About this Recording
8.554094-95 - MONTEVERDI: Orfeo (L')
English  French  German 

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)
L'Orfeo; Favols in Musica

Monteverdi's Orfeo has its musical origins in the two stylistic schools, contending, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, for primacy in the invention of opera, that of Florence and that of Ferrara (and consequently of Rome, where Cavalieri and Merulo combined in a circle opposed to the influence of Florence, together with Luzzaschi and the Ferrara musicians who had moved there after the death of Alfonso II d'Estate and the absorption of Ferrara into the Papal states). The first of these was imposed, so to speak, through the tastes and circle of Duke Vincenzo (married for the second time in 1584 to Eleonora, daughter of the Grand Duke Francesco de'Medici) who was present at the performance of Peri's Euridice in Florence on 6th October 1600, on the occasion of the wedding of Maria de'Medici, sister of Eleonora, and King Henri IV of France. The Florentine element was certainly present in Mantua in those years, if the protagonist of Orfeo was that Francesco Rasi, represented perhaps by the court painter Domenico Fetti, who had been a pupil of Giulio Caccini and who was Aminta in Peri's Euridice and also sang in Marco da Gagliano's Dafne in 1608, a year after the first performance of Orfeo, on the occasion of the wedding of Francesco Gonzaga and Margherita of Savoy. For this wedding Monteverdi offered the lost opera Arianna, of which only the Lamento survives (Naxos 8.553320 Baroque Laments Vol. 3), the Ballo delle ingrate (Naxos 8.553322) and the Scherzi musicali: in fact one of the better known and more disturbing letters of the composer (2nd December 1608), after the demanding labour of the wedding, shows the discomfort and perhaps hostility that Monteverdi harboured with regard to the circles in Florence: What clearer proof does your Lordship want! To give two hundred scudi to Marco de Galiani, who, it can be said, did nothing and to me who did what I did to give nothing!

The Ferrara and then Roman component, on the other hand, is present in stylistic examples that were more welcome to Monteverdi, the virtuoso vocal brilliance of the ladies of Ferrara (perhaps it was not by chance that the first performance of Orfeo on 24th February 1607 and the second on 1st March were given in the Duke's palace in Mantua in the apartments of the widow of Alfonso II d'Este) had its basis in the supreme mastery of the madrigal of Luzzasco Luzzaschi (to whom Gesualdo himself declared his indebtedness) who sought also in vain for employment at Mantua with the offer of his madrigals for one, two or three sopranos, after the death of Alfonso II had put an end to that wonderful balance between poetry and music of which the d'Este were such jealous guardians. Actually that guardianship had harmed Luzzaschi, who had not been able to enjoy the publicity that the Medici had bestowed on their own musicians and their activities. The presence of castrati is also a sign of Florentine influence and was almost certainly imposed on Monteverdi, who on the contrary derived from Ferrara a particular predisposition towards female singers. In fact the allocation of a part as expressive as that of La Musica, of Proserpina and perhaps of Speranza to the castrato, also a pupil of Caccini, Giovan Gualberto Magli (who at the performance of 1st March before all the ladies of this city gave great satisfaction with his singing to everyone and especially to My Lady, as Prince Francesco, to whom the work was dedicated, reports) and the part of Eurydice entrusted to a little priest appears in glaring contrast to the noble and expressive interpreters of Arianna, the Florentine Settimia as Venus and, in the principal rôle, poor Caterina Martinelli, Monteverdi's pupil replaced by the famous Virginia Andreini, who also sang the part of the Ingrata in Monteverdi's Ballo delle ingrate. The fact too that the part of Orpheus was taken by a tenor can be related to the influence of Caccini, who in his Nuove Musiche actually shows himself not particularly appreciative of artificial voices. Furthermore the Lady Eleonora must have felt intense nostalgia and a particular preference for all that reminded her of Florence and perhaps a certain intolerance for what was offered her in Mantua, at a court that was 'foreign' and quite provincial, as well as harsh in climate (as the famous Adriana Basile had observed in the negotiations for her engagement there). The situation was not unlike that of her sister Maria, who had taken so many Florentines to Paris and, in 1604, Caccini himself.

Of Monteverdi's Orfeo there have come down to us the libretto (published in 1607 with the ducal imprint of Francesco Osanna on the occasion of the first performance in Mantua) and two scores, published by Ricciardo Amadino in Venice in 1609 and in 1615, that show the opera to have had a circulation beyond the confines of Mantua. The reputation of the work is witnessed by other sources: for example the varied version of the aria Ecco pur ch'a voi ritorno (‘Here I am, returned to you’), preserved in Florence and included in the present recording (an aria that, together with the other aria Vi ricorda o boschi ombrosi, bears an impressive resemblance to the Scherzi musicali of 1607) and many manuscript annotations (for example in the double harp part in the aria Possente spirto found in the copy of the 1615 edition preserved in Wroclaw). Furthermore we know of at least one performance of Orfeo in Genoa and we may assume others (in Milan, where Monteverdi had passages from Orfeo performed and where he met Aquilino Coppini, who arranged various madrigals of his as sacred works, in Naples, in Florence and perhaps abroad, where Monteverdi was known and even translated).

The libretto of Count Alessandro Striggio the younger is notably effective and less rhetorical and didactic than that which Ottavio Rinuccini would have been able to provide, although the latter is linguistically more elegant. Striggio, as a well-lettered writer, follows the style of Petrarch but in the scenes in the Underworld has recourse to an imitation of Dante; the great aria Possente spirto (‘Powerful Spirit’) is actually in the form of Dante's terza rima, while Speranza quotes the famous verse from Canto III of Dante's Inferno, Lasciate ogni Speranza voi che entrate (‘Abandon hope, all you who enter here’).

