The year 2007 marks a special anniversary for the composer Claudio Monteverdi. Four hundred years before, his opera L’Orfeo was first performed at the Mantuan court of Duke Vincenzo I.
Of the earliest baroque operas performed in the twentieth century, L’Orfeo is perhaps the most well-known and loved.
There is probably no better way to get to know an opera than to go through each act. After the obligatory prologue we find ourselves in the midst of a party. Who’s throwing the party you might ask? Shepherds, of course. We find our lovers, Orfeo and Euridice, are present and very much in love. The act ends with the two lovers and company going off to the temple for prayers.
In act II, the bottom falls out for our hero just as the situation heads south for his girlfriend—literally. The act begins with Orfeo singing joyfully with shepherds. And then the bad news arrives—a woman in a state of shock, the Messaggiera, comes to tell him that Euridice is dead. Orfeo sings “you are dead, my life, and yet I breathe?” The act concludes with shepherds and chorus echoing Orfeo’s sorrow.
The sad mood continues for Orfeo as Act III begins. Our hero goes down to the underworld and confronts the boatman Charon who stands in his way. Orfeo, with a little help from Persephone, puts him to sleep with the song “Possente spirto.”
Act IV begins with Pluto being swayed to let Euridice return with Orfeo. But their good luck doesn’t last long.
As the story goes, Orfeo was not supposed to look back as they ascended, but he did and Euridice disappeared in an instant.
Act V is the final one for Monteverdi’s setting of the Orfeo legend. It begins with a thoroughly dejected hero who goes a bit crazy. He doesn’t chide himself as he should, but goes on a rant, blaming women. At that moment, the god Apollo, (Orfeo’s father) descends to give his son some parental advice. The opera ends like it began—with a party.
This was, in fact, the second and happier ending. The first one, and more historically correct, had Orfeo killed by a mob of Thracian Maenads.
We go now to music of Peter Philips in our new release of the week with harpsichordist Bertrand Cuiller.
Here’s a video of the overture and prologue to Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo with Hesperion XXI: