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L'Orfeo

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 for the annual carnival of Mantua. It was first performed before the Accademia degl'Invaghiti on 24 February 1607 in a now unidentifiable room in the ducal palace at Mantua, and was published in Venice in 1609. The opera saw its modern debut on 25 February 1904 in a concert version in Paris directed by Vincent d'Indy. The opera continues to be regularly performed and its anniversary year of 2007 saw many productions.

Roles

1607 Cast as deduced by Fenlon (Whenman, 1986)

Role Voice type Premiere Cast, February 24, 1607
(Conductor: - )
La Musica (Music), the prologue soprano-castrato Giovanni Gualberto Magli
Orfeo (Orpheus) tenor ?Francesco Rasi
Euridice (Eurydice) soprano-castrato ??Girolamo Bacchini
Silvia (Sylvia), the messenger soprano
Speranza (Hope) soprano ?Giovanni Gualberto Magli
Caronte (Charon) bass
Proserpina (Proserpine) soprano ?Giovanni Gualberto Magli
Plutone (Pluto) bass
Apollo tenor not in 1607
Nymphs, shepherds, infernal spirits and Bacchantes

Synopsis

The action is based on the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus, who attempts to rescue his dead lover Eurydice from Hades, the underworld.

Prologue

The music begins with a dramatic toccata for brass and percussion; in modern performances this is sometimes played in the auditorium, or as a grand entrance for the conductor.

After a brief ritornello (which will recur through out the opera) La Musica (a "Spirit of Music") explains the power of music, and specifically the power of Orfeo (Orpheus), whose music is so powerful that it is capable of moving the gods themselves.

Act 1

Orfeo and Euridice celebrate their wedding day. Orfeo sings his aria Rosa del Ciel (Rose of Heaven, Light of the World) to which Euridice replies (Io non diro qual sia). The Act closes with the chorus singing Ecco Orfeo - 'Here is Orpheus for whom but recently sighs were food and tears drink. Today he is so happy...'.

Act 2

The act starts with nymphs and shepherds in continued celebration, and Orfeo sings Vi recorda, o bosch ombrosi (Do you recall O shady woods) with a final verse Sol per te, bella Euridice (Only through you, fair Euridice). A messenger arrives...

Orfeo receives the news that Euridice has been bitten by a 'treacherous snake' and died; he resolves to go down to the underworld himself to rescue her. He sings a poignant piece, beginning as a recitative but which develops quickly into an aria (Tu se' morta) on the transient fragility of human happiness.

Three times through this consistently doleful section the chorus sing Ahi caso acerbo, ahi fat'empio ecrudele (ah, bitter blow! ah wicked cruel fate!) (words first sung by the messenger, and later taken up by the shepherds). The first time the chorus continue with the comment Non si fidi uom mortale... (Let not mortal man trust..)

The act closes with the ritornello from the Prologue.

Act 3

The Act opens with a brass sinfonia. Hope accompanies Orfeo to the entrance to Hades, where she can go no further (Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate - Abandon all hope, ye who enter).

Orfeo meets Caronte (Charon), the guardian of Hades, and attempts to trick him into letting him pass with the beauty of his singing (possente spirto). Unsuccessful, he tries again, this time using his lyre, and Caronte falls peacefully asleep while Orfeo passes and descends into Hades, to the music of the opening sinfonia.

The chorus then make their only appearance in this act, singing Nulla impresa per uom si tenta invano (No enterprise of man is done in vain), and the act closes with a final florid version of the opening sinfonia.

Act 4

The act begins without an introduction.

Proserpina (Proserpine), the queen of Hades, is moved by Orfeo's music, and persuades Plutone (Pluto), king of Hades, to let Euridice go. Plutone acquiesces on one condition: that Orfeo not look back as Euridice follows him back up into the light, and back into life. The chorus sing

Pietade, oggi, e Amore
Trionfan ne l'Inferno

(Compassion and Love triumph today in Hades)

Orpheus begins his ascent from Hades, singing in praise of his lyre ((Quai onor di te fia degno). At first he leaves with Euridice following him; his doubts, however, impel him to look back over his shoulder, and Euridice vanishes like a phantom before his eyes. Despondent, he returns to Earth.

The chorus sing E la virtute un raggio (Virtue is a ray ...) concluding Degno d'eterna gloria... Worthy of eternal glory is only he who has victory over himself

Act 5

The opening music recalls the opening ritornello from the Prologue.

Orfeo is consumed by grief, and in the 1609 edition, Apollo, his father, comes down from the heavens to take his son away, where he can behold the image of Euridice forever in the stars.

The Chorus sing Vanne Orfeo, felice a pieno (Go Orpheus in perfect happiness) and the work concludes with a brisk Moresca

The 1607 edition differs significantly (See the discussion in ch 3 of Whenman's 1986 book, where the original text and an English translation are given)- according to notes with the 1987 John Eliot Gardiner recording, the original ending followed the Greek myth, and concluded with Orfeo's attempting to flee from the Bacchantes who tear Orpheus limb from limb.

(There are ongoing debates as to why Monteverdi altered the ending from the original libretto by Striggio with Apollo lifting him up to the heavens - Fenlon, (writing in Whenman, 1986), points out that it would not have been possible to engineer a deus ex machina in the small room probably used for the first performance, and that the revels of the Bacchantes would not have seemed inappropriate for a performance during the Festival; by contrast the 1609 version appears to have been written, (but not produced) as an entertainment for the prospective father in law of Francesco Gonzaga.)

Orchestration

L'Orfeo is marked by its dramatic power and lively orchestration. It is an early example of a composer assigning specific instruments to parts; while composers of the Venetian School had been doing this, with varying precision, for about two decades, the instrumentation in the case of L'Orfeo is unusually explicit. The plot is clearly delineated with musical contrasts, and the melodies are linear and clear; much of the writing uses the style of monody which was pioneered by the Florentine Camerata in the last decades of the 16th century. With this opera Monteverdi had created an entirely new style of music, the dramma per musica, or musical drama. This idea of theatrical works set to music was taken from the notion that the Ancient Greeks had sung their plays.

Style

Monteverdi's operas are usually labelled "early Baroque," or sometimes "pre-Baroque." Music in northern Italy at this time was in transition between the style of the late Renaissance and the early Baroque, and progressive composers such as Monteverdi combined the stylistic trends prevalent in the various musical centers such as Florence, Venice and Ferrara.

Monteverdi's orchestra

The following list of instruments that were used in the first performance of L'Orfeo at Mantua in 1607 can be found on the second page of the printed score (Venice, 1609 – second edition 1615). Note that Monteverdi sometimes requires an instrumentation that is at odds with this list:

"Duoi Gravicembani" – two harpsichords. In the rest of the score, the spellings "Clavicembani" and "Clavicembano" are consistently used.

"Duoi Contrabassi de Viola" – two contrabass viols.

"Dieci Viole da Brazzo" – ten viole da braccio, presumably of different sizes. At least one bass violin is explicitly called for in the score.

"Un Arpa doppia" – one double harp.

"Duoi Violini piccoli all Francese" – two "French" violini piccoli. These are only explicitly called for at one point in the beginning of act 2; immediately following their appearance, two "Violini Ordinarij da braccio" are called for, to distinguish from the violini piccoli. They are never mentioned again.

"Duoi Chitaroni" – two chitarroni. However, twice in the score three chitarroni are called for. In act 4, "Chitaroni" and "Ceteroni" are mentioned as separate entities, despite the latter not being mentioned in the instrument list.

"Duoi organi di legno" – two organs with wooden pipes.

"Tre Bassi da gamba" – three bass viols.

"Quattro Tromboni" – four trombones. At one point in act 3, however, the score calls for five trombones (act 3)

"Un Regale" – One regal.

"Duoi Cornetti" – two cornetts.

"Un Flautino alla vigesima seconda" – one small recorder at the twenty-second". The interval of a 22nd is equal to three octaves. It is thought that Monteverdi is referring to a recorder pitched in 1-foot C, one octave above middle C (and three octaves above 8-ft C, which is thought to be the standard pitch from which the 22nd was measured). If this interpretation were correct then Monteverdi’s flautino would be a descant in c''. However, there are parts written for two instruments for two are actually called for in the second act.

"Un clarino con tre Trombe sordine" – one clarino trumpet with three muted trumpets. In the toccata which precedes the opera there are parts for five – not four – trumpets. These are assigned the old Renaissance names according to the register in which they play. The following are the names, with the trumpet partials that they were required to play in parenthesis: Basso (2nd), Vulgano (3rd), Alto e Basso (3rd, 4th and 5th), Quinta (4th to 8th) and Clarino (from the 8th up). All five trumpets would have been natural Baroque trumpets in 8-ft C (i.e. the fundamental pitch was C2, two octaves below middle C). The only difference would have been in the size of mouthpiece used. The clarino trumpet would have been fitted with a small mouthpiece to facilitate the playing of the higher partials, while the basso would have had a large mouthpiece, without which the second partial could not be played in tune. Carse (1925) suggests that the clarino trumpet would also have had a narrower bore than the others, though this is denied by Tarr (1988). Tarr also points out that the trumpets are only specifically mentioned in the toccata, and concludes that they were not used in the opera itself. It should be noted, however, that there are a few places in the opera where Monteverdi instructs tutti gli stromenti ("all the instruments") to play; but in these numbers he does not identify the particular instruments by name. It would appear, however, that after L'Orfeo the trumpet did not return to the opera house until 1667, when Antonio Cesti reintroduced it with his opera Il Pomo d’oro.

Critical Appreciation

Though rarely out of the repertory, the opera has some clear blemishes, principal of which is the very short fifth act. Fenlon notes that Monteverdi seems to have thought his next opera (L'Arianna, now largely lost) a much better work, and comments in Whenman (1986) 'Although 20th century historians have elevated Orfeo to a position of supreme importance in the history of early opera, it is clear that for both the composer and his contemporaries the work was no more than an ephemeral entertainment for courtiers'.

Media

See also

References and further reading

  • Carse, Adam (1925, 1964). The History of Orchestration. Dover Publications, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-486-21258-0.
  • Carter, Tim (2002). Monteverdi's Musical Theatre. Yale University Press, New Haven & London. ISBN 0-300-09676-3.
  • Tarr, Edward (1978, 1988). The Trumpet. Amadeus Pr. ISBN 0-931340-13-6.
  • Whenham, John : "Orfeo", Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed November 9, 2004), (subscription access)
  • Whenham, John (ed.) (1986). Monteverdi: Orfeo. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 0-521-28477-5.

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