As the world’s first great opera celebrates its 400th birthday, its new-found popularity may signal a welcome expansion of opera companies’ repertoires
The world’s first great opera has just celebrated its 400th birthday. It was on 24th February 1607 that L’Orfeo, composed to a text by Alessandro Striggio by the Cremonese composer Claudio Monteverdi, was first performed at the Ducal Palace in Mantua. The work gained temporary renown: it was published in 1609 and again in 1615, and enjoyed productions here and there until the mid-1600s. After that, it disappeared from the stage for 250 years, before occasional revivals in the first half of the 20th century.
In the 1960s and 1970s, thanks to far-sighted championing by musicians like Raymond Leppard, Jane Glover and Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the work began to be staged more often. All the same, performances have tended to take place—in Britain at least—within so-called “early music” circles rather than in major opera houses, as though Orfeo were for geeky specialists only. That may now be changing. The first of this year’s celebratory performances, by English Bach Festival (EBF), took place at the Whitehall Banqueting House in London on 7th February. Just before it began, an eminent opera scholar friend confessed to me that he’d never seen Orfeo. Early opera just wasn’t his thing, though he knew of the work’s importance. Maybe he presumed that its antiquity meant that it must be dry, stuffy and remote. In fact, Orfeo is an immensely rich work. Its appeal is immediate, its colours amazing, its message profound and contemporary. Judging from my friend’s applause, I suspect that he went away from the show enlightened and moved.
If so, he joins an ever-expanding group. Opera companies are at last embracing early opera. The EBF’s performance has been, or will be, followed by many others: Philip Pickett directs the New London Consort in Jonathan Miller’s staging at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 14th March, and thereafter around Britain and much of the rest of the world; while Opera North, in collaboration with Glimmerglass Opera and Den Norske Opera, has been touring Christopher Alden’s production in Leeds, Nottingham, Salford and Newcastle. Last year, English National Opera embarked on a complete Monteverdi cycle, beginning with Orfeo, in a radical but typically poetic production by the Chinese-born director Chen Shi-Zheng, and English Touring Opera presented the piece in its autumn tour. Not a note at Glyndebourne—a perfect Monteverdi auditorium—nor at Covent Garden or Welsh National Opera, but you can’t have everything.
I’ve known Orfeo for more than 30 years. It first captivated me as one of my set works as a music undergraduate. I acquired a recording starring the baroque and early-music specialist tenor Nigel Rogers in the title role. He made the most of the ornate embellishments, especially those written down by the composer in a big set-piece, “Possente spirto,” where Orfeo’s singing and playing, interspersed by instrumental episodes, lulls Caronte to sleep. For me this music wins hands down over “Nessun dorma” or “O mio babbino caro” for its passion, genuineness and sheer magic. It is a three-dimensional portrayal of a man’s real anguish and courage.
Orfeo’s sophistication is all the more amazing when one remembers that it was written scarcely a decade after opera was invented by a group of Florentine intellectuals who were attempting to recreate Greek drama in Renaissance terms. That meant a new style of music—recitative—which stuck strictly to the rhythms and inflexions of the speech it accompanied. But Monteverdi takes this premise only as his starting point, mixing it with elements of the intermedio—opera’s Renaissance precursor, a mostly madrigal-based entertainment—and using recurring instrumental numbers—ritornelli—both to punctuate and to unify. He also explores a wide range of instrumental colours and adventurous harmonies, using the latter as a powerful expressive tool, for instance, in Orfeo’s heartbroken set-piece at the beginning of the final act.
Orfeo offers a far more intense experience than anything by Puccini and most things by Verdi. Puccini often deals in stereotypes, in soap-like exaggeration, while many of Verdi’s earlier operas are devoid of subtlety. In Orfeo, by contrast, Monteverdi makes us privy to the deepest regions of his hero’s psyche—a sense of depth also apparent in his two surviving later operas, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria and L’incoronazione di Poppea.
If Orfeo’s new popularity, along with the greater number of Handel productions in recent years, signals a change in opera companies’ programming policies, that can only be a good thing. For too long a “central repertoire” based around 19th-century Italian works has been unchallenged. But the likes of Monteverdi and Handel, as well as Cavalli, Charpentier, Lully, Rameau, Vivaldi, Jomelli and Gluck, all have deep things to say in ways at least as eloquent and as theatrically sophisticated as Donizetti, Verdi or Puccini. The challenge for opera companies is to convince their audiences, the vast majority of whom like what they know, that this is the case. But how many Aidas does one have to see to get the work’s (none too subtle) message? Not many. An opera like Orfeo, written on a more human scale, bears repetition at least as well. Only by constantly challenging any work’s right to be in the repertoire—a challenge based not on popularity but simply on musical and dramatic quality—can we hope to develop balanced programming. For ultimately it is the power, meaning and depth of the drama that counts for most.