Great moments in opera: L’Orfeo

May 6, 2015

A dozen or so operas have been written on the tale of Orpheus and Euridice, including Jacopo Peri’s Euridice, sometimes said to be the first opera. But Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, our subject for today, is better known, and justly beloved. It had its premiere in 1607, and so stands very close to the first flowerings of the operatic art.

In common usage the term “renaissance music” usually evokes the polyphonic music of Palestrina, Victoria, and Byrd, but it is a conspicuously poor usage, for that music, with all its resplendent wonders, is deeply rooted in and in continuity with medieval musical traditions stretching back to the 12th century. If the Renaissance is to be identified with a rebirth, and especially a rebirth drawn from Greek and Roman sources, then there is little of the Renaissance about polyphony.

But there is a Renaissance music nonetheless; we call it opera. The Venetian musicians who created it did it quite explicitly in an effort to revive the musical effects — if not the music itself, which was lost beyond recovery — described in Greco-Roman literary sources. They aimed for a form of heightened, expressive speech, and indeed this is one of the first things to strike a modern listener to these early operas. The Baroque bifurcation of opera into alternating recitative and arias had yet to happen; in Monteverdi’s day it was, more or less, all recitative: a declamatory style, respecting the rhythms of speech, with the music intended to heighten the rhetorical power of the words.

To get a feeling for what I mean, let’s hear some of it. The clips below are all taken from a splendid DVD production led by Jordi Savall. Here is the opening instrumental toccata, a brilliant flourish that sets a stately tone for what follows (listen to the first 2 minutes or so):

This is followed by a prologue in which the spirit of music — Orpheus’ muse, of course — sets the stage:

Singing with my golden Lyre, I like
To charm, now and then, mortal ears,
And in such a fashion that I make their souls aspire more
For the resounding harmony of the lyre of Heaven.

Hence desire spurs me to tell you of ORFEO:
Of ORFEO who tamed wild beasts with his song
And made Hades answer his prayers,
To the immortal glory of Pindus and Helicon

Early in Act II Orfeo sings Vi ricorda, ò bosch’ombrosi (Do you remember, O shady groves), in which he tells of his love for Euridice, who has turned all his sorrow into joy. This is one of the most tuneful sections of the opera; the clip has English subtitles:

But this happy scene is not to last. No sooner has Orfeo proclaimed his joy than a messenger arrives bearing ill tidings: Euridice, walking in a flowery meadow, was bitten suddenly by a snake:

Then we all, appalled and sorrowed,
Gathered around her, trying to call back
The spirits that grew faint in her,
With fresh water and with powerful charms,
But to no avail, ah alas,
For she opened her failing eyes a little,
And calling you, ORFEO,
After a deep sigh,
She died in these arms; and I was left,
My heart filled with pity and horror.

This is a long clip, but a wonderful one for the way in which it illustrates all the strengths of Monteverdi’s art: its sensitive word-setting, its emotional power, its smooth integration of solos and choruses, and its musical beauty. It starts with the entry of the messenger and continues to the end of Act II. English subtitles included:

We all know what happens next: Orfeo descends into the underworld to retrieve Euridice, but, turning back to look at her just as he leads her out, thereby loses her forever. The tragic ending is brightened, or spoiled, according to taste, in Monteverdi’s version, for as Orfeo laments Apollo descends and upbraids him for his tears, offering to take him to heaven. The offer once accepted, they ascend, and a final chorus sings a joyful song:

So goes one who does not retreat
At the call of the eternal light,
So he obtains grace in heaven
Who down here has braved Hell
And he who sows in sorrow
Reaps the fruit of all grace.

I don’t know the opera well enough to have a strong view on whether this finale mars what is, in my imagination, an inherently tragic story that ought to have the courage of its convictions. But I do know that L’Orfeo is a landmark in the history of Western music, and that time spent getting to know it cannot be wasted.

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