This Week in Music History: The premiere of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607)

Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark.

Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo isn’t the first opera. But it’s remarkably close.

An engraved portrait of Monteverdi from “Fiori poetici,” a book of commemorative poems published upon his death (1644 / Beinecke Rare Book Library)

The very first one of all is probably Dafne, which was written in 1598 by Jacopo Peri and Jacopo Corsi, and another, Euridice, followed in 1600. Both those set texts by the poet Ottavio Rinuccini. Monteverdi’s offering, however, with a libretto by Alessandro Striggio, was probably a bigger deal right from the start: he was a well established composer, famous for his madrigals. He wrote it for the Gonzaga family, his employers, for performance at the ducal palace in Mantua during the carnival season.

Thanks to a couple of letters written the day before, we know that the first performance was on February 24, 1607. “Tomorrow evening the Most Serene Lord the Prince is to sponsor a [play],” one Carlo Magno wrote to his brother. It should be most unusual, as all the actors are to sing their parts; it is said on all sides that it will be a great success.”

Who sings the first aria? None other than Music herself. “I am music: with my sweet sounds I can calm troubled minds, with noble anger or with love I can melt the hardest hearts,” she sings. Like many roles in the opera, Music would originally have been sung by a castrato.

L’Orfeo, Prolog (published in Venice by Ricciardo Amadin, 1609)

The character of Music only appears as a prolog, but in fact L’Orfeo is an opera that is deeply concerned with the power of music to calm troubled minds and melt hearts. The mythological story tells of how the great singer Orfeo descends to the Underworld to try to reclaim his bride Euridice, who dies just after their wedding. Proserpina, queen of the Underworld, is moved by Orfeo’s singing and allows for Euridice’s release—but as he is leading her back home, he breaks the one rule that was imposed on him, and she returns to the land of the dead.

Monteverdi tells this simple story with such grace, and grants Orfeo such truly captivating music—most of all his god-charming aria “Possente spirto” (above)—that L’Orfeo still echoes and resonates profoundly with us today. But this wasn’t always the case. In fact, even though the score was published in 1611—itself quite unusual at the time—it slipped into obscurity as operatic fashions changed, and was only rediscovered in the late 19th century. Its present-day standing as the legendary father of all operas is a relatively modern invention.

Its rediscovery is something to be grateful for, though—and so is the historically informed performance movement, which means that we can now enjoy Monteverdi’s music with some of the same beautiful instrumental and vocal sounds that he probably intended.

On the other hand, of course, 400-year-old artworks perhaps require a degree of reinterpretation today. Modern productions of L’Orfeo, like American director Robert Wilson’s version for La Scala, give this ancient work a visual freshness to complement Monteverdi’s always-vibrant music.

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