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.

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.

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.

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