Opera Profile: Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (Watch)

By Logan Martell

Widely considered among the first operas, “L’Orfeo” made its premiere sometime during the 1607 Carnival season in Mantua, Italy. Though it fell out of performance shortly after the death of Monteverdi, it enjoyed a great revival in the 19th century which led to many fully-staged productions later on. The opera draws upon the Renaissance era’s many compositional techniques, melding them together in ways that had not yet been employed in musical performance. The libretto adapts the ancient Greek tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, setting it against music in a time just on the cusp of the Baroque era.

Short Plot Summary

The opera opens with Orfeo and Euridice on their way to be married at a temple, accompanied by a chorus of shepherds and nymphs. When the couple leaves the stage, the chorus notes how miserable Orfeo had been before he fell in love, transforming it all into bliss. Orfeo returns after the ceremony to sing about his newfound joy when a messenger arrives bearing grave news: when she was gathering flowers, Euridice died after receiving a venomous snakebite. Orfeo and the chorus lament powerfully before the young lover resolves to journey into the underworld in the hopes of persuading Plutone to return Euridice. Orfeo is led by Speranza to the gates of the underworld before the guide of hope departs, leaving him on his own. Orfeo tries to secure passage across the river Styx from Caronte, but the ferryman refuses to transport the living. It isn’t until when Orfeo plays his lyre that Caronte falls asleep, allowing him to commandeer his boat across the river.

Having heard the rapturous singing of Orfeo, Proserpina entreats her husband Plutone to return Euridice to the world of the living. Granting her wish, Plutone accepts on the condition that Orfeo must not look back as he leads his wife to the world above. Though Orfeo is initially confident, he finds himself being increasingly filled with doubt. Unable to bear it, Orfeo turns his head, causing Euridice to disappear; though he tries to follow her, he is pulled away into the world of the living. As Orfeo laments once more the loss of his love, swearing to never love again, he is visited by none other than Apollo. The god berates Orfeo for falling into despair, but offers him the right to join him in heaven, where can see Euridice amongst the stars. Orfeo accepts, and is lifted into heaven; a chorus of shepherds concludes by remarking on the blessings given to those who transcend their suffering through virtuous works.

Watch and Listen

Check out this performance live from La Fenice.


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