Orfeo (Orpheus)
  • Claudio Monteverdi. Favola in musica in a prologue and five acts. 1607.
  • Libretto by Alessandro Striggio, based on Ovid's Metamorphoses and Virgil's Georgics.
  • First performance at the ducal palace, Mantua, on 24th February 1607.
CHARACTERS
La Musica (Music) male soprano
Orfeo (Orpheus) tenor
Euridice (Eurydice) (male?) soprano
Silvia (Sylvia) soprano
Speranza (Hope) (male?) soprano
Caronte (Charon) bass
Proserpina soprano
Plutone (Pluto) bass
Apollo tenor

In a prologue the figure of Music introduces the piece, a demonstration of the power of music. Orpheus and Eurydice are at last to marry, an event celebrated in dance and song by the shepherd company. The second act continues the celebration of the happiness of Orpheus, interrupted by the appearance of the messenger Sylvia, who breaks the news of the death of Eurydice, before leaving to shun human company, marked by the bad news she has brought. Orpheus, accompanied by Hope, sets out for the Underworld. She leaves him as he approaches the Styx, eventually overpowering the boatman of the dead, Charon, with his music, and crossing the river. In the kingdom of Pluto, Proserpina pleads with her husband for the release of Eurydice, and she is allowed to leave, following Orpheus, provided that he does not look round. As he walks away, doubts assail him and he looks round, only to lose Eurydice, who must now remain in the Underworld. The fifth act finds Orpheus alone in the fields of Thrace, comforted by Echo. In the published libretto and, presumably, in the first performance in the palace of the Duke of Mantua, Orpheus is then set upon by Bacchantes, who tear him in pieces. In Monteverdi's score this is replaced by a final apotheosis, when Apollo appears as a deus ex machina , descending on a cloud machine to raise Orpheus to the stars, whence he can see for ever Eurydice, similarly transported.

Monteverdi's opera occupies a supremely important position in the history of music and of opera as one of the earliest examples of the form and certainly the earliest to retain or to have regained a place in present repertoire. With pastoral and madrigal elements in its pastoral setting, it provides music of great power, notably in Possente spirto (Powerful spirit), the aria with which Orpheus seeks to sway Charon. There is much to delight and to move in a work that remains dramatically effective and moving. The published score brings the added advantage of a list of instruments used at the performance in Mantua, a valuable indication of contemporary practice for a lavish celebratory court staging.