100 bästa operorna – 46 l’Orfeo av Monteverdi

15 september 2010

46 – l’Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi

L’Orfeo (L’Orfeo, favola in musica, SV 318, or La Favola d’Orfeo, or The Legend of Orpheus) is one of the earliest works recognized as an opera, composed by Claudio Monteverdi with text by Alessandro Striggio.


The actions take place in two contrasting locations: the fields of Thrace (Acts 1, 2 and 5) and the Underworld (Acts 3 and 4). An instrumental toccata (English: ”tucket”, meaning a flourish on trumpets)[41]  precedes the entrance of La Musica, who sings a prologue of five stanzas of verse. After a graceful welcome to the audience she announces herself as the spirit of music who can, through sweet sounds, ”calm every troubled heart.” She sings a further paean to the power of music, before introducing the drama’s main protagonist, Orfeo, who ”held the wild beasts spellbound with his song”.

Act 1

After La Musica’s final request for silence, the curtain rises on Act 1 to reveal a pastoral scene. Orfeo and Euridice enter together with a chorus of nymphs and shepherds, who act in the manner of a Greek chorus, commenting on the action both as a group and as individuals. A shepherd announces that this this the couple’s wedding day, and the chorus celebrates, first in a stately invocation and then in a a joyful dance. Orfeo and Euridice sing of their love for each other, before leaving with most of the group for the wedding ceremony in the temple. Those left on stage perform a brief chorus, commenting on how Orfeo has been changed by love from one ”for whom sighs were food and weeping was drink” to a state of sublime happiness.

Act 2

Orfeo returns with the main chorus, and together they sing of the beauties of nature. In a reflective four-verse aria Orfeo muses on his former unhappiness, but proclaims: ”After grief one is more content, after pain one is happier”. The mood of contentment is abruptly ended when the Messagiera enters, bringing the news that, while gathering flowers, Euridice has receved a fatal snakebite. The chorus expresses its anguish, while the Messagiera castigates herself as the bearing of bad tidings. Orfeo, after venting his grief and incredulity, declares his intention of descending to the Underworld and persuading its ruler to to allow Euridice to return to life. Otherwise ”I shall remain with thee in the company of death”. He departs, and the chorus resumes its lament.

Act 3

Orfeo is guided by Speranza to the gates of Hades. Having pointed out the words inscribed on the gate Speranza leaves. Orfeo is now confronted with the ferryman Caronte, who addresses Orfeo harshly and refuses to take him across the River Styx. Orfeo attempts to persuade Caronte by singing a flattering song to him, but the ferryman is unmoved. However, when Orfeo takes up his lyre and plays, Caronte is soothed into sleep. Seizing his chance, Orfeo steals the ferryman’s boat and crosses the river, to enter the Underworld while a chorus of spirits reflects that nature cannot defend herself against man: ”He has tamed the sea with fragile wood, and disdained the rage of the winds.”

Act 4

In the Underworld Proserpina, Queen of Hades, pleads with Plutone, her husband the King. She has been deeply affected by Orfeo’s singing, and petitions the king for Euridice’s release. Plutone is moved by her pleas, and agrees, subject to the condition that, in leading Euridice back to the world, Orfeo must not look back. If he does, ”a single glance will condemn him to eternal loss”. Proserpina expresses her gratitude, blessing the day that she was abducted by Plutone and brought to Hades. Orfeo now enters, leading Euridice and singing that on his wife’s white bosom he will rest that day. But a note of doubt creeps in: ”Who will assure me that she is following?”. Perhaps Plutone, driven by envy, has imposed the condition through spite? Suddenly distracted by an off-stage commotion, Orfeo looks round; immediately, the image of Euridice begins to fade. She sings, despairingly: ”Losest thou me through too much love?” and disappears. Orfeo attempts to follow her but is drawn away by an unseen force. The chorus of spirits sings that Orfeo, having overcome Hades, was in turn overcome by his passions.

Act 5

Back in the fields of Thrace Orfeo, in a long soliloquy, laments his loss, praises Euridice’s beauty and resolves that his heart will never again be pierced by Cupid’s arrow. An echo repeats his final phrases. Suddenly, in a cloud, Apollo descends from the heavens and chastises him: ”Why dost thou give thyself up as prey to rage and grief?” He invites Orfeo to leave the world and join him in the heavens, where he will recognise Euridice’s likeness in the stars. Orfeo replies that it would be unworthy not to follow the counsel of such a wise father, and together they ascend. A sheperds’ chorus sings and dances a brief finale, which concludes that ”he who sows in suffering shall reap the fruit of every grace”.

La Musica (Music)- soprano, originally castrato
Orfeo (Orpheus)- tenor
Euridice (Eurydice)- soprano, originally castrato
Mesaggiera (Messenger) – soprano
Speranza (Hope) – soprano
Caronte (Charon)- bass
Proserpina (Proserpine)- soprano
Plutone (Pluto)- bass
Apollo – tenor
Ninfa (Nymph)-     soprano
Eco (Echo) – tenor


This is the first ”real” opera, combining music and acting into the format we know still today. As the first one it differs a bit from later baroque operas as well, the recitatives are much more interesting, they haven’t settled into the formula so to say. I’ve seen the opera many years ago in a TV broadcast from the [link=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drott

ningholm_Palace_Theatre]Drottningholm Palace theatre[/link], meaning that it was all done just as it would have been perfomed in the 17th century. This performance, as well as what I know of the operas of the time period, makes me wary of the voice list here. Orfeo for example I’ve found more performances by a mezzo-soprano or baritone, indicating that it was a castrato originally. Also tenors were mostly used as old women in those days, not as heroes or gods.

Anyway I’ve picked two pieces from the opera. The first one is the wedding of Orfeo and Eurydice in a very classical production, the second one is the finale between Orfeo and Apollo, in a totally contrasting modern production. Apollo can’t have had an easy time singing in that costume.




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