Sunday, April 23, 2017

Monteverdi and the Opera

The composer more responsible for the creation of the genre of the opera than any other is Claudio Monteverdi who wrote operas over a forty year period from L'Orfeo of 1607 to L'incoronazione di Poppea of 1643. We only have a partial picture of the early development of the opera because we are missing all the operas written during a thirty year span in the middle! Seven out of Monteverdi's ten operas (two incomplete) are lost with only fragments surviving. The most famous fragment is the Lamento d'Arianna, an extