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Opera Essentials: Orfeo

Our quick guide to the first operatic masterpiece, a tale of love and loss.

By Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager)

22 December 2014 at 12.16pm | Comment on this article

The Story Begins…
The great musician Orfeo loves Euridice. On their wedding day she is bitten by a snake, and dies. Orfeo follows her soul down into the land of the dead. His sweet singing moves Persephone, the Queen of Hades, and her consort Pluto permits Orpheus to try to lead his wife into the land of the living – but one look back and he will lose Euridice forever.

Making Operatic History
Orfeo is not the first opera – it followed a handful of sung dramas written by members of the Florentine Camerata around the turn of the 17th century. But Monteverdi’s favola in musica (fable in music), first performed in 1607, is considered opera’s first masterpiece. Orfeo is acclaimed both for its wonderful use of melody and the clarity with which it explores the human condition. The opera fell into obscurity after 1646 but resurfaced in the early 20th century. A century on, it is one of the most popular early operatic works.

Monteverdi and the seconda pratica
Monteverdi was part of a group who revolutionized music. They sought to overthrow the strict rules of prima pratica (first practice) that governed musical composition of the time. Their seconda pratica (second practice) allowed greater use of dissonance and sought to use the natural rhythms of spoken text – and so make greater use of music’s unique power to move both the mind and the heart. Monteverdi’s hugely successful experiments won him widespread fame in his lifetime, and led to the prestigious commission from the Mantuan court that brought about Orfeo.

Which Ending?
There is a mystifying discrepancy between the two earliest sources for Orfeo. A libretto printed in 1607 closely follows Ovid’s account of the myth: female Bacchantes, furious at Orfeo’s rejection of them, vow revenge. But a score printed in 1609 has a much more spectacular ending: Orfeo’s father Apollo appears out of nowhere and takes him up to heaven. It could be that the room for the premiere was too small for Apollo’s cloud machine; or that the Bacchantes ending was too tragic for audiences’ taste – we may never know.

A Human Story
Former director of the Royal Shakespeare Company Michael Boyd is making his operatic debut with Orfeo, The Royal Opera’s first collaboration with the Roundhouse. Boyd has worked in the unique space of the Roundhouse before, presenting plays by Monteverdi’s contemporary – William Shakespeare. He was drawn to the simplicity of Monteverdi’s tale of loss: a man longs to be with the woman he loves, but death separates them. Even when pulled up to the heavens, he yearns for hell. For Boyd, the opera explores the ‘conflict between mortality and immortality, between heaven and hell, between the rulers and the ruled’.

Orfeo runs 13–24 January 2015. Tickets are still available.
The production is a new collaboration between the Roundhouse and The Royal Opera.

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