Georgics and in book 10 and 11 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I will summarize the story as it is used in the libretto for Monteverdi’s Orfeo.

It’s the wedding day of Orpheus and Eurydice and they celebrate this joyful day where all sorrows shall end with their friends. Eurydice goes away with her friends to gather flowers. While she is doing that she is bitten by a snake and dies. A messenger brings this sad message to Orpheus. He is heartbroken and uncertain what he shall do in his sorrow. He then decides that he will go to the Underworld and will try to win her back with his music and his singing. The personified Hope accompanies him to the gates of the Underworld, but cannot go any further, because Hades is a place where no one can have any hope left. The libretto of Monteverdi’s Orfeo quotes Dante and says that there is a sign at the gates of the Underworld which says “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here”. Orpheus tries to convince the ferryman Charon to take him across the river Styx. Charon refuses to do so, but gets sleepy while listening to Orpheus’ music. Orpheus is therefore able to enter the Underworld. Proserpina, the wife of Pluto is so taken by Orpheus music and singing that she entreats her husband to yield to Orpheus’ demands and let him take Eurydice back to the world of the living. Pluto agrees but sets a condition. Eurydice has to go behind Orpheus and Orpheus is not allowed to turn around. If he turns around he will loose her for ever. At the beginning Orpheus is confident that he and Eurydice will be reunited and will have a happy future, but then doubts arise. In some versions he turns around, because he cannot hear her footsteps, in the opera he turns around because he hears a noise – whatever the reason is for his disobeying Pluto’s commands Eurydice’s shadow fades away and Orpheus has lost her. He mourns this loss and vows that he will never be able to fall in love again.

There are several versions about what happens to Orpheus after he had lost Eurydice. There are even two different versions in the published libretto of the opera on the one hand and the published full score of the opera on the other hand. In the version of the full score Apollo comes to Orpheus and tries to console him. He invites Orpheus to join him in heaven to discover heavenly love. There Orpheus will find the glimmer of Eurydice’s eyes in the sun and in the stars. Orpheus and Apollo then ascend into heaven.

2. Monteverdi’s Orfeo and its background

Monteverdi’s opera Orfeo was written for the court at the Duke of Mantua for a performance in carnival 1607.

It is not the first opera which was ever written, but it is the first opera which is still part of the repertory. The musical form of “opera” developed around 1600. The first operas were written in Florence. There are three composers which are closely connected with this first steps in opera writing: Emilio de’ Cavalieri who was a scholar and Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini, who were both singers. Around 1600 everything Greek was the latest fashion in Florence. It was the time of the High Renaissance and the Italian nobility was greatly interested in Greek culture. Some people thought that Greek tragedies used to be performed with music and tried to do something similar with Italian plays. Before that time the form of intermedios were widely known in Italy and very popular. Intermedios were music, songs and scenes which were played between the acts of a play during the interval. Over time these scenes became more and more elaborate and can therefore be seen as a predecessor of “opera”. The main difference was that intermedios did not have a continuous story. Peri wrote the first continuously sung pastoral, Dafne in 1598, but the music for this probably first “opera” is lost. Peri’s next opera was also based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and was performed the first time at the celebrations for the wedding of Maria de’ Medici and King Henri IV of France in 1600. It is called Euridice. Peri and the other Florentine composers focused on the words and the natural speech rhythms. They wanted to use a style which is half spoken and half sung and imitate with their style dramatic speech.

Monteverdi, however, focused on the words without neglecting the music. His music for Orfeo does not only use recitatives, but also arias, choruses and instrumental pieces. This different approach and interest of Monteverdi and Peri also becomes clear, if one just looks at the beginning of both operas. Peri’s Eurydice starts with the personified drama (La Tragedia) who introduces the story. Monteverdi gives this part to the personified music (La Musica). La Musica emphasises generally the power of music, but in particular the power of Orpheus’ singing and playing. For Peri it is drama which is the centre (which is accompanied and embellished by music), for Monteverdi music itself is centre stage.