In an aria of this kind Monteverdi shows the typical vocal variation technique of Ferrara, while making clear reference to Florentine ornamentation. In the present recording the great aria is presented in two versions, simple and ornamented. This above all is determined by the necessity to allow finally to be heard the version that is never performed and that differs sometimes melodically from the ornamented version. A close examination of the score, however, reveals an indication in complete contrast with what seems to be prescribed in the rubric at the beginning of the aria. In fact after the first strophe there is a clear indication for a ritornello that legitimises what ought to be the normal development of the aria: first the performance of the simple version, followed then by the more elaborate version. This is in line with the practice of the period and what would be classified in Baroque opera as da capo. A possible interpretation of the direction on the way of singing the aria (Orpheus to the sound of the wood organ and a chitarrone sings only one of the two parts) could be to underline that the two parts ought not to be confused or, nevertheless, not to make the practice obligatory in case vocal resources should not permit the virtuoso performance that has obliged modern performers, out of a misplaced sense of pride, to venture only on the ornate version, avoiding the other version. Editorial practice has often sought not to create difficulties that would prevent the sale of editions. Luzzaschi for this reason supplies a keyboard reduction of his madrigals, in order to allow personal performance where there were no adequate singers and Frescobaldi suggests in his Toccatas that the player has no obligation to finish all but can end where he wants.

It is often found that a direction associated with a particular element of performance may be sometimes imprecise, as in the two surviving printed editions: for example in the list of instruments there is indicated one flautino alla vigesimaseconda while actually there are two, one clarino and three trombe sordine that are, in fact, four (quinta, alto e basso, vulgano and basso), two chitarroni that in the balletto Lasciate i monti (‘Leave the mountains’) and the aria Vi ricorda boschi ombrosi (‘Do you remember, o shady groves’) are actually three, four trombones that are actually five, without mentioning the anomalous direction at the end of the second act that indicates in the Underworld scenes the entry of the trombones, cornetti and regals (in the plural), while the viola da braccio, organi di legno and clavicembali must be silent, to re-appear in the fifth act (in contrast with the directions for the accompaniment of the

aria Possente spirto), as the double harp called into service at the end of the fourth act in the plural (and there at least two) together with the ceteroni that have not been indicated before.

The myth of Orpheus was current in Mantuan culture from 1480, when Poliziano wrote for the court his Favola d'Orfeo, which Striggio certainly had before him when writing his libretto, with changes that include the omission of Aristaeus, who is still present in Sartorio's Orfeo of 1672.

The structure of the opera is, with some adjustments, in accordance with Mantuan tradition. There are five acts, as in the Orphei Tragredia, the anonymous author of which is strongly influenced by the Poliziano's Orfeo; (the Argumentum corresponds to the Prologue of Mercury in Poliziano, with the comic connotation of the Slavonian shepherd, allotted by Striggio to Musica); the Actus primus Pastoricus (‘First Pastoral Act’) has its counterpart in Striggio's celebration of the marriage of Orpheus and the shepherd dances; Actus secundus Nymphas habet (‘Second Act with Nymphs’) corresponds to the entrance of the Messenger; Actus Tertius Heroicus (Third Heroic Act) offers the laudatory eclogues of Orpheus, replaced in Striggio by the great solo Possente spirto; Actus Quartus Necromanticus (‘Fourth Necromantic Act’) centres, in Striggio, on the gods of the Underworld, and finally Actus Quintus Bacchanalis (‘Fifth Bacchanlian Act’) corresponds with the Bacchantes in the libretto of 1607, replaced, in the scores that have come down to us, by the descent of Apollo. It is great cause for regret that the Orphic finale is lost, a conclusion more in line with the tradition mentioned above and with the aims of an academy meeting that was the probable occasion for the first performance of Monteverdi's Orfeo at the Accademia degl'lnvaghiti represented in music on a limited stage, according to the dedication with which Monteverdi prefaced the first edition.

In the earlier model by Poliziano, Orpheus clearly declared his intention of dedicating himself for the future to pederasty, a vice in secular circles that was typical of the 'pedants' (recalling Dante's teacher Brunetto Latim) and of the humanists:

From here I go to take new flowers
the spring of the better sex
when all are comely and slender
this is sweeter and tenderer love.

and to this end famous examples are given:
In this Jove put his whole trust,
who, charmed by the sweet bond of love,
enjoys in heaven his fair Ganymede;
and Phoebus on earth enjoys his Hyacinthus:
to this holy love Hercules yields
who conquered the world and by fair Hylas was conquered.

He ends quite categorically with advice:
lexhorted those married to divorce
and let each man shun female company.

Probably the Apollo scene was added to create a happy ending, while the elimination of the scene of the Bacchantes (certainly for Lady Eleonora de'Medici the scene would not have been suitable for an assembly of ladies) could have occurred as a second thought and would explain the limited duration of the fifth act. On the other hand the text of the ascent of Orpheus with Apollo, quite different from the rest of the libretto, could at this point be the work of Rinuccini, in perfect confirmation of the portrait of him by his contemporary Cini: In poetic material he is sometimes too self-indulgent and often allows himself to stray from the point, tending to upset and add to the writing of others with artificial cleverness and wisdom.

Certainly a Bacchic finale is more typical of the sixteenth century and already for the wedding of Cosimo I and Eleonora of Toledo the comedy II Commodo by Antonio Landi, performed on 9th July 1539, had ended with an intermedio of Bacchantes, set to the rhythm of the Moresca. The composer was Francesco Corteccia. Cavalieri himself, in his preface to the Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo (‘The Representation of Soul and Body’) advises the use of the Moresca: such dances or Moresche, since they appear outside common usage, will have more about them of grace and novelty: as, for example, the Moresca for battle and the Ballo on occasions of jollification: as in the Pastoral of Silenus three Satyrs engage in battle, and on this occasion carry out their combat singing and dancing to the tune of a Moresca.

On the basis of this tradition, the present recording takes again the finale of 1607 (of course in a spoken version), putting the Moresca in its natural place and suggesting the ritual sacrifice of Orpheus, for whom the libretto suggests, without explicit indication, a bloody end during the Bacchic rite properly so called, expressed in verses alternating with the Ritornello of the Bacchic cry Euohè.

