About This Work
Monteverdi's Orfeo is one of the seminal works in the canon of Western music, the first great opera. When it was first given on February 24, 1607, in a room in the ducal palace at Mantua, the history of the genre dated back less than a decade. The
direct model for Orfeo was one of the earliest operas, Jacopo Peri's Eurydice, first performed in Florence in 1600 -- although dramatic settings of the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice including music dated back at least a century earlier, stemming from the Renaissance fascination with Greek antiquity. The opera was commissioned by Francesco Gonzaga, the son of the Duke of Mantua (Monteverdi's first patron), for the Carnival season of 1607, and was given before the membership of the Accademia degli Invaghiti, one of the many artistic academies that played a major role in Italian cultural life.
The libretto for Orfeo was the work of Alessandro Striggio, who based his version of the legend largely upon Ovid's Metamorphosis. It opens with an allegorical prologue in which Music pays compliments to the audience, particularly the ruling Gonzaga family, and then introduces Orpheus. The whole of the prologue is bound by an instrumental ritornello, also heard in the opera itself, that symbolizes the power of music, a topic important to most early operas based on the legend. The drama is then unfolded throughout five short acts which move from a pastoral scene in which Orpheus and Eurydice are celebrating their wedding day with a group of shepherds, through to the great dramatic turning point marked by the arrival of a Messenger giving the stunned assembly news of Eurydice's death. Joy now turns to lamentation and mourning, followed in the third and fourth acts by Orpheus' journey to the underworld to reclaim Eurydice -- the centerpiece of which is the great aria "Possente spirto," Orpheus' plea to the underworld. The published version of the score gives alternative versions, one a simple melodic outline, the other elaborately ornamented -- a uniquely important piece of contemporary documentary evidence of how embellishment was employed. The music throughout shows Monteverdi mixing both the new recitative style that inspired the birth of opera with older forms such as the madrigal (heard among the shepherds), and danced airs, all at the service of the central drama. Despite the use of some closed forms, the greatness of Orfeo lies in its total fulfillment of the objectives of the founding fathers of opera: the expression of a natural sequence of events in which the music is at the service of the words and of dramatic veracity.
The preservation of the first published edition of the score (Venice, 1609) gives full details of the instrumentation, thus providing further unusual performance insights for this period. The large body of instruments includes strings (violins, viols), brass and wind instruments (cornetti, recorder, clarino trumpet, four trombones), and a huge continuo grouping that includes a double harp, two chittarones (large continuo lutes), two small "flue" (pipe) organs, and a regal organ.
-- Brian Robins
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