Claudio Monteverdi: Orfeo



A recording of Monteverdi's Orfeo is available through Columbia University's online reserves here.


History
Claudio Monteverdi's Orfeo is widely considered the first great opera. The libretto, penned by Monteverdi's friend Alessandro Striggio, relates the legend of Orpheus and his descent into the underworld to recover his beloved, Euridice. Monteverdi's opera was commissioned by a wealthy group of Mantuan nobility known as the Accademia degl'Invaghiti whose members included Striggio and the heir to the Mantuan throne, Francesco Gonzaga. Gonzaga's palace would later serve as the location for the premiere of Orfeo on 24 February 1607; a second performance was prepared for the ladies of the city the following week.
Opera as a musical genre was the development of a group of Florentines who were looking for a way to present plays in music. The Florentine Camerata, as they were known, looked to early Greek drama, which was believed to be entirely sung, as a model. To recreate the ethos of Greek drama they used a new form of vocal writing, known as monody, to heighten the words of the drama. Over the accompaniment of basso continuo (chords improvised from a framework given by the composer and performed by a chordal instrument or instruments, such as lutes, harpsichords and the like and a bass instrument such as a cello) a soloist would sing in a type of heightened speech, known as recitative. Interspersed throughout the opera were also sung passages, often strophic or rhythmically lively, known as arias, and passages halfway between recitative and aria, known as arioso. The structure was filled out with choral numbers, dances, ritornelli (instrumental interludes) and so forth.
It is important to remember that modern notions of opera or film were nonexistent in the 1600s. Drama functioned more as ritual than as excitement. When Monteverdi approached the composition of Orfeo, he approached it as he would a ritual text, such as a Mass. However, given that most music of the time was of significantly shorter duration, Monteverdi realized that he would need to have a larger musical form to tie the varied elements of the opera together. To do so, Monteverdi arranged his opera in a chiastic structure - (a structure in which individual parts pivot around a central axis, as in, for instance ABCBA) pivoting around the third act and its climactic aria Possente Spirto ("Powerful Spirit"), an aria in which Orfeo tries to convince Charon, the boatman who ferries souls across the rivers that divide the world of the living from the world of the dead, to allow him, a mortal, entry into the underworld.


The Title Page of the First Edition
Links to the Libretto

Toccata: A call to attention.
Prologue:
Act One:
Act Two:
Act Three:
Act Four:
Act Five:



Things to Note
Listen for the changes in singing style from recitative (such as the Messanger's dramatic monologue relating Euridice's death, In un fiorito prato ("In a flowery meadow")) to more sung sections such as Orfeo's arioso (the lament Tu se morta (prosaically translated as: "You are dead")) and the more aria-like sections (such as Orfeo's opening song Ecco pur che voi ritorni ("Behold I have returned to you")). Notice also the use of madrigal-esque chorale moments and instrumental interludes.
Listen also to how the members of the basso continuo change according to the situation presented and which character is singing. In the score of the opera, Monteverdi provides some instruction as to what instruments should play at what points. Such indications of instrumentation were practically unheard of in music of the time. Monteverdi, however, was not the first to associate different instrumental colors with different emotions, likely these associations developed over many years. Aristocratic instruments such as lutes and harpsichords were used for scenes involving Gods, while lower pitched instruments such as the regal, a particular type of organ, were used for the Infernal Orchestra. (Such extra-musical associations can be related to a doctrine of affects which began in madrigals and would flourish in the late Baroque.) Based on Monteverdi's request and other indications throughout the score, it is assumed that the orchestra for the first performance of Orfeo consisted of:
2 harpsichords;
2 violones (similar to a double bass);
10 instruments of the violin family;
1 double harp (a harp with two sets of strings);
2 pochettes (a small violin sounding higher than a normal violin, and originally used by dance teachers, also known as a kit - used in Possente Spirto);
3 chitarroni (a bass lute, also known as a theorbo);
2 pipe organs;
2 bass viols (similar to a cello);
5 sackbuts (a precursor to the trombone);
1 regal (an odd sounding low organ);
2 cornets (a wooden wind instrument played similarly to a trumpet; favored by Shakespeare and considered the nearest equivalent to the human voice during the Baroque period);
2 descant recorders (a gentle sounding wooden wind instrument);
4 or 5 trumpets (used for festive occasions);
Most of these instruments, with the exception of the violins, trumpets and trombones, have disappeared from the modern orchestra.



