As the world's first great opera celebrates its 400th birthday, its new-found popularity may signal a welcome expansion of opera companies' repertoiresby Stephen Pettitt / March 22, 2007 / Leave a comment
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…