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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The operatic performance took place in a relatively small room, some 30 by 100 feet, in the apartments of Margherita Gonzaga, the widow of the duke of Ferrara, and it was a hit. A second performance followed, and a third was planned but never came off.

Orfeo consists of a prologue and five acts, each act ending with a chorus. La Musica appears in the prologue, announcing her power to soothe the troubled heart and inflame the most frigid mind, and presenting the glory of Orfeo, whose singing tamed wild beasts and made even hell submit to his plaintive strains. In Act I shepherds and nymphs join the tenor Orfeo in celebrating the end to his lonesome sadness that marriage to Euridice will bring. In Act II his happiness proves short-lived, as a Messaggiera, Euridice's best friend Silvia, comes on to tell that Euridice has been bitten by a serpent and is dead. Orfeo vows to bring Euridice back from hell to see the stars again--"a riveder le stelle," an allusion to Dante's emergence from the Inferno.

In Act III Orfeo's singing lulls the infernal boatman Caronte, a sepulchral bass, to sleep so he can slip across the River Styx, and the chorus of spirits praises the tireless enterprise of man. In Act IV Proserpine begs Plutone to allow Euridice to return to the world of the living with Orfeo, and Plutone agrees--with the proviso that Orfeo not turn to look at his bride until they have left the underworld. Moved by love, and startled by a noise, Orfeo does turn toward Euridice--and loses her a second time. The chorus of spirits faults Orfeo for permitting his emotions to overcome his virtue. In Act V Orfeo mourns his failure; then, according to the 1607 libretto (for which the closing music has been lost), a chorus of bacchantes comes on, and is preparing to tear Orfeo to pieces when the opera ends.

In the published score of 1609, however, the version in which the opera has come down to us, Orfeo's father Apollo, god of the sun and of poetry, talks his son out of his funk and convinces him to enjoy immortal life in heaven, where he shall see Euridice's face forever in the sun and stars. The chorus, never slow to point the moral, observes that "he who sows in sorrow reaps the fruits of all grace."

Monteverdi's artistry in fitting music to word creates a sonic world of exquisite emotional pains and pleasures, with a delicate emphasis on the pains. That an artist working in such a novel form should have so fine a touch is astonishing. As Act I opens, a shepherd sings of "this happy and auspicious day" and one expects his tune to trip along merrily. But the song is reserved and even solemn. And Orfeo's hymn to the sun and ode to his love for Euridice, Rosa del ciel ("Rose of Heaven"), begins almost lugubriously, and certainly never rises to what we might call the uplands of operatic joy. (Musicologists tell us that it is written in the Dorian mode, which a 16th-century theorist says hovers between sadness and happiness.) The full-hearted jollity is left to the chorus of nymphs and shepherds, though even they reflect on the round of gladness and grief in human life. For their part, Orfeo and Euridice seem to share a presentiment of affliction. One is reminded of Parmigianino's Madonna and Child, in the Uffizi Gallery, in which the infant Christ looks with knowing sorrow at ferocious storm clouds gathering in the distance.

Monteverdi's music explores what comes of suffering as the screw turns. Orfeo's melodious arioso--recitative infused with lyric passion--Vi ricorda, o bosch'ombrosi ("Do you recall, oh shady woods") is an outburst of unrestrained gaiety, with its blithely energetic accompaniment. He sings of having come through, of having put behind him his earlier unhappiness, when Euridice still spurned his love.

Then the blow falls out of nowhere. The messenger Silvia enters and sings four curt phrases of plain heartbreak, each beginning with a stabbing high note on the interjection Ahi. When she says that Euridice is dead, Orfeo utters a single sharp cry, then is silent with the shock. Silvia's baleful dirge seems to cost her all she has just to get it out of her mouth. The dead tone is relieved only by the sudden urgency with which she describes the futile efforts to revive Euridice.

By comparison, in Peri's Euridice, the account by Dafne of Euridice's death is elegiac rather than dramatic, as though she were delivering a funeral oration instead of making the most dreadful announcement of her life. Peri's is by no means a slight achievement, but his opera seems more a pageant than living theater, and it is wondrous to see how far Monteverdi has taken the form just seven years later.