LIBRETTO



Translation: Act 1
Toccata

Prologue

LA MUSICA:
Dal mio Permesso amato a voi ne vegno,
Incliti eroi, sangue gentil di Regi,
Di cui narra la Fama eccelsi pregi,
N giugne al ver, perch' tropp'alto il segno.

Io la Musica son, ch'ai dolci accenti
So far tranquillo ogni turbato core,
Et hor di nobil ira, et hor d'amore
Posso infiammar le pi gelate menti.

Io su cetera d'or cantando soglio
Mortal orecchia lusingar talhora,
E in guisa tal de l'armonia sonora
de le rote del Ciel pi l'alme invoglio.

Quinci a dirvi d'ORFEO desio mi sprona
D'ORFEO che trasse al suo cantar le fere,
E servo f l'Inferno a sue preghiere
Gloria immortal di Pindo e d'Elicona.

Hor mentre i canti alterno hor lieti, hor mesti
Non si mova augellin fra queste piante,
N s'oda in queste rive onda sonante,
Et ogni Auretta in suo camin s'arresti.

Act 1

PASTORE I:
In questo lieto e fortunato giorno
C'ha posto fine a gli amorosi affanni,
Del nostro Semideo cantiam Pastori
Con s soavi accenti
Che sien degni d'ORFEO nostri concenti.

Oggi fatt' pietosa
L'alma gi s sdegnosa
De la bella EURIDICE.
Oggi fatt' felice
ORFEO nel sen di lei, per cui gi tanto
Per queste selve ha sospirato, e pianto.

Dunque in s lieto e fortunato giorno
C'ha posto fine a gli amorosi affanni
Del nostro Semideo cantiam Pastori
Con s soavi accenti
Che sien degni d'ORFEO nostri concenti.

CHORO NINFE, PASTORI
Vieni, Imeneo, deh vieni
e la tua face ardente
sia quasi un Sol nascente
ch' apporti questi amanti i d sereni
e lunge homai disgombre
de gli affanni e del duol le nebbie e l'ombre.

NINFA
Muse honor di Parnaso, amor del cielo,
gentil conforto a sconsolato core,
vostre cetre sonore
squarcino d' ogni nube il fosco velo;
e mentre oggi propizio al vostro Orfeo
invochiam Imeneo
s ben teamprate corde.
Co' l vostro suon, nostra armonia s' accorde.

NINFE, PASTORI
Lasciate i monti,
lasciate i fonti,
ninfe vezzose e liete,
e in questi prati
a i balli usati
leggiadro il pi rendete.

Qui miri il sole
vostre carole
pi vaghe assai di quelle,
ond' a la Luna,
a l' aria bruna,
danzan in ciel le stelle.

Ritornello

Lasciate i monti,
lasciate i fonti,
ninfe vezzose e liete,
e in questi prati
a i balli usati
leggiadro il pi rendete.

Qui miri il sole
vostre carole
pi vaghe assai di quelle,
ond' a la Luna,
a l' aria bruna,
danzan in ciel le stelle.

Poi di bei fiori,
per voi s' onori,
di questi amanti il crine,
ch' or dei martiri
de i lor desiri
godon beati al fine.

Ritornello

PASTORE
Ma tu, gentil cantor, s''tuoi lamenti
gi festi lagrimar queste campagne,
perch' hora al suon de la famosa cetra
non fai teco gioir le valli e i poggi?
Sia testimon del core
qualche lieta canzon che detti amore.

ORFEO:
Rosa del ciel,
vita del mondo,
e degna Prole di lui
che l'universo affrena;
Sol, che'l tutto circondi
e'l tutto miri
Da gli stellanti giri,
Dimmi, vedest mai
Di me pi lieto e fortunato Amante?
Fu ben felice il giorno,
Mio ben, che pria ti vidi;
E pi felice l'hora
Che per te sospirai,
Poi ch'al mio sospirar tu sospirasti.
Felicissimo il punto
Che la candida mano,
Pegno di pura fede,
me porgete.
Se tanti cori havessi
Quant'occhi ha'l ciel eterno,
e quante chiome
Han questi colli ameni
il verde maggio,
Tutti colmi sarieno e traboccanti
Di quel piacer
ch'oggi mi fa contento.

EURIDICE
Io non dir qual sia
nel tuo gioire, Orfeo, la gioia mia,
che non h meco il core,
ma teco stassi in compagnia d' Amore.
Chiedilo dunque a lui s' intender brami
quanto lieta i gioisca, e quanto t' ami.

