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Baroqe Era - The Beginnings of Opera

In a musical context, "Baroque" is a much less precise term, often used to suggest little more than an ornate and rather theatrical style. Composers of. the time, however, were conscious of a break with the past. In 1605, Monteverdi made a firm distinction between a PRIMA PRATTICA and a SECONDA PRATTICA (first and second practice), the former referring to the intricate Renaissance style of composition, the latter to a new emphasis on the clarity of the text. At the heart of the new style was the development of the BASSO CONTINUO (thorough bass), a system of notation for the secondary instruments.


Such innovations bore fruit almost immediately, helping to stimulate the emergence of opera. 

The oldest surviving opera is Jacopo Peri's Euridice, commissioned in 1600 for the festivities celebrating the marriage of Henri IV of France to the Florentine Maria de' Medici. However, the first masterpiece in the new genre was Monteverdi's Orfeo in 1607, which was composed for the Gonzaga family at Mantua. This was produced on an entirely different scale from the earlier experiments. While Pen had made use of just a few lutes and a harpsichord in his operas, keeping them discreetly hidden behind the scenery, Monteverdi employed a full orchestra consisting of some 40 instruments.

The taste for opera spread; Rome and Venice became the new centres of musical excellence. Rome took the lead in the 1620s, largely due to patronage from high-ranking clergymen. Cardinal Barbenni had a well-appointed opera house constructed in his palace in 1623, while one of the most talented librettists of the period, Giulio Rospigliosi, became pope in 1667. 

The first public opera house opened there in 1637, and at least 15 more were built before the end of the century. 

Opera was the most exciting new art form of the age, consolidating the reputation of the Italian regions as the cultural focus of Europe. This fact belies the conception that political and artistic success go hand in hand, for the Italian peninsula then contained little more than a motley assortment of independent princedoms and satellite states. 

In England, in the mid-sixteenth century, the influence of the Puritans ushered in an era of austerity. Ironically, the same period also witnessed the first stirrings of English opera. Plays set to music qualified as "concerts" and thus escaped the ban that affected the stage. Henry Purcell, whose father had been one of the performers in The siege of Rhodes, wrote several semi-operas, among them The fairy queen and King Arthur, and also produced the first English opera of genuine merit with his Dido and Aeneas in 1689.

The career of Handel could hardly have been more different, although he was born in the same year as Bach. Where the latter was content to continue working in provincial seclusion, Handel sought and found the limelight, enjoying a roller-coaster career in London as both composer and impresario. 

The fact that Handel chose to settle in London, which had hitherto been something of a backwater in operatic terms, may well reflect the shift that had taken place in the European balance of power.

In Vienna Christoph Gluck introduced his "reform" operas during the 1760s. He declared that the function of music was to serve the text and the demands of the plot, and sought to eliminate coloratura singing (the florid elaboration of vocal lines, usually by sopranos). He boosted the roles of both the chorus and the orchestra to compensate for this omission.

Front cover of the score of L'Orfeo, published in Venice in 1609

Monteverdi - L'Orfeo 
"Fable en musique" ("favola in musica") en 1 prologue et 5 actes de Claudio Monteverdi, créé  le 24 février 1607 au Théâtre de la Cour à Mantoue
Livret en italien : Alessandro Striggio

Direction musicale : Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Orchestre et chœurs : Das Monteverdi-Ensemble des Opernhauses Zürich
Ballet des Opernhauses Zürich
Mise en scène et réalisation (1978) : Jean-Pierre Ponnelle

Orphée : Philippe Huttenlocher (baryton)
Eurydice : Dietlinde Turban (soprano)
La Musique - L'Espérance : Trudeliese Schmidt (soprano)
Apollon : Roland Hermann (ténor)
Proserpine - Une messagère : Glenys Linos (soprano)
Pluton : Werner Gröschel (basse)
Charon : Hans Franzen (basse)
Une nymphe : Suzanne Calabro (soprano)

Bergers : Peter Keller, Francesco Araiza, Rudolf A. Hartmann, Christian Boesch, József Dene
Esprits : Francesco Araiza, Rudolf A. Hartmann, József Dene

Chœurs de nymphes, de bergers,d'esprits infernaux

El Orfeo de Claudio Monteverdi, versión de Jordi Savall, con Le Concert des Nations, La Capella Reial y solistas. 