He has escaped from this avenging hand,
our wicked adversary, Thracian Orpheus,
despiser of our high value.

He will not escape, for the heavier
does it fall the later it comes,
heavenly anger upon a guilty head.

This is in line with the tradition of Poliziano who clearly describes the tearing apart of Orpheus:

O, O! Let us tear his heart from his breast.
Let the guilty man die, die, die!

followed by the direction:
The Bacchante turns round with the head of Orpheus

finishing with a 'Sacrifice of the Bacchantes in honour of Bacchus' that is in accordance with the rite in the 1601 libretto.

The only remaining trace of the Bacchic scene in the final and definitive version of Striggio's Orfeo is represented by the six verses containing insults against women in the form of the sdrucciolo (with a stressed antepenultimate syllable, anomalous with regard to the preceding context), a verse form typical of a scene of orgy and in any case in a style that is strongly theatrical and popular: Poliziano uses the form for the intervention of the shepherd Mopsus in contrast to the formal canzone of Aristaeus. Palestrina's successor Ruggero Giovannelli dedicated two books of madrigals to the verse form. Verses of this kind are clearly separated musically and rhythmically (and also partly visually) from the rest of the great lament of Orpheus in the fifth act, ending with praise of Eurydice. The tradition is, in any case, present in the iconography of Mantua and Ferrara. It is enough to recall the Psyche Room in the Palazzo Te in Mantua or the chamber commissioned for himself by Alfonso II d'Este (analogous to that constructed and decorated in Mantua for his sister Isabella d'Este, wife of Gianfrancesco II Gonzaga) for which Titian made paintings known under the name of Offering to Venus, The Andrii and The Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne, later taken to Rome in 1598 by the Cardinal-Legate Aldobrandini. Here is seen a double and quite different interpretation of the Sinfonia that follows these sdruccioli verses: this is one of the leading motifs of the opera and has already been heard immediately after the entrance of Charon and later as a magic moment when Charon is lulled by Orfeo's singing. For this final mood the direction suggests delicate orchestration: This Sinfonia is to be played very, very softly, with viole da braccio, an organo di legno and a double bass viola da gamba, a contrast in instrumentation to the so to speak normal version on the other two occasions, when trombones must be used, following the directions at the beginning of the third act. In this way the Sinfonia would underline the solemnity of the appearance of Charon and of Apollo. In the present recording, therefore, the Sinfonia is heard on all three occasions with the delicate timbre of the viols to indicate the sound of the lyre that first introduces the aria Possente spirto, then sends Charon to sleep and finally gives way to the mourning over the torn body of Orfeo, The Moresca at the end of the opera, in the edition of Amadino, was probably left there by Monteverdi as a particularly brilliant example of dance music even if its placing results in fact in making incongruous the true finale of the version we have (in line with what would be the traditional ending of many oratorios and operas), that of the chorus Vanne Orfeo (Go, Orpheus).

Before examining the opera the importance must be underlined of the realisation of the continuo, particularly in this period of recitar cantando: the apparently meagre indications presuppose that the continuo player will improvise, as Caccini says in his Nuove Musiche: The inner pans should be used to express feeling of whatever kind. This was widely realised with the proliferation in the Baroque and classical period of accompanied recitative, fully notated, that was entrusted in the first phase of opera to the improvisation of the continuo player, who had to be very active in intervention in order to enrich every expressive nuance. From the testimony of Agazzari (in 1607, the year of the first performance of Orfeo) and that of many contemporaries, it can be deduced that other instruments were called into active participation in improvisation, but not as in a recent edition, where all instruments play an 'improvisation' written by a modern conductor, throwing light on the apparent monotony of opera arias of the time in which the interventions of the violins are written solely as Ritornello. The complete legitimacy of using different continuo instruments for separate characters is, furthermore, clearly demonstrated in a letter of Monteverdi himself on 19th December 1616:

The harmonies of the Tritons and other Sea Gods should, I think, be on trombones and cornetti and not on citterns or harpsichords and harps.

or, again in the Notice to the Readers in Cavalieri's Rappresentatione: And Signor Emilio would commend the changing of instruments to suit the feeling of the singer.

L'Orfeo: Acts I & II

We turn now to a more particular examination of the first two acts of the opera, which starts with a Toccata that is sounded three times before the curtain rises with all the instruments, and a tone higher with muted trumpets. The indications in the score of the register of the trumpets (clarino, quinta, alto e basso, vulgano and basso) suggest that what is intended is a fanfare of trumpets: it is here presumed that, in contrast with what is prescribed in the direction, the signal that the opera is beginning ought to be entrusted solely to the trumpets, which were probably those of a possible military corps, deputed to provide trumpet-calls, like the Concerto Palatino of Bologna. Follino wore as follows, in describing the festivities of 1608: And when the torches were lit in the theatre, the usual trumpet fanfare was given from behind the stage, and at the start of the third fanfare the great curtain that concealed the stage disappeared in the winking of an eye. The word Toccata is evidence of the possibility of improvising the clarino part, as in the present recording. The characteristic timbre of muted instruments is also used. The higher sound allowed to the muted instruments appears to be explained from the beginning, but in the key of D, of Monteverdi's Vespers. Gerolamo Fantini of Spoleto in his Modo d'imparare di tromba (‘Method for Playing the Trumpet’), published in Frankfurt by Vuatsch in 1638, makes use in various places of Monteverdi's first four notes (in Imperiale I, in Ricercate IV and V and in the Sonata delta il Gonzaga), as does Bendinelli. It may be presumed that Monteverdi made use of a traditional fanfare, a signal, in short, normally used at the Gonzaga court. Undoubtedly the opening ascending scale is part of an inherited form of fanfare: this is proved in the quotations from Fantini and Bendinelli that, with Monteverdi, use a form that we find also in the onomatopoeic fanfares of the famous Guerre of Jannequin and which, in view of the limited scale of the natural trumpet, appears often as a melodic requirement. As soon as the curtain was raised (or lowered) according to custom after the third trumpet fanfare, during the Ritornello Music appears to sing the Prologue, probably on a cloud lowered from above, as with Apollo in the finale (or Apollo in the Prologue to Arianna or Hymen, the Graces, Peace and Fertility in the intermedio dell'ldropica of the following year on the occasion of the ducal wedding). The Ritornello is used by Monteverdi as a leading motif before Orpheus descends below and on his return from the Underworld (the end of the second and fourth acts). After the laudatory strophe of Music (recalling the eclogues in Poliziano's Orfeo), constructed, according to a procedure much used by Monteverdi in Orfeo, over the same bass, the Ritornello appears without its first beat to connect it with its context. The achievement of Monteverdi's recitative is already seen in the apt melodic characterization with which the music underlines the words, an aptness so well outlined by Luzzaschi in the dedication to his Sixth Book of Madrigals (1596): Then it follows that if the Poet elevates his style so does the composer raise the sound. He weeps, if the verse weeps, laughs if it laughs, runs, stays, prays, denies, cries, is silent, lives, dies. This precept is precisely realised in the last strophe where Music imperiously commands silence, followed by an effective pause.