Monteverdi’s opera draws its material and inspiration also from other sources – Monteverdi’s writing of madrigals. Most important is the connection with his fifth book of madrigals which was published in 1605 and therefore only two years before Orfeo was premiered. This book did not only contain musical settings for five voices, but substituted in several pieces some of the voices for instruments. This meant that the remaining voices had more freedom than in a purely vocal ensemble. The other advantage was that the text could be heard and understood better. Monteverdi used the same technique for his opera. Another close connection can be found in Monteverdi’s interest in human emotions and their expression in music. He was interested in human emotions in his madrigals and the music of the madrigals not always followed the recognised composition rules, but often departed from them, if this was necessary to express the text fully. After the publication of his fourth book of madrigals he was criticised by Giovanni Artusi, an Italian composer and music theorist. Artusi attacked Monteverdi that his compositions were “crude” and did not follow the traditional rules. Monteverdi replied to this critic in his fifth book of madrigals and made it clear that in his future style of composing the words should control the harmonies and not the other way round. The same idea of an interplay of text, emotion and music can be found in Monteverdi’s operas and in particular in Orfeo.

Listing to Monteverdi’s Orfeo I was not only reminded of his madrigals, but also his most famous sacred work: the Vespers for the Blessed Virgin (Vespro della Beata Vergine). The opera starts with a brilliant fanfare played by trumpets. This toccata is the same which he used a few years later in his Vespers. The opera has wonderful duets for two shepherds (both tenors) which reminded me of the “Duo Seraphim” in the vespers (even so there is a third tenor in that piece). Also the famous “echo” duet “Audi Coelum” has his predecessor in Orfeo at the beginning of the fifth act where Orpheus sings about his loss and his despair and Echo replies to that.

All in all Monteverdi’s Orfeo is at the same time a culmination of his ideas which were developed in the madrigals, but also a piece which is influential for Monteverdi’s later operas and other works.

3. John Eliot Gardiner’s performance of Orfeo at the Proms

The performance of Orfeo at the Proms was semi-staged. As so often with opera performances at the Proms it used simple means (colourful dresses for the shepherds & nymphs, black dresses for the spirits of the Underworld) and very limited props, but made use of all spatial and acoustical possibilities of the Royal Albert Hall. The messenger who brought the news of Eurydice’s death walked accompanied (in both senses of the word) by a Theorbo player through the arena. The Echo at the beginning of Act 5 sung from the Gallery and Apollo descended at the end of the opera via the stairs.

For me the whole performance was very effective and I hugely enjoyed it. Krystian Adam as Orpheus and Mariana Flores as Eurydice have both beautiful voices and sung and played very convincingly. A lot of the other singers were young Italian singers which I had not heard before, but all of them were very good. The singers were versatile and played often more than one role. In my opinion the combination of roles was sometimes very touching. Mariana Flores sung not only Eurydice, but also Hope. I think it is no surprise that for Orpheus Hope resembles his beloved Eurydice.

My favourite singers were Francesca Aspromonte and Gianluca Buratto. Francesca Aspromonte sung la Musica and the Messenger. She has a beautiful soprano voice. I loved the lively and vivid way in which she sung la Musica at the beginning of the opera. She even accompanied herself with a Baroque guitar. The role as Messenger has a very different character, but she brought the terrible news of Eurydice’s death with great serenity and sincerity. Gianluca Buratto sung Charon and Pluto. He has a wonderful very dark bass voice which fitted perfectly to both roles and the transformation from the ferryman of the Underworld to the ruler of the Underworld was very convincing for me.

It is the third time that I have seen Orfeo and this was the performance I enjoyed most. I think I often prefer a semi-staged version which is less likely to impose a certain interpretation because of the choices the director makes. From a musical perspective there is probably no one who has as much experience with the music of Monteverdi as Sir John Eliot Gardiner. I am certainly looking forward to future performances – including in particular his take on Gluck’s version of the story in the opera “Orphée et Eurydice” in Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in autumn. Maybe this will be an opportunity to take up the story of Orpheus and Eurydice once again in my blog.

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