L'Orfeo, sometimes called La favola d'Orfeo, is a late Renaissance/early Baroque favola in musica, or opera, by Claudio Monteverdi, with a libretto by Alessandro Striggio. It is based on the Greek legend of Orpheus, and tells the story of his descent to Hades and his fruitless attempt to bring his dead bride Eurydice back to the living world. It was written in 1607 for a court performance during the annual Carnival at Mantua. While Jacopo Peri's Dafne is generally recognised as the first work in the opera genre, and the earliest surviving opera is Peri's Euridice, L'Orfeo is the earliest that is still regularly performed.

By the early 17th century the traditional intermedio—a musical sequence between the acts of a straight play—was evolving into the form of a complete musical drama or "opera". Monteverdi's L'Orfeo moved this process out of its experimental era and provided the first fully developed example of the new genre. After its initial performance the work was staged again in Mantua, and possibly in other Italian centres in the next few years. Its score was published by Monteverdi in 1609 and again in 1615. After the composer's death in 1643 the opera went unperformed for many years, and was largely forgotten until a revival of interest in the late 19th century led to a spate of modern editions and performances. At first these performances tended to be concert (unstaged) versions within institutes and music societies, but following the first modern dramatised performance in Paris, in 1911, the work began to be seen in theatres. After the Second World War many recordings were issued, and the opera was increasingly staged in opera houses, although some leading venues resisted it. In 2007, the quatercentenary of the premiere was celebrated by performances throughout the world.

Roman mosaic depicting Orpheus, wearing a Phrygian cap and surrounded by the beasts charmed by the music of his lyre



(The Fable of Orpheus)

Opera in prologue and five acts by Claudio
Monteverdi with libretto in Italian by Alessandro Striggio


La musica (Music)    mezzo-soprano castrato 
Orfeo (Orpheus)    tenor or high baritone 
Euridice (Eurydice)    mezzo-soprano castrato 
La Messaggera (The Messenger)    mezzo-soprano castrato  
La Speranza (Hope)    mezzo-soprano castrato
Caronte (Charon)    bass  
Proserpina (Proserpine)    mezzo-soprano castrato    
Plutone (Pluto)    bass  
Apollo    tenor   
Ninfa (Nymph)    mezzo-soprano castrato 
Eco (Echo)    tenor 
Ninfe e pastori (Nymphs and shepherds)    mezzo-soprano castratos,
alto castratos, tenors, basses  
Spiriti infernali (Infernal spirits)    tenor, bass 

Time: Mythological 
Place: Greece and Hades
First performance at Mantua, February, 1607


"Orpheus in the Underworld " Picture by Ambrosius the Elder

Orpheus, ancient Greek legendary hero endowed with superhuman musical skills. He became the patron of a religious movement based on sacred writings said to be his own.

Traditionally, Orpheus was the son of a Muse (probably Calliope, the patron of epic poetry) and Oeagrus, a king of Thrace (other versions give Apollo). According to some legends, Apollo gave Orpheus his first lyre. Orpheus’s singing and playing were so beautiful that animals and even trees and rocks moved about him in dance.

Orpheus joined the expedition of the Argonauts, saving them from the music of the Sirens by playing his own, more powerful music. On his return, he married Eurydice, who was soon killed by a snakebite. Overcome with grief, Orpheus ventured himself to the land of the dead to attempt to bring Eurydice back to life. With his singing and playing he charmed the ferryman Charon and the dog Cerberus, guardians of the River Styx. His music and grief so moved Hades, king of the underworld, that Orpheus was allowed to take Eurydice with him back to the world of life and light. Hades set one condition, however: upon leaving the land of death, both Orpheus and Eurydice were forbidden to look back. The couple climbed up toward the opening into the land of the living, and Orpheus, seeing the Sun again, turned back to share his delight with Eurydice. In that moment, she disappeared. A famous version of the story was related by Virgil in Georgics, Book IV.

Orpheus himself was later killed by the women of Thrace. The motive and manner of his death vary in different accounts, but the earliest known, that of Aeschylus, says that they were Maenads urged by Dionysus to tear him to pieces in a Bacchic orgy because he preferred the worship of the rival god Apollo. His head, still singing, with his lyre, floated to Lesbos, where an oracle of Orpheus was established. The head prophesied until the oracle became more famous than that of Apollo at Delphi, at which time Apollo himself bade the Orphic oracle stop. The dismembered limbs of Orpheus were gathered up and buried by the Muses. His lyre they had placed in the heavens as a constellation.



After an overture characterized by what Monteverdi's contemporaries, the Elizabethans, would have called "a tucket of trumpets," a soprano or mezzo steps before the curtain and, in the character of Music, sings a prologue of six stanzas separated by brief ritornelli. She avows that she, Music, will tell the tale of Orpheus, and she commands silence even from nature while the beautiful sounds go on.