The first act starts with the tenor aria of a Shepherd in three strophes, of which the first and last are a joyful invitation to song and make use of the same music and the same words, though with a change at the beginning because of the difference of words used, In questo lieto... Dunque in sì lieto (On this happy day.. Then on so happy a day), while the intermediate strophe recounts the meeting between bell'Euridice (fair Eurydice) and the demigod, whose past sighs and plaints the music underlines. This is a true Baroque aria in tripartite form with a da capo. In the form of a Pavan the chorus sings Vieni Imeneo (‘Come, Hymen’), following the pagan ritual dear to the humanists (for example the Hyperotomachia of Colonna or the Trionfo di Priapo of Salviati), with music of religious serenity in which the repeated notes indicate the topos of anxiety. There is a reference to the Sun, used as an emblem by the Invaghiti. A Nymph addresses the prayer to the Muses, whose name is stated loudly and resonantly, followed in the melody, by the compliments: honor di Parnaso, amor del Cielo, gentil conforto a sconsolato core (Honour of Parnassus, loved by heaven, gentle comfort to the disconsolate heart). The melody breaks into smaller note-values to underline the break in the darkness of the clouds. The invocation to Hymen su ben temprate corde (on well-tempered strings) is developed with melody strictly syncopated and ending with a contrast of levels between the higher song of the Muses and the mortal sound, expressed in different registers.

The ballet to Lasciate i monti (‘Leave the mountains’) begins with the rhythmic movement of the famous Balletti of Gastoldi, maestro of Santa Barbara and a collaborator with Monteverdi in L'ldropica. The rhythmic proportion avoids any sameness between the two ternary movements: the beat of Lasciate i monti is that of two semibreves with binary subdivision. The 3/2 section is in proportio sesquialtera, the two semibreves with ternary subdivision, while in the instrumental Ritornello in 6/4 the semibreves are subdivided into two dotted minims or six crotchets, the whole maintaining the same breve. beat The instrumentation indicated seems more suitable for the instrumental Ritornello than for the accompaniment of the vocal Balletto and is probably inexact; the two flautini alia vigesimaseconda are almost certainly two. To the tender voice of the alto is entrusted the delicate and persuasive invitation of the Shepherd Ma tu gentil cantor (‘But you, gentle singer’) to Orpheus to sing. The dotted rhythm underlines the kind courtesy of the singer and then the sad sighs followed by the descending chromatic of lagrimar (to weep), quickly raised by the question strongly encouraging Orpheus to sing in its upward contour, to the sound of his famous cithara. Now at last there appears and spreads through the valleys and hills the light of the song of Orpheus, Rosa del ciel (‘Rose of heaven’), which rises in melody over the universe. The first part is a rhetorical praise of the star that has answered him: vedestu mai di me più lieto e fortunato amante (have you ever seen a happier or more fortunate lover than me) in which happiness and good fortune are expressed in related rhythms. The problem of the voice of Orpheus lies in the character of the timbre that must be that of a tenore di grazia, not forcefully projected in the high register and endowed with clarity in the lower. This is the opposite to the way this voice developed in verismo opera, with its elements of manly resonance. The central part is addressed to Eurydice, whom Orpheus reminds (adapting the famous sonnet of Petrarch Benedetto sia 'l giorno (‘Blessed be the day’)) of the moment of their meeting and their answering sighs always underlined by musical expression. The last part is a model of musical form: the melody is repeated, indicating the accumulation of joy reaching to the stars, quant' occh' ha il ciel eterno (as eternal heaven has eyes) and to the luxuriance of the leafy woods in spring: the fullness of joy is expressed in the descending overflowing of happiness in the word traboccanti (brimming over) followed by upward movement that ends in a fall on the word contento, The answer  lo non dirò qual sia (‘I will not say how great’) of this delicate creature, Eurydice, whose voice is heard only twice, underlines the beating of her heart, Che non ho meco il core / ma teco stassi in compagnia d'Amore... s'intender brami (‘for I no longer have in me my heart / but it is with you in Love's company... if you want to know’) and the amount of love expressed in the syncopation, quanto lieta gioisca e quanto t'ami (‘how happily I rejoice and how much I love you’) and the two equal long notes on the two last syllables. Then comes the repeat of the Balletto and Vieni Imeneo, at which Eurydice and Orpheus leave the stage. In the repeat of the Balletto two changes in melody should be noticed, compared with the first time, at the words vezzose e liete (‘lovely, joyful’) in the alto and in the tenor and a rhythmic difference in the final note of the Ritornello for the high part. Monteverdi's madrigal writing underlines in the tenor Shepherd's Ma s'il nostro gioir (‘But if our joy’) the contrast and the meeting between heaven and earth, ciò che qua giù n'incontra (‘that we meet here below’). There now follows a moralising fresco entrusted to the chorus of Shepherds, interrupted by a Ritornello in the form of a Passacaglia that underlines the walk to the temple to which the Shepherd has invited them, Dunque al tempio ciascun rivolga i passi (‘Then to the temple let each turn his steps’). The word Coro (‘Chorus’) in Monteverdi is somewhat different from the present meaning of the term: it indicates polyphonic form rather than the singers employed. This is shown in the present Chorus of Shepherds in which, notwithstanding the term used in the score, it is clear that this a group of soloists who sing duets and then in three, then in five parts. Against the use of a large chorus was the limited stage (l'angusta scena) that Monteverdi mentioned in his dedication but above all was the musical practice of the period. Cavalieri explicitly says in the Avvertimenti to his Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo that at the most the voices could be doubled and only in situations in which the angustia of the stage might allow it: the music of the Chorus being for four voices, could, if wanted, be doubled, singing now four and at another time together, if the stage can hold eight. The present recording has kept the Chorus, with various elements for sections, only for the ballet to Lasciate i monti and the prayer Vieni Imeneo (according to the indication given by Marco da Gagliano in the preface to his Dafne). The theatrical mastery of Monteverdi is here fully displayed: the first entry Alcun non sia (‘Let none give way’) for two tenors has them together in harsher rhythms for the despair expressed in the dotted notation. The outburst of sorrow is marked by the melodic descent to prepare the aggressive scale that leads to the strongly accented rhythm of Possente sì (‘in strength’). The second entry for three voices, soprano, alto and bass, Che poi che nembo rio (‘For after a dark cloud’), brings together a very rapid stormy descending rush indicated particularly in the bass part (nembo) that discharges a great storm full of lightning and thunderbolts, shown by the full melodic interval of a descending twelfth for the bass on the word tempesta (storm) and that gives free rein to terror in the strong syncopation of his inorridito (terrified). Yet as with summer weather calm returns with a melodic leap that leads by step in great serenity, Dispiega il sol (‘The sun shows’), in which the rays of the sun with playfully dotted notes make their way up to the clouds that melt away. The following duet, E dopo l'aspro gel (‘And after the harsh frost’) for alto and tenor, expresses in static homophonic form the bare winter landscape suddenly brought to life by the sound of the leaves that sprout under our eyes in the ascending dotted rhythm while spring in her graceful clothing spreads flowers around. It is wonderful to notice how one dotted note can serve to indicate totally different effects. The chorus joyfully introduces Orpheus with a syncopation that renews the surprise at the repetition of the phrase Ecco Orfeo (‘Here is Orpheus’) and with an anticipation representing dianzi (before) in the second tenor suddenly followed by sorrowful compassion, sighing over what has passed, furon cibo i sospir bevanda il pianto (‘sighs were food and plaints his drink’)). The conclusion Oggi è felice tanto (‘Today he is so happy’) shows in its dactylic canzona the endless joy of the demigod, now newly come from the marriage chamber and once again among his companions.

