Monteverdi's Orfeo: 'a brilliant and compelling fable to the inalienable power of music'

Monteverdi might be surprised to find himself hailed as the inventor of the opera, and he disclaimed the role of revolutionary, but his Orfeo is a radical, innovative and extraordinary work

The Orpheus legend is utterly central to how opera emerged at the close of the Italian Renaissance and to the way its first pioneers tried to justify its existence as a revival of ancient Greek sung drama (a slightly spurious claim). Orpheus, its first definitive hero, is present at every intersection in opera’s 400-year story as it continued to evolve and then, after a few wrong turnings, attempted to reform itself thanks largely to Gluck.

When Claudio Monteverdi came to compose L’Orfeo in 1607 he seems to have had a particular empathy with Orpheus. As a court musician working in claustrophobic, mosquito-ridden Mantua, Monteverdi was in effect a feudal vassal of the Gonzaga dukes. There his moods seesawed between elation and dejection: intense bouts of audacious creativity were followed by moments of self-doubt - very much like the Orpheus of Greek mythology (as transmitted by Ovid and Virgil), who suffers, loves, exults, mourns, goes on a heroic rescue mission, stumbles at the last hurdle and finally reaches a new and deeper understanding of himself.

Around the time he was composing L’Orfeo, Monteverdi experienced intense grief and despair at the loss first of his wife Claudia and then shortly afterwards of his 18-year-old star soprano, Caterina Martinelli who was his ward of court. Only by leaving Mantua after 22 years’ of service was he able find remission and release.

Gilbert Deflo’s production of L’Orfeo at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2007, conducted by Jordi Savall, with Furio Zanasi as Orfeo and Arianna Savall as Eurydice.<br>
Gilbert Deflo’s production of L’Orfeo at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2007, conducted by Jordi Savall, with Furio Zanasi as Orfeo and Arianna Savall as Eurydice.
Photograph: Murdo Macleod/for the Guardian

L’Orfeo is a theatrical work crammed with music of acute poignancy. We listen enthralled while the tragedy unfolds: euphoria, despondency and brave resolve follow in quick succession. At other moments we can relish the dancing exuberance and joy of a pastoral society which acts as a foil to the heartbreak of those personal and communal laments. In a way we are seeing double: as with Greek tragedy, we know we are observing a ritual being reenacted, but by choosing to be present it allows us to register how the drama will pan out as though experiencing it for the first time.

To refer to L’Orfeo as an opera, the first masterpiece in the genre, is slightly misleading; it comes from looking at it backwards from the perspective of Wagner or Verdi. To Monteverdi it was a favola in musica in which “all the actors are to sing their parts”. Forget all the pious justifications of the so-called seconda pratica, in which he claimed “the text is the mistress of harmony”. The truth is that Monteverdi’s “musical fable” is a brilliant and compelling manifesto for the inalienable power of music – to complement and mesh with good verse, but also to take over the moment when words prove inadequate.

This Orpheus is essentially a charismatic musician, a proto-rockstar - a semi deo. But he is also a self-centred mortal who is only heroic and god-like in fits and starts. People are drawn to him as much because of his weakness and insecurity as by his charisma. This is a key to our understanding Monteverdi’s probing investigation of human nature, character and desire by means of music. He was the foremost musician to pursue this in a thoughtful and systematic way, and judging from his response to the reception to his first two operas, he knew it. This becomes clear a few years later in his response to the offer of a libretto with winds as chief protagonists. He protested, “How am I supposed to I imitate the speech of the winds if they do not speak? And how by such means can I move the passions? Arianna moved us because she was a woman, and so did Orfeo because he was a man, not a wind!”

