Harmonia Early Music

A Pocket L’Orfeo

Loud music, a musician in love, a turn for the worst, lots of good friends, and an alternate ending? It's Monteverdi's L'Orfeo.

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drawing of man

Photo: Anonymous

A detail from Albrecht Dürer's 1494 drawing of Orpheus being beaten to death by the Thracian Maenads (Kunsthalle, Hamburg).

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:

httpvh://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EdHFxkd7s0s

Music Heard On This Episode

Claudio Monteverdi : Atto Terzo: Sinfonia-Scorto da te, mio nume
Coro Antonio Il Verso and Ensemble Elyma (Gabriel Garrido, dir.) — L’Orfeo (K617 Records France, 2000)
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Claudio Monteverdi : Atto Terzo: Sinfonia-Scorto da te, mio nume
Coro Antonio Il Verso and Ensemble Elyma (Gabriel Garrido, dir.) — L’Orfeo (K617 Records France, 2000)
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Claudio Monteverdi : Atto Terzo: Sinfonia – Ei dorme
Coro Antonio Il Verso and Ensemble Elyma (Gabriel Garrido, dir.) — L’Orfeo (K617 Records France, 2000)
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Claudio Monteverdi : Atto Quinto: Sinfonia – Questi i campi di Tracia
Coro Antonio Il Verso and Ensemble Elyma (Gabriel Garrido, dir.) — L’Orfeo (K617 Records France, 2000)
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Claudio Monteverdi : Atto Primo: Rosa del Ciel, vita del mondo, Orfeo and Euridice
Soloists, Choir and Orchestra of the New London Consort (Philip Pickett, dir — L’Orfeo (Polygram Records, 1993)
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Claudio Monteverdi: Atto Primo: Lasciate i monti, Choro
Soloists, Choir and Orchestra of the New London Consort (Philip Pickett, dir — L’Orfeo (Polygram Records, 1993)
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Claudio Monteverdi: Atto Primo: Ritornello – Alcun non sia che disperato, Pastori I, II
Soloists, Choir and Orchestra of the New London Consort (Philip Pickett, dir — L’Orfeo (Polygram Records, 1993)
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Claudio Monteverdi: Atto Secondo: Tu se’ morta mia vita, Orfeo
Soloists, European Voices and Le Concert d’Astrée (Emmnuelle Haïm, dir.) — L'Orfeo (Virgin Classics, 2004)
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Claudio Monteverdi: Atto Secondo: Ahi caso acerbo, Choro
Soloists, European Voices and Le Concert d’Astrée (Emmnuelle Haïm, dir.) — L'Orfeo (Virgin Classics, 2004)
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Claudio Monteverdi: Atto Secondo: : Ma io ch’in questa lingua, Messaggiera
Soloists, European Voices and Le Concert d’Astrée (Emmnuelle Haïm, dir.) — L'Orfeo (Virgin Classics, 2004)
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Claudio Monteverdi: Atto Secondo: Sinfonia – Chi ne consola ahi lassi? Due pastori, Choro
Soloists, European Voices and Le Concert d’Astrée (Emmnuelle Haïm, dir.) — L'Orfeo (Virgin Classics, 2004)
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Claudio Monteverdi: Atto Secondo: Ritornello
Soloists, European Voices and Le Concert d’Astrée (Emmnuelle Haïm, dir.) — L'Orfeo (Virgin Classics, 2004)
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Claudio Monteverdi: Atto Terzo: Possente spirto, Orfeo
Soloists, Choir and Orchestra of the New London Consort (Philip Pickett, dir.) — L'Orfeo (Polygram Records, 1993)
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Claudio Monteverdi: Atto Quarto: Ahi vista troppo dolce
Chiaroscuro, London Baroque, and the London Cornett & Sacbut Ensemble (Nigel Rogers and Charles Medlam, directors) — L'Orfeo (EMI Classics, 1994)
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Claudio Monteverdi: Atto Quarto: Sinfonia – È la virtute – Sinfonia
Chiaroscuro, London Baroque, and the London Cornett & Sacbut Ensemble (Nigel Rogers and Charles Medlam, directors) — L'Orfeo (EMI Classics, 1994)
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Claudio Monteverdi: Atto Quinto: Ma tu, anima mia, se mai ritorna, Orfeo
Soloists, Choir and Orchestra of the New London Consort (Philip Pickett, dir.) — L'Orfeo (Polygram Records, 1993)
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Claudio Monteverdi: Atto Quinto: Sinfonia – Perch’a lo sdegno ed al dolor, Apollo
Soloists, Choir and Orchestra of the New London Consort (Philip Pickett, dir.) — L'Orfeo (Polygram Records, 1993)
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Claudio Monteverdi: Atto Quinto: Troppo, troppo gioisti, Apollo
Soloists, Choir and Orchestra of the New London Consort (Philip Pickett, dir.) — L'Orfeo (Polygram Records, 1993)
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Claudio Monteverdi: Atto Quinto: Ritornello – Vanne Orfeo felice a pieno, Choro
Soloists, Choir and Orchestra of the New London Consort (Philip Pickett, dir.) — L'Orfeo (Polygram Records, 1993)
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Claudio Monteverdi: Atto Quinto: Moresca
Soloists, Choir and Orchestra of the New London Consort (Philip Pickett, dir.) — L'Orfeo (Polygram Records, 1993)
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Peter Philips : Galiarda Dolorosa
Bertrand Cuiller, Harpsichord and Virginals — Byrd - Pescodd Time / Cuiller (Alpha Productions, 2006)
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Bernard Gordillo

Bernard Gordillo was born in Managua, Nicaragua, and raised in New Orleans. He holds degrees from Centenary College of Louisiana, the Early Music Institute at Indiana University, and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (London). Bernard also writes and hosts the Harmonia Early Music Podcast.

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