The second act begins with an aria for Orpheus preceded by a Ritornello that is wrongly placed at the end of the first act. This is a piece that is closely connected with the Scherzi musicali published in Venice in 1607, the year of the first performance of the opera and of the publication of the libretto. Printed by the same Amadino, who two years later would print the score of Orfeo, these are also dedicated to Francesco Gonzaga with a preface for performers and with an appendix that contains the famous Dichiarazione (‘Declaration’), a defence against Artusi, from which it can be deduced that the date of composition of the Scherzi themselves was 1599. The chosen method of performance is given in the preface to the Scherzi (repetition of the initial Ritornello and performance of two strophes alternating with the Ritornello, one of these is that variant version preserved in Florence as Ms Barbera). A second series of entries by Shepherds who sing alone or in duet evokes one of the most superb pastoral scenes ever depicted in music: to the first two instrumental Ritornelli is entrusted the task of representing the double-reed pipes typical of the country: the timbre is realised by the use of the violini piccoli alla francese. In this period, through the desire of Duke Vincenzo and under the influence of Florence, singing and playing 'in the French manner' (alla franzese) was fashionable at the Mantuan court. The first two Ritornelli show already in their musical structure a French way of phrasing the quavers two by two. The indication of instrumentation is, in the light of recent research, to be found in the feeling of contrast between the Italian viole da braccio, more like viols and then larger and darker in timbre, and the violini alla francese, smaller and more like the violins for which in France the violin G clef on the bottom line of the stave was used. Very probably where the viole da braccio are called for, the present sound of the violins is too piercing and strident for the music of Monteverdi, while the use of the same instruments played probably very near the bridge allows the realisation of a pastoral effect (a nasal, reed timbre that recalls the classical aulos, found still today in Sardinia under the name launeddas, derived from the Greek) which is needed, without having recourse, as some recordings do, to a sound an octave higher in imitation of unlikely pochettes, playing notes, strings and positions that, in their high register, were not generally used at this period. The first two solo entries, Mira ch'a se n'alletta (‘See, how there lures us’) and Su quell'herbose sponde (‘On these grassy banks’) differ only slightly in rhythm. The following two Ritornelli and the arias In questo prato adorno (‘In this pleasant meadow’) and Qui Pan Dio de' pastori (‘Here Pan, god of shepherds’), here magically join together with the sound of the 'ordinary' violins in an undulating rhythm that depicts the mormorio dell'onde, the murmuring of the stream by the side of which the Shepherds and Orpheus rest. To our eyes appears the silhouette of woodland gods and the figure of Pan, evoked by the song of the two shepherd tenors over a bass danced and rhythmically syncopated and then the Napean Nymphs (in the following duet Qui le Napee vezzose in which the madrigal technique for the word vezzose (charming) is expressed in a simple but all the more effective misalignment between the two voices) whom Pan is furtively watching (always present here the example of the Scherzi musicali). The evocation of Pan suggests the characterization of the third pair of Ritornelli, played by two flautini in imitation of the sound of the woodland god's flute. The rhythmic arrangement of the two central Ritornelli for ordinary violins should be noticed: the first is marked 3/2 and the second as for the sung strophe In questo prato adorno (In this pleasant meadow) with C and they are written in black notes. In reality these are in 6/4 beaten in two: nevertheless the first of the two Ritornelli has indications of rests that do not fit with the two upper parts in which the beat and the up-beat are different from those of the second Ritornello. This can be avoided only if the first Ritornello is attacked directly after al mormorio dell'onde (to the murmur of the waters), making the beat fall on the E flat of the first violin. The Shepherds' Chorus (in the meaning of the word given above) then introduces the Canzone of Orpheus, Vi ricorda o boschi ombrosi (‘Do you remember, o shady groves’), this too expressed in the Scherzi musicali. The time-signature C shows the discrepancy in writing in taking account of the rhythm of the piece, based on an alternation of rhythm in 3/4 and one of 6/8, with each dotted semibreve beat divided into a dotted minim in sesquialtera 3:2 proportion (divided into three crotchets) with the second dotted minim divided into two dotted crotchets. The first bar is completed by the final minim of the preceding chorus, the value of which corresponds to a crotchet of the Ritornello. The copyist of the score has added twice a bar the number 3 (only once in the first and second bar, writing a semiquaver instead of a quaver after the second 3 of the third bar) to show the triple rhythm.

