The Magazine

'Orfeo' at 400

Monteverdi's gift to music and drama.

May 19, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 34 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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Those who love opera can scarcely imagine a world without it. Yet on the very face of it--what a queer notion it is to translate drama into song, and to saturate this nonpareil artistic outpouring with emotion so extravagant that it bears the scantest resemblance even to the most heightened theatrical speech. Opera is theater supercharged, full to bursting, and music is what propels the art to extremes of towering magniloquence, erotic mesmerism, alluring excruciation.

But not everyone goes in for this sort of thing. To Samuel Johnson opera was "an exotic and irrational entertainment." It was the alarming mixture of drama and music that put off Dr. Johnson; neither one in its pure state offended him. Of course, to those who emphatically do go in for this sort of thing, the mixture is precisely the attraction. And this past year has been an occasion for celebrating the most eminent of those men who first united music and drama and inaugurated this strange and noble art: It is the 400th anniversary of the first great opera: Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643).

Orfeo was not the first opera, pure and simple. Dafne, composed by Jacopo Corsi and Jacopo Peri to a libretto by Ottavio Rinuccini, premiered in Florence in 1598; the score has been lost. Two early operatic renditions by Florentine composers of the myth of Orpheus--the sublime singer who ventures into Hades to bring his dead bride, Euridice, back among the living--have survived: Peri's Euridice (1600) and Giulio Caccini's Euridice (1602). Peri, one of the foremost singers of his time, took the role of Orpheus in his own opera when it was performed at the Pitti Palace to celebrate the wedding of Maria de' Medici and Henri IV of France.

Peri wrote that he was attempting to compose "a form of song which, surpassing ordinary speech, and of a lower sort than sung melody, was halfway between the two." Imitating the speaking voice in song required a novel art--"to be sure never was speech heard to sing"--and Peri's innovation issued in the primordial recitative. In due course, recitative would become what one scholar has called the "connective tissue" of opera, utilitarian and unassuming, which provided the narrative line and filled up the spaces between arias, the flamboyant lyric flights that people really went to the theater to hear. For Claudio Monteverdi, however, recitative was the essence of opera, and he refined Peri's discovery with masterly command.

The primacy of recitative depended upon the intelligibility of the sung text. Counterpoint, or polyphony, in which several independent vocal melodies sounded simultaneously, had been the mainstay of 16th-century music, under such masters as Palestrina. The madrigal, the principal form of secular song in Renaissance Italy, which usually took love for its theme, joined several voices in counterpoint. Monteverdi spent his youth writing madrigals, and became an acknowledged master by his mid-twenties.

By 1600, however, polyphony had pretty well had its day: Critics faulted it for making the sung text indistinct, and composers (including Peri and Caccini) turned their efforts to monody or solo song.

Monody was actually old as the hills, but it received a new impetus from the desire to make the words at least as important as the music. The parallel emergence of basso continuo--a system of notation for accompanying instruments in which only the bass notes were written in the score and the upper parts of the chords were improvised--served the dramatic needs of the solo voice. Singers were relieved of the responsibility for patching together the harmony, and the soloist could now focus on the emotional subtleties of the words he was singing. High Renaissance reverence for the classical Greek theater, with its celebrated union of music and word, spurred the quest for a comparable modern art of conjoined powers. The stile recitativo, or recitative style, was the outcome of these efforts and the foundation of opera in its earliest youth.

Orfeo was originally presented in February 1607 as a carnival entertainment by the Accademia degli Invaghiti (Academy of the Charmed Ones) at the ducal palace of the Gonzaga family in Mantua. Francesco Gonzaga, the duke's elder son, commissioned the opera, evidently to exhibit his flair for artistic matters, and in rivalry with his brilliant younger brother Ferdinando, an accomplished poet, composer, and linguist. The librettist, Alessandro Striggio, was a court secretary, sometime diplomat, and musician. Monteverdi was the court choirmaster, serving up amusements for secular occasions, writing concert and table and theatrical music. The court's instrumental forces and an expert troupe of solo singers performed regularly under his baton.