“They that love beyond the world cannot be separated by it. Death cannot kill what never dies.” - William Penn
“L’ Orfeo” (SV 318), sometimes called “L’ Orfeo, favola in musica”, is a late Renaissance/early Baroque opera by Claudio Monteverdi, with a libretto by Alessandro Striggio. It is based on the Greek legend of Orpheus, and tells the story of his descent to Hades and his attempt to bring his dead bride Eurydice back to the living world. Written in 1607 for a court performance during the annual Carnival at Mantua, “L’Orfeo” is one of the earliest music dramas still regularly performed.
Claudio Monteverdi, born in Cremona in 1567, was a musical prodigy who studied under Marc’ Antonio Ingegneri, the maestro di cappella (head of music) at Cremona Cathedral. After training in singing, strings playing and composition, Monteverdi worked as a musician in Verona and Milan until, in 1590 or 1591, he secured a post as suonatore di vivuola (viola player) at Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga’s court at Mantua. Through ability and hard work Monteverdi rose to become Gonzaga’s maestro della musica in 1601.
Vincenzo Gonzaga’s particular passion for musical theatre and spectacle grew from his family connections with the court of Florence. Towards the end of the 16th century innovative Florentine musicians were developing the intermedio (a long-established form of musical interlude inserted between the acts of spoken dramas) into increasingly elaborate forms. Led by Jacopo Corsi, these successors to the renowned Camerata were responsible for the first work generally recognised as belonging to the genre of opera: “Dafne”, composed by Corsi and Jacopo Peri and performed in Florence in 1598.
"Dafne" combined elements of madrigal singing and monody with dancing and instrumental passages to form a dramatic whole. Only fragments of its music still exist, but several other Florentine works of the same period (“Rappresentatione di Anima, et di Corpo” by Emilio de’ Cavalieri, Peri’s “Euridice” and Giulio Caccini’s identically titled “Euridice” survive complete). These last two works were the first of many musical representations of the Orpheus myth as recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and as such were direct precursors of Monteverdi’s “L'Orfeo”.
Here is the complete "L' Orfeo" of Monteverdi performed by La Capella Reial de Catalunya, Conducted by Jordi Savall, with stage settings by Gilbert Deflo and directed by Brian Large. The painting above is by Margherita Fascione.