The great peace and serenity of the following Mira, deh mira, Orfeo (‘See, ah see. Orpheus’) presupposes that all the Shepherds are gently reclining, enchanted by the song of Orpheus, which brings arioso and extended passages accompanied by a very melodious bass-line, The rarefied mood assured by such mastery is suddenly interrupted by the desperate cry of the Messenger, Ahi caso acerbo (‘Ah, bitter fate’) that, from the disturbed but concerned reaction of the Shepherd's Qual suon dolente (‘What sorrowful sound’) may be supposed to be off-stage. A short examination of the Messenger's cry shows infinite desperation expressed in sobs in the melody and the basso continuo and the violent appoggiatura on the second syllable of the word acerbo (bitter). The achievement lies in making this the leading motif of the scene: the motif is taken up immediately after the Messenger's story by a Shepherd, then to form the basis of the Chorus that repeats the phrase three times polyphonically, with the melody in the bass. There is much more to Monteverdi's mastery of recitative: the Messenger, in Lassa dunque debb'io (‘Alas, then must I’), pierces the heart of every listener with the word passargli (pierce); the alto Shepherd now expresses a gentleness lost in the melodic nature of the opening phrase, Quest'e Silvia (‘This is gentle Silvia’) and with a repeated note dwells on the sad mood that finds its climax in the diminished seventh on the accented third syllable of the word dolorosa (sorrowing), finishing by stretching out his hands in tormented supplication to the Gods; the cry of the Messenger, Pastor, lasciate il canto (‘Shepherd, leave your singing’) must dispel any doubt about the tragedy that has occurred, the imperious anxiety of Orpheus in the triple repetition of the rising phrase of his three questions, Donde vieni?... ove vai?... (‘Whence do you come?… Where are you going?…’); the melody of La tua bella Euridice (‘Your fair Eurydice’) in the following entry for the Messenger, A te ne vengo (‘I come to you’), interrupted by the anguish of Orpheus, Ohimè (Alas), a melody repeated in La tua diletta sposa (‘Your beloved bride’) leads finally to the sad news to which Orpheus only replies with a wretched Ohimè.

