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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Nowhere is Monteverdi's attentiveness to dramatic values more evident than in the aria Possente spirto ("Powerful spirit"), which Orfeo sings to Caronte, trying to persuade him to let Orfeo pass into hell. The aria, in six stanzas of terza rima, shows Orfeo the unsurpassed artist exhibiting his flashy excellence, as though performing his most polished contest piece, and Orfeo the bereaved bridegroom loosing his heart's sorrow, as though speaking intimately to a confidant.

The first stanza is a tour de force, which addresses an august personage, the ferryman of hell, in formal importunity; festooned with decorations like a generalissimo's chest, the florid passage evinces respect for the powers of the underworld and demonstrates Orfeo's worthiness to have his plea heard. The second stanza states in unadorned pain that Orfeo is no longer alive himself since Euridice's death. The contrast between the gaudy showpiece and the simple declaration of woe could not be starker. The third and fourth stanzas are once again vocally ornate as a muezzin's cry: Orfeo son io, he sings--I am Orfeo, and there is no other man like him, who dares to enter hell itself in pursuit of his love.

The final two stanzas, which unabashedly implore Caronte's aid, return to plainspoken directness. A single line caps the aria, in which Orfeo insists with a brash closing flourish that not even the most obdurate spirit can resist his music. But though Orfeo's song touches him, Caronte does resist: To show pity would be beneath his dignity. Then an anguished entreaty simply cascades breathlessly from Orfeo's mouth, all artistry forgotten, the man pouring out his harrowed soul. And thereupon Caronte falls asleep. As the critic Andrew Porter has pointed out, it is the simplest music--the humble recitative rather than the resplendent aria--that has overcome him.

In 1608, the year after Orfeo was first produced, Monteverdi presented another opera at the Mantuan court, Arianna, of which only the title character's famous lament is extant. It has been recorded by such distinguished mezzo-sopranos as Dame Janet Baker and Anne Sofie von Otter. For Mantua, Monteverdi also wrote the Vespro della Beata Vergine (1610), Vespers for the Blessed Virgin, one of the most celebrated pieces of sacred music of its time. Then in 1613 Monteverdi accepted the musically peerless appointment as maestro di capella at St. Mark's Basilica in Venice. In 1637 opera made its way to Venice, and soon there were four commercial opera houses in town. Monteverdi could not help but get in on the action: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (Ulysses' Return to His Homeland) premiered in 1639; the now-lost Le nozze d'Enea con Lavinia (The Marriage of Aeneas and Lavinia) in 1641; and L'incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppaea) in 1643, shortly before Monteverdi's death.

Like Orfeo, Il ritorno d'Ulisse, based on Books 13 and 24 of The Odyssey, has to do with human frailty--which is embodied by an allegorical figure in the prologue--and the depth of love and courage that transcends it. This opera is musically ravishing, lovelier and more exciting than Orfeo. The music of exuberant youthful desire, as sung by the lovers Melanto and Eurimaco, caroms off the solemn, long-suffering devotion of Ulysses' wife, Penelope, who has waited years for his return from the Trojan War, and whom Melanto tries to cajole (with some of Monteverdi's most gorgeous lyricism) into loving another man.

But Penelope's melancholic severity deflects her suitors' seductive importunities; she sings in hangdog recitative throughout, until Ulysses is back in her arms, when she breaks into the aria Illustratevi, o Cieli ("Shine out, oh heavens"), which translates her happiness into that of all nature. The reunited couple's duet finale is a showcase of eloquent vital joy, a perfect affirmation of love and life by those who had been threatened with their loss. Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria is a masterpiece in the name of enduring nobility.

L'incoronazione di Poppea surpasses it, although its subject is (uncharacteristically for Monteverdi) morally gamy to the point of deliquescence: the mutual lust of the Roman emperor Nerone and the beautiful but vicious noblewoman Poppea, whose itch for the imperial crown exceeds even her desire for the emperor's person. The brazen coloratura ridicule that Fortuna directs at Virtu in the prologue, and that Virtu answers in kind, sets the tone for the opera. In Poppea, when the splashy fioriture come out, and they come out often, something unsavory is usually brewing. In any event, Amore promptly asserts his dominance over the pair of goddesses, and the opera will prove him supreme, in the nastiest way.

The voices of Nerone (a mezzo-soprano or tenor) and Poppea (a soprano) are virtual extensions of their sexual parts, and demonstrate the various shadings of erotic feeling from plaintiveness to playfulness, fever to storm. These high voices are set against the philosopher Seneca, whose basso profundo bespeaks profundity of mind, and who had been Nerone's tutor. In some cases philosophy just doesn't take, and after Seneca opposes Nerone's wish to divorce his wife and marry Poppea, Nerone orders him to commit suicide. The new imperial couple is a matched set of ogres, but the hushed rapturous sensuality of their duet finale, Pur ti miro ("I gaze at you"), almost forgives them everything.

Of course, Monteverdi's audience would have been expected to know that Tacitus said Nero kicked Poppaea to death while she was pregnant, and that Suetonius added he did so because she nagged him about spending so much time at the horse races.

These are exotic and irrational creatures that Monteverdi depicts, but Dr. Johnson's witty dismissal of operatic entertainment cannot stand in Monteverdi's case. His is a rational and highly moral art. The beautiful music he gives even his worst characters sometimes belies, but ultimately reveals, their deformed souls. The beautiful music he gives his heroes and heroines evokes a sublimity that lasts in the listener's mind, like wisdom embodied.

Monteverdi's formal mastery, which can only be called precocious in a form so newly emergent, ever serves a lofty vision of human grace and fortitude, befitting what will become, in his greatest successors' hands, the noblest of the arts.

Algis Valiunas is a writer in Florida.