NINFE, PASTORI
Lasciate i monti,
lasciate i fonti,
ninfe vezzose e liete,
e in questi prati
a i balli usati
leggiadro il pi rendete.

Qui miri il sole
vostre carole
pi vaghe assai di quelle,
ond' a la Luna,
a l' aria bruna,
danzan in ciel le stelle.

Ritornello

CHORO NINFE, PASTORI
Vieni, Imeneo, deh vieni
e la tua face ardente
sia quasi un Sol nascente
ch' apporti questi amanti i d sereni
e lunge homai disgombre
de gli affanni e del duol le nebbie e l'ombre.

PASTORE
Ma s' il nostro gioir dal ciel deriva,
come dal ciel ci che qu gi s' incontra,
giust' ben che divoti
gl' offriam incensi e voti.
Dunque al tempio ciascun rivolga i passi
a pregar lui ne la cui destra il mondo,
che lungamente il nostro ben conservi.

Ritornello

PASTORI
Alcun non sia che disperato in preda
si doni al duol, bench talhor n' assaglia
possente s che la nostra vita inforsa
.
Ritornello

NINFE, PASTORI
Che poi che nembo rio gravido il seno
d' atra tempesta inorridito h il mondo,
dispiega il sol pi chiaro i rai lucenti.

Ritornello

PASTORI
E dopo l' aspro gel del verno ignudo
veste di fior la primavera i campi.

NINFE, PASTORI
Orfeo di cui pur dianzi
furon cibo i sospir bevanda il pianto,
oggi felice tanto
che nulla pi che da bramar gli avanzi.

Toccata

Prologue

MUSIC:
From my beloved Permessus I come to you,
illustrious heroes, noble scions of kings,
whose glorious deeds Fame relates,
though falling short of the truth, since the target is too high.

I am Music, who in sweet accents
can calm each troubled heart,
and now with noble anger, now with love,
can kindle the most frigid minds.

I, with my lyre of gold and with my singing, am used
to sometimes charming my mortal ears,
and in this way inspire souls with a longing
for the sonorous harmony of heaven's lyre.

From here desire spurs me to tell you of Orpheus,
Orpheus who drew wild beasts to him by his songs
and who subjugated Hades by his entreaties,
the immortal glory of Pindus and Helicon.

Now while I alternate my songs, now happy, now sad,
let no small bird stir among these trees,
no noisy wave be heard on these river-banks,
and let each little breeze halt in its course.

Act 1:

FIRST SHEPHERD:
On this happy and auspicious day
which has put an end to the amorous torments
of our demi-god, let us sing, shepherds,
in such sweet accents
that our strains shall be worthy of Orpheus.

Today fair Eurydice's heart,
formerly so disdainful,
has been touched with compassion.
Today Orpheus has been made happy
in the bosom of her, for whom he already
sighed and wept so much amongst these woods.

Therefore, on so happy and auspicious a day
which has put an end to the amorous torments
of our demi-god, let us sing, shepherds,
in such sweet accents
that our strains shall be worthy of Orpheus.

CHORUS OF NYMPHS AND SHEPHERDS:
Descend of Hymen, descend,
and may your glowing torch
be like a rising sun
bringing to these lovers cloudless days
and scattering afar
the hideous murky shades of care and pain

NYMPH:
Muses, honour of Parnassus, beloved by heaven,
tender consolation to the dejected heart,
let your harmonious lyres rend the dark veil from every cloud:
and while we today in favour
of your Orpheus
invoke Hymen
on well-tuned strings,
our harmony accords with your sound.

NYMPHS, SHEPHERDS:
Come from your hills,
come from your springs,
ye Nymphs so comely and happy,
and in these meadows
where dance is no stranger,
trip on your dainty feet.

Here shall the Sun
behold your measures,
lovelier far than those
danced to the moon
at dead of night
by the stars of the sky.

Ritornello

Come from your hills,
come from your springs,
ye Nymphs so comely and happy,
and in these meadows
where dance is no stranger,
trip on your dainty feet.

Here shall the Sun
behold your measures,
lovelier far than those
danced to the moon
at dead of night
by the stars of the sky.

Then with your choice blooms
by you be adorned
the brows of these lovers,
who, after the torment
of their longing,
are now happy at last.