In the Messenger's account, In un fiorito prato (‘In a flowery meadow’) every note is charged with descriptive meaning to bring the scene alive for Orpheus and the Shepherds; the beginning is based, as it were on two chords of Gregorian chant: the F and the A culminate in the answering C of angue (snake) that suddenly descends to hide in the grass to rise up suddenly with its fatal bite (punse) that brings mortal poison, implied by the chromatic G to G sharp of piè (foot) Immediately the increasing speed of the repeated B flat shows how Eurydice grows pale, depicted in the downward movement of the melody that takes up again, briefly, a memory of her look when alive in ond'ella al sol (that outshone the sun). The dismay of her companions is expressed in the wandering melody, conveyed in the deep sadness of the minor mode on meste (sorrowing), then suddenly to turn in anxiously rapid notes to save Eurydice, richiamar tentando gli spirti (trying to recall her spirits), depicted in the descending melody in fainting, in lei smarriti (that grew faint), in spite of the rapid notes in a melodic curve to indicate l'onda fresca (the fresh water) which she sprinkled on Eurydice's brow and the loud calls to her, expressed in leaning on the dotted crotchet in e co' possenti carmi (and with powerful charms) that lead in ma nulla valse (but to no avail) to a final expression with the interval of a minor sixth of the uselessness of trying to save the poor girl. In a rising melody she revives and twice cries out the name of Orpheus, the second time with a leap of a minor sixth to show the hopelessness of her cry. How full, too, is that grave (deep), leaning on the long B flat, sospiro (sigh), shown in the dotted quaver and two crotchets repeated to indicate mortal exhaustion, while the chromaticism depicts the tragic last breath, followed by a break, death itself. Great pity is evoked in the change to a flat tonality and fear in the change of E flat to E natural. This, with the Lament of Arianna is an example of dramatic laments and narrations. The Messenger's exclamation Ahi, caso acerbo (Ah, bitter fate) from the Shepherd expresses profound rebellion against Heaven, despairing and powerfully realised in the blasphemous rising melody of Ahi, stelle ingiuriose (Ah, hurtful stars) and in the violent syncopation of ahi Ciel (ah Heaven) that suggests the insolence of the obscene gesture of the thumbs, the 'figs', against God made by Vanni Fucci in Canto XXV of Dante's Inferno. While a second Shepherd, in A l'amara novella (At the bitter news), intervenes to describe Orpheus transfixed like Niobe, expressed in a descending scale that turns him to stone (the repetition of the interval on dolor (grief) and non può (cannot) give expression to the unexpressed laments of Orpheus himself), the first Shepherd continues his invective, Ahi, ben avrebbe (‘Ah he would have’) that softens as it descends to address Orpheus, who over a sustained chord in broken tones sings of the great tragedy of Eurydice, Tu se' morta (‘You are dead’) in two rising melodic patterns that lead to strong repetitions and two questions of great dramatic intensity, ed io respiro?… mai più, mai più... ed io rimango? (and do I breathe?… never, never... and do I remain?) that lead in two strong negatives, no, no, the second of which is in strong syncopation on a prolonged note to bring a resolution in G major, based on certainty of the power of song, che se i versi alcuna cosa ponno (for if my verses can do anything). The music here, completely at the service of the words, moves down, a più profondi abissi (to the deepest abysses), grows gentler in the chromatic e intenerito (and having softened) and from the Underworld leads in a vertiginous leap up to the stars, meco trarrotti a riveder le stelle (I will bring her back to see again the stars), to sink again with Eurydice into darkness, rimarrò teco in compagnia di morte (I will stay with you in the company of death). The melody rises up to the Sun in greeting to the light and the hero emerges fired with these strong proposals for catharsis. This burst of hope disappears with Orpheus, while dark despair remains with the Shepherds who three times lament the cruelty of fate with the Messenger's words in which the melody, as has been said, is in the bass, Ahi, caso acerbo (Ah, bitter fate). The first Chorus contains a moral sentiment in Non si fidi (Let no mortal trust), expressed in the usual skilled madrigal technique, thanks to which we are led to the highest peaks, a gran salita (a great height) from which we suddenly fall, il precipizio (the precipice) with vertiginous walls of bold melody. The Messenger, Ma io ch'in questa lingua (But I who with this tongue) seeks in turns of unusual melody a refuge, Odiosa ai pastori ed alle Ninfe / Odiosa a me stessa, ove m'ascondo (Hateful to shepherds and to nymphs, hateful to myself, where may I hide?) and wearily drags herself away, menerò vita al mio dolor (I will lead a life that matches my grief), weighed down by the terrible news that she has brought Orpheus, to the sound of a sad Sinfonia in which the upper instrument expresses black despair in the two opening syncopations that descend an octave, then to disappear in a despairing finale, like that of the Messenger. Two Shepherds sing a threnody, Chi ne consola (Who can console us) in the most expressive style, in which the piercing storm effect of the diminished seventh should be noticed, turbo crudele (cruel storm), followed by the Chorus, Ahi, caso acerbo (Ah, bitter fate). Then another duet, Ma dove (But where) brings the height of chromatic expressiveness at the words pietosi a ritrovarle (in pity to find her) and ends with the Chorus repetition of Ahi, caso acerbo, followed by the Ritornello for Music, the function of which has already been explained, ending the act.

Like Orpheus, Monteverdi suffered a tragic misfortune through the loss of his wife in the same year. Claudia Cattaneo died on 10th September 1607 and the following year the eighteen-year-old Caterina Martinelli, favoured pupil and cast as Arianna, died of smallpox.

Sergio Vartolo
Translation: Keith Anderson

Claudio Monteverdi's opera L'Orfeo (Orpheus) holds a special position in operatic literature as the earliest such composition to have regained a place in current operatic repertoire. Although it was not the first opera, it may be accounted the first opera that, in revival, has held its own, including, as it does, compelling music by the great master of the early Italian Baroque, Monteverdi, a pioneer of the new music of the period, in a treatment of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, a demonstration itself of the power of music.

Monteverdi was born in Cremona in 1567, the son of an apothecary, surgeon and doctor in the city, a man of some substance. He was a pupil of Marc-Antonio Ingegneri, master of music at the cathedral and a musician of wide reputation, presumably as a chorister, winning a local reputation as a singer and as a string-player and publishing, at the age of fifteen, his first collection of sacred music, followed by a second a year later, in 1583. A third publication came in 1584, a collection of three-part canzonets. In 1587 and 1590 he issued two further collections, now of five-part madrigals.

Some time after the beginning of 1590 Monteverdi found at last a position in a distinguished musical establishment outside Cremona. This was initially as a string-player in the service of the Gonzagas in Mantua, so that his third volume of madrigals, issued in 1592, is dedicated to the ruling Duke Vincenzo. Monteverdi's subsequent relationship with his employers was the later subject of much retrospective complaint on his part. In 1595 he accompanied the Duke on an undistinguished military expedition to Hungary and again, in 1599, the year of his marriage to a singer, the daughter of a fellow-musician, he travelled in the Duke's entourage to Flanders. In 1602 he was appointed maestro della musica to the same patron. In 1607 his opera La favola d'Orfeo was staged in Mantua, followed the next year by L'Arianna, a work now lost, except for the famous lament of Ariadne, abandoned by her lover Theseus on the island of Naxos. The same year brought a further court entertainment in II ballo delle ingrate. In 1610 Monteverdi published his famous Vespers, possibly in a prudent attempt to interest other patrons, whether in musically conservative Rome or in Venice. Any reservations he may have had about his service in Mantua were justified. In February 1612 Duke Vincenzo died and five months later Monteverdi was dismissed, returning now to Cremona. In 1612, however, came a much more congenial appointment as maestro di cappella at the basilica of San Marco in Venice, a position he held with distinction until his death in 1643 at the age of 76, composing in old age further operas, of which Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (‘The Homecoming of Ulysses’) and L'incoronazione di Poppea (‘The Coronation of Poppaea’), staged in Venice in 1641 and 1642 respectively, survive.

