L’Orfeo, Opera by Claudio Monteverdi
Vienna State Opera will take audiences on an exciting trip to the origins of the opera genre this season. L’Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi is among the first stage works that lay the cornerstone of what we call ‘opera’ today. Originally performed during the Carnival in Mantua in the distant 1607, this is the oldest of the Baroque ‘favola in musica’ works that still enjoys regular revivals today. While purists will point to Jacopo Peri’s now-lost Dafne as the first-ever opera, Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo has survived through the centuries and is by far the oldest opera in the active repertoire.
At the turn of the 17th century, the intermedio – a short musical drama between the acts of a traditional theatre play – was slowly evolving into something more than just a filler. Monteverdi jumpstarted the genre’s maturation into full-fledged opera with L’Orfeo. The libretto by Alessandro Striggio drew inspiration from the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. In the opening sequence, the famous Thracian singer is preparing for his wedding, only to experience the shock of his bride’s sudden demise due to a snake bite. Determined to fight for her life, Orpheus descends into the underworld to plead with the god of death Pluto himself for Eurydice’s release. The journey is perilous and the outcome – uncertain, but nothing will stand in true love’s way.
Even though it was based on an old and well-known myth, Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo was innovative and modern as far as music was concerned. Born in the transition period between Renaissance and Baroque, the opera reflects its composer’s prodigious sense for dramatic orchestration and musical narration. Just as the plot unfolds in two starkly different locations – the lush fields of Thrace and the ominous and dark underworld – so does Monteverdi’s instrumentation make clever use of different sounds. As the action moves from wedding preparations and nymph dances to the realms of Pluto, strings and harpsichords make way for heavy brass. Years of service at the court of Gonzaga had made Monteverdi into a skilled musical dramatist, and L’Orfeo makes a gripping example of his talents.