Ritornello

SHEPHERD 2:
But since, sweet singer, formerly you made
these meadows weep in sympathy with your grief,
why do you not make these hills and dales
rejoice now to the sound of your famous lyre?
Let some joyful song inspired by love
bear witness to your heart.

ORFEO:
Rose of heaven,
life of the world,
and worthy progeny of him
who governs the universe;
Sun, who circumscribes everything
and sees everything,
From your starry rounds,
Tell me, did you ever see
than I a happier and more fortunate lover?
Happy was the day,
My love, that first I saw you;
And even happier the hour
That I sighed for you,
Since at my sigh, you sighed.
Happiest the moment
That your white hand,
A pledge of pure faith,
to me you offered.
If I had as many hearts
As heaven has eternal eyes,
and as many leaves
as have these pleasant hills
this green May,
All would be filled and overflowing
With that pleasure
that today makes me content.

EURIDICE:
I cannot say how great the joy
your joy, Orpheus, inspires in me may be,
since my heart is not with me
but with you, companioned by Love.
Ask him, therefore, if you long to know
how it rejoices and how much it loves you.

CHORUS:
Come from your hills,
come from your springs,
ye Nymphs so comely and happy,
and in these meadows
where dance is no stranger,
trip on your dainty feet.

Here shall the Sun
behold your measures,
lovelier far than those
danced to the moon
at dead of night
by the stars of the sky.

Ritornello

CHORUS:
Descend of Hymen, descend,
and may your glowing torch
be like a rising sun
bringing to these lovers cloudless days
and scattering afar
the hideous murky shades of care and pain

SHEPHERD 1:
But if our gladness is derived from heaven
like everything around us here below,
as devotees it is our bounden duty
to offer incense to the gods, and prayers,
So to the Temple let us all repair
to pray that he whose right hand holds the world
will long preserve the life of our beloved.

Ritornello

SHEPHERDS 1, 3:
Let there be none who , prey to despair,
gives way to sorrow, though at times this may
assail us so strongly as to threaten life.

Ritornello

NYMPH, SHEPHERD 2, 4:
For when the lowering, heavy-burdened cloud
have terrified the world with tempest dire,
the Sun more brightly casts his radiant beams.

Ritornello

SHEPHERDS 1, 3:
And after the bitter cold of naked winter,
Spring clothes the fields with flowers.

CHORUS:
See, here comes Orpheus, who formerly
made sighs his food and tears his drink;
today he is so happy
that there is nothing more he can desire.


from Act 3:

Possente Spirto

ORFEO
Possente Spirto e formidabil nume,
senza cui far passaggio l' altra riva
alma da corpo sciolta in van presume.

Ritornello

Non viv'io no, che poi di vita e priva
Mia cara sposa il cor non e piu meco
E senza cor com'esser puo ch'io viva?

Ritornello

A lei volt' ho 'l camin per l' ar cieco,
a l' Inferno non gi, ch' ovunque stassi
tanta bellezza il paradiso h seco.

Ritornello

Orfeo son io che d' Euridice i passi
segue per queste tenebrose arene,
ove gi mai per uom mortal non vassi.

O de le luci mie luci serene
S'un vostro sguardo pu tornarmi in vita,
Ahi, chi nega il conforto le mie pene ?

Sol tu, nobile Dio puoi darmi aita,
n temer dei, ch sopra un' aurea Cetra
Sol di corde soavi armo le dita
contra cui rigida alma invan s' impetra.

from Act 3:

Powerful Spirit

ORPHEUS:
O powerful spirit, awe-inspiring prescence
without whose acquiescence no bodiless soul
can make the passage to the farther shore:

Ritornello

Alive I am not, for as my beloved bride
is dead, my heart is no longer with me,
and with no heart how can I be alive?

Ritornello

For her I took the passageway through pitch-darkness,
though not to Hell, for everywhere it goes,
so great a beauty creates Paradise.

Ritornello

Orpheus am I, who Euridice's steps
am tracing through these dark and dismal ways
where never foot of man has trod before.

O clear eyes, the light of my own eyes,
if one glance from you can restore my life,
ah, who denies my grief this consolation?

Apollo, noble god, you can assist me,
nor should you fear, for on a golden lyre
my hands are armed with sweet-toned strings
against which flinty hearts cannon prevail.


Back to the Index

All text © Todd Tarantino 2002-2012.
Not to be reprinted without permission.
www.toddtarantino.com
Contact