The rise of humanism in Italy had brought with it increased musical experiment, particularly in the association of music with dramatic texts. Interest In classical literature, ancient Greek drama and the plays of Seneca and the further development of a continuing pastoral tradition stemming from Theocritus and Vergil, led to attempts to restore ancient Greek dramatic practice and to the development of aesthetic theories deriving from Plato. Monteverdi's Arianna treated a tragic story that might seem to have had something in common with Euripidean tragedy, its heroine, abandoned by Theseus on the island of Naxos, finding life again with the cult of Bacchus. Nevertheless the subject, with its underlying Christian symbolism, had been popularised rather through the poems of Ovid and Catullus, rather than in any dramatic form. The story of Orpheus again has Latin literary sources in Ovid and in Vergil and had, in part at least, been the subject of a lost play by Aeschylus. Immediate literary sources, however, are pastoral rather than dramatic and the opera of Monteverdi, therefore, and of the poet Alessandro Striggio, derives much from the pastoral tradition of Sannazaro and of the Italian madrigal, the Arcadia of Sir Philip Sidney, of Spenser or of Marlowe's Passionate Shepherd.

Monteverdi's musical treatment of the work follows the new principles of Italian dramatic monody, with the concomitant rhetorical shifts of harmony, closely following the dramatic intonation suggested by the text. The Platonic principles that had developed into the so-called doctrine of affections (affetti) are followed, with music designed to elicit proper responses of pity or fear, as Aristotle had later suggested. There are concerted madrigals and dances for the shepherds, arioso writing, a form that is melodic recitative, verging on the aria, and set arias, notably the famous Possente spirto (Powerful spirit) with which Orpheus charms and lulls to sleep Charon, the boatman who ferries the dead across the River Styx.

The instrumentation, listed in the score printed in 1609, and again in 1615, adds particular interest, since details of this kind are generally lacking for music of this period. Monteverdi gives some indication in the score about the instruments to be used at particular points in the drama, although problems of interpretation of these instructions do remain. The instruments to be used, listed in an apparently arbitrary order, form a string group of ten viole da brazzo (arm-viols), a basic five-part string section, with two contrabassi de viola (double basses). In addition to this, there are two violini piccoli alla Francese (small violins), which playa particular solo rôle, most notably in the aria Possente spirto. Brass instruments include five trombones, instruments long associated with solemn occasions, two cornetti and a clarino con tre trombe sardine (clarino trumpet with three muted trumpets) used for the opening Toccata, and there are two flautini alla Vigesima seconda (sopranino recorders), to add colour, where this is indicated. The other instruments provide a chordal, continuo accompaniment of varied textures. These are two gravicembani (Harpsichords), one arpa doppia (double harp), three chitaroni, two organi di legno (wood-pipe organs), a regal and three bass viole da gamba. The numbers listed in the published score do not always correspond with those given here, which follow the instructions in the score itself.

The story of Orpheus, the great musician of Greek mythology, is well known. Son of the Muse Calliope and of Apollo, he was given a lute by his father, through which he could charm wild beasts and make rocks and trees move. His beloved Eurydice is bitten by a snake, while picking flowers, and is taken down to Hades. Orpheus, by the power of his music, makes his own way there and begs Pluto, the King of the Underworld to release her. Urged by his wife Prosperpina (Persephone), Pluto (Dis)agrees, on condition that Orpheus does not look back, as she follows him back to the upper world again. As they go, Orpheus cannot resist the temptation to look back and when he does so, Eurydice is lost to him again. He then wanders through Thrace, singing of his loss, until he is seized by a group of maenads, followers of Bacchus (Dionysus), who tear him in pieces. His head, cast into the river, is carried out to sea, still singing, in the end reaching Lesbos, the island where burning Sappho later ioved and sang.

Striggio’s libretto opens with a Prologue for Music, who introduces the story. The first act, in its pastoral setting, finds shepherds celebrating the coming marriage of Orpheus and Eurydice, now she has at last had pity on him. This they do in songs and dances, with Orpheus then expressing his own joy and Eurydice her corresponding happiness, while nymphs and shepherds add their satisfaction that after suffering and pain has come delight. In the second act Orpheus and his companions continue their expressions of happiness in the beauty of their sylvan surroundings. They are disturbed by the sudden appearance of a messenger, an element usual in Greek tragedy, with news of the sudden death of Eurydice, bitten by a snake, as she gathered flowers. All now turns to lamenting, led by Orpheus. The messenger, cursed as the bearer of bad news, leaves, to live on, a creature apart, in bitter solitude. The third act finds Orpheus guided by Hope, setting out in search of his Eurydice. As he enters the approaches to the Underworld he must abandon Hope, and he now confronts Charon, the surly boatman, whose task is to ferry the souls of the dead over the Styx. Orpheus, by the power of his song, eventually sends Charon to sleep and he can now cross the river, to be greeted by a chorus of spirits. The fourth act opens with Proserpina, herself plucked by Pluto from the world above, pleading with her husband for Orpheus. Pluto solemnly allows Orpheus to take Eurydice with him, provided that he does not look back to see if she is following. Proserpina thanks her husband, and Orpheus sets out. As he treads on, there is a sudden noise, and he looks round, catching a glimpse of Eurydice, before she disappears into the darkness of Hades once more, lamenting her fate.

The fifth act finds Orpheus alone in the fields of Thrace, lamenting his loss, shared by Echo, who repeats the final syllables of his song, transformed into sighs of sorrow. Now Apollo, a Deus ex machina in the best Greek dramatic tradition, descends on a cloud and comforts Orpheus, taking him up to Heaven, where he will see Eurydice in the sun and the stars.

Striggio, in his original libretto, which was published at the time of the first performance of Orfeo for the Accademia degli Invaghiti, the group of enthusiastic dilettanti and scholars in Mantua who, with the Duke's son Francesco, had sponsored the work, offered a more strictly classical ending, allowing Orpheus to meet his fate at the hands of maenads, following the legend. Whether Monteverdi ever set this is unknown, but certainly a happy ending had been provided by the time the score was published, two years later, a precedent for the conventional lieto fine, the happy ending that became usual in later opera. The present recordings includes both endings. Striggio's maenads do their worst, but Apollo intervenes to save Orpheus.

Keith Anderson


Close the window