About this Recording
2.110661 - LANDI, S.: Morte d'Orfeo (La) [Opera] (DNO, 2018) (NTSC)

Orfeo – Clown of the Gods
by Pierre Audi


La morte d’Orfeo by Stefano Landi is one of a few unusual projects I have been yearning to direct. When it became clear that I would be leaving Dutch National Opera exactly 30 years after I was appointed, it seemed the right project to direct as my last production.

It is a fascinating early opera for many reasons.

Firstly, it’s plot. The opera takes us through the remaining adventures of Orfeo in the underworld (where Monteverdi leaves him at the end of his opera), before he gets dismembered by the women he had cursed, his survival as a wandering soul, his second meeting with Caronte and Euridice and his final reincarnation, ordered by the gods, into a star in the firmament.

Secondly, it’s form. The opera consists of scenes largely dominated by choral ensembles—Greek choruses enacted by gods, satyrs, shepherds, maenads… which charter the inevitable fall and demise of the demigod. The character of Orfeo gets to show his impulsive flawed nature only to delve deeper and deeper into melancholy, depression and self-pity. Proud and narcissistic he remains till the bitter end oblivious of his fate and of the world around him.

The form of the opera suggests an intention by the composer to examine the mystical dimension of the drama and its spiritual message. Indeed, we must remember that this piece is a Roman opera and a Papal piece. The influence of the Roman Catholic Church on the interpretation of the Orphic myth is here very explicit. Orfeo is punished for his excesses and for his hatred of women who ‘outed’ him as an abuser and an addictive seducer before he met the love of his life Euridice. Orfeo holds women’s resentment and jealousy responsible for losing her twice and he categorically vows to ban women from his life. A life which is extended briefly by the pity of the Apollonian gods who distract him from his sorrows by celebrating his birthday. Orfeo’s Dionysian nature is fighting with his Apollonian side. The darkness inside him makes him hate and preach. Hypocrisy prevails both in Orfeo and in those celebrating and feeding his ego.

The slighted followers of Bacco and his women followers decide to capture him and tear him to pieces. They succeed and when he returns as a ghost he will meet a Euridice who mocks him and derides his yearning for her. He is given water from the river Lethe by Apolline and Caronte to forget her for eternity. He is turned into a star, a Christ to worship and celebrate, a rock in the sky.

To stage this work as Landi proposed it, you would need multiple choruses and soloists and yet these operas were often performed by a compact group of madrigalists who played many of the roles. This limitation has proved a useful dramaturgical solution for understanding the fact that every single character and group in the piece is responsible for the death of Orfeo. Shepherds, gods, and maenads are one and the same group that plots and enjoys the fall of a man they are fascinated by, repulsed by, and envious of. His violent execution explains the depth of feelings he arouses and the power he exuded which turned him into a cat with nine lives. The artist that refuses to die because an artist does not die. He lives on perhaps through the perennial echo of his or her work.

In the underworld we experience the action through the deranged mind of Orfeo who does neither trust nor listens. It is hard to be moved by his plight until Landi introduces, two third of the way into the opera, a long and extraordinarily intense and moving scene in which Fileno, Orfeo’s brother tells Orfeo’s mother Calliope how her son was murdered. Here Landi really does succeed as well as Monteverdi in turning Greek tragedy into a timeless music-drama, the starting point of all operatic literature.

What we experience with this piece is how free in form and content the first operas were and how modern they remain if we get a chance to rediscover them in performance. We can easily think of the #metoo movement when we hear of the retribution of women that were seduced and abandoned—Monteverdi too dealt with those, the Ingrate (the deceased women in his madrigal Il ballo delle ingrate)! We can’t help connect the discussion proposed by the themes to the moral role of Art in our societies. Should Art be exonerated of morals? Should the artist benefit from a special status by sanctioning an artistic nature as half human and half divine? Or is Art nothing but theatre, an artificial ritual that tricks humans into ‘forgetting’ and dreaming?

Pain? Love? Pleasure? All indistinguishable? All and nothing? La morte d’Orfeo is a work that poses all those questions and like most important works of art refuses to answer them. Maybe Music and its ethereal dimension can help elucidate the mysteries.

A story ends but it’s echo can live on. Its essence will find a way to return to us in new disguises but experiencing the moment of deep loss cannot be avoided.



The singer Orfeo had descended into the underworld in order to retrieve his wife Euridice. On the way back he turned to look at her, against the gods’ advice, and Euridice died a second time.

Act I

It is Orfeo’s birthday. But the goddess Teti and Fato (‘Fate’) have sombre premonitions: today, he shall die.

Act II

Orfeo invites all the gods to his birthday celebration, with the exception of Bacco, for wherever he goes, there is trouble. Everybody is welcome, but not the womenfolk: they are not to be trusted, says Orfeo. Also, his father Apolline warns him against women.


Bacco is furious at having been shunned, and swears vengeance. The maenads—the women in his entourage—agree that Orfeo deserves to die.

Act IV

Calliope, Orfeo’s mother, misses her son and is desperately worried. Her unease is justified, for Fileno comes to tell her Orfeo has been attacked by the maenads, and that even his enchanting song could not mollify them. The wild women have beaten him to death and torn his body asunder.

Act V

Orfeo’s spirit reports to Caronte, the boatman of the underworld. There, Orfeo hopes again to be reunited with his deceased wife Euridice, but she does not recognise him, having drunk from the Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. Caronte urges Orfeo to do the same, and at once his tormented desire vanishes. Mercurio comes to fetch him, and together they ascend to heaven, where he will shine as an eternal star at the firmament, celebrated by Giove and the other gods.

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