From the moment he opens his mouth to sing Orfeo possesses a magic which is only his to use or to squander. Monteverdi gives him every opportunity to shine - in catchy strophic songs but also in long stretches of emotionally charged recitative with his voice free to rush, drag and clash against the metrical beat and strumming of the plucked continuo instruments. Ironically, Orfeo’s one big “aria” in Act III, designed to demonstrate his virtuoso skill in handling dazzling coloratura, has the effect of sending the ferryman Charon to sleep, whereas it is his simple, unembellished pathos-ridden outbursts – overheard by Proserpina – that elicit her pity and gives him his chance to rescue Eurydice. Gluck tried to emulate something similar 150 years later but within the parameters of a much more staid, conventional style.

 Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)
Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) Photograph: © Bettmann/CORBIS

At its heart, then, is the mysterious power of accompanied song in L’Orfeo, appealing both to the senses and to the spirit. The fact that music is capable of fluid, imperceptible change and harmonic modulation gives it the facility to straddle one realm of existence and the next. So, one moment we are rejoicing with Orfeo in the human world, surrounded by his companions and loved ones, but not long afterwards we follow him down to the crisis-ridden Underworld, before finally rising with Apollo to the heavens.

Just when there was a bloody collision between the Reformation and Counter-Reformation comes a pagan challenge and a secular alternative to the Christian narrative. Like The Bacchae of Euripides, L’Orfeo is self-reflective, telling us how this brand new “old” art form can, or should, work convincingly in the theatre. When that happens it leaves our nerve-endings painfully exposed to the force of raw emotion. Even the rests with which Monteverdi punctuates his vocal line figure like catches in the throat of a someone on the brink of tears. Yes, of course, L’Orfeo was conceived to be performed before a sophisticated body of cognoscenti in an intimate princely salon in which the singer-actors could address the audience at close range. However, in the past 50 years it has proved to be a vibrant, living work in regular theatres and even in concert halls, big and small, attracting a growing new audience and holding them in its thrall - with the capacity, in Monteverdi’s own words, to “move the whole man”.

Jean Marais as Orphée in Jean Cocteau’s 1950 film.
Jean Marais as Orphée in Jean Cocteau’s 1950 film. Photograph: Ronald Grant archive

It may be that the radicalism of Monteverdi has yet to be fully grasped. Perhaps L’Orfeo does not qualify as truly revolutionary or iconoclastic, and in fact Monteverdi himself disclaimed the role of revolutionary, claiming that he was only following a line that had been developing for the last 50 years or more. That was over-modest on his part; for like Beethoven some 200 years later, he soon mastered and exhausted the musical tradition he inherited. Intent on capturing the emotional states expressed in Striggio’s libretto, he began to introduce new techniques - the use of traditionally forbidden intervals and harmonic twists that disturb the balanced style of Renaissance polyphony, and structural devices that could bind the narrative together. In L’Orfeo we can follow him veering away from the old modal systems and inching towards what we now recognise as tonal harmony - one of the developments that defines the very essence and bounds of Western music (including, of course, opera) right up until the 20th century.

A major feature, unusual for its day, is the prominence Monteverdi gives to the chorus throughout L’Orfeo - a conscious gesture just as it is in Euripides, one that brings religion, morality and drama together. Aristotle traced the origin of drama to the moment when the leader of the dithyrambic chorus stood apart from his 50 men and boys and began to sing back to them. This formed the basis of the oppositional stance which allowed tragedy to embody conflict rather than merely allude to it, and it later to became a vital creative device – litany, dialogue and antiphony – used by composers in church music and opera. It is already present inL’Orfeo from the moment Monteverdi and his librettist make room for individual shepherds and nymphs to step out from the chorus, comment on the action and then retreat back into its ranks. But where Euripides was all-too-conscious that he came at the end of great tradition of Greek tragedy, Monteverdi was aware that he was in the vanguard of a new art form. He did not belong in the rarified intellectual milieu of the Florentine camerata; but he raised their experiments to a level of superb craftsmanship, sublime musicality and vastly enhanced emotional force. In L’Orfeo he converts the unspeakable into great art - dancing across classical mythology and history’s horrors, propelled by his music’s intrinsic beauty.


John Eliot Gardiner

The GuardianTramp

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