Orpheus and Eurydice by Charles de Souzy Ricketts


Nymphs and shepherds, in solo song and in chorus, sing with a solemn happiness of their pleasure over the nuptials of Orpheus and Eurydice, to be celebrated this very day. The bride and groom also sing of their happiness, and the act ends with a fine, joyous contrapuntal chorus.

Orpheus in Hades Asking for Eurydice 1763
painting by Jean Restout


In the absence of his bride, Orpheus sings of his happiness, likening her to the sun who turns his nights into days. The shepherds, singly, й duet, and in chorus, delight to hear of his pleasure and ask him to sing to them as he accompanies himself on his lute. This he does, in an aria of four stanzas, contrasting his former sorrow with his present wedded bliss.

The joy is all destroyed by a messenger, an attendant of Eurydice's named Sylvia. In a long and pathetic narrative she slowly breaks the dreadful news: Eurydice has been bitten in the foot by a poisonous snake and has just died in Sylvia's arms. Orpheus is at first struck speechless, and the shepherds sing of their horror. Then Orpheus speaks with tragic determination. He will take bis songs to the King of Shadows and bring Eurydice back to see the stars once more. The brief aria ends on an exceptionally eloquent line that slowly rises and then falls: "Farewell to earth; farewell to sky and sun; farewell!”

The rest of the act is given over to the lamentations of the shepherds and the self-reproaches of the messenger for having brought the fearful news. She does not appear again in the opera, but her two passages in this act are enough to project a distinctively lovable and pathetic portrait of a minor character.

Orpheus and Eurydice on the Banks of the Styx, by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope


Hope has brought Orpheus to the borders of Pluto's realm, where he must cross the river Styx. He asks his guide for

further help, but she replies that he must go on alone; for there stands the solemn inscription: "Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here." Then she departs.

The grim ferryman Charon demands to know what Orpheus is doing there. These realms are forbidden to all living men, and he suspects the musician of having designs on Pluto's fierce dog, Cerberus. Alternately playing and singing (a solo violin part is used most effectively), Orpheus pleads his case. Charon admits that he finds this music pleasing and consoling, but as there is no pity in his breast, it will do him no good. Orpheus thereupon becomes even more eloquent, ending his plea with the repeated line, "Return to me my well beloved, О gods of Tartarus!" And though there is no pity in his breast, yet the sweetness of the music puts Charon to sleep. Repeating his eloquent line, Orpheus springs into the boat and rows himself across. A final chorus describes his trip over the stormy waters in his fragile bark.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot - Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld


In Hades, Proserpine pleads with her husband, Pluto, to return Eurydice to the unhappy man who wanders through the broad lands of death crying out her name. Pluto, moved by ms beloved wife’s tears, agrees to grant her wish. However, if on the way back Orpheus should once look back, he shall lose her forever. He sends messengers to announce this decision to both Orpheus and Eurydice, and his court, consisting of a chorus of spirits, praises him for his generosity.

In a long scene, with considerable variety in the music, Orpheus leads Eurydice on the way, at first very happy, then growing depressed over being unable to see her. He fears that Pluto has forbidden him to look out of pure envy; and when he hears a threatening sounds he is sure that it must be the Furies come to snatch his wife from him. He turns around to look, and at once Eurydice begins to weaken. With a soft reproach, full of love, she dies, and a spirit comes to take her back again. Orpheus resolves to follow after her, but a mysterious force moves him in the other direction, toward the land of the living. The act closes with a chorus of spirits, which moralizes on the fact that, though great Orpheus could van quish Hell, yet he could not conquer himself.

Orpheus Mourning the Death of Eurydice, 1814 painting by Ary Scheffer


Wandering in the fields of Thrace, Orpheus sings a long lament; and twice his lines are repeated off-stage by Echo, a striking effect Apollo, god of music, appears to him, address ing him as his son, and offers to take him to tbe skies, where he may trace the beauty of Eurydice in the sun and stars. Togetber they ascend to heaven, singing an elaborately figured duet.


A happy shepherds' chorus ends the opera, its nature suggested by its label in the score, which is moresca-that is a Moorish dance or (in its British form) a morris dance. Classical tragedies were always expected to end on a note of relief; and that, presumably, is why Monteverdi did not set music to the final scene in the original libretto. In this Orpheus was tom to pieces by Thracian women for lamenting his Eurydice too long. That is the ending to the story of Оrpheus as you will find it in all the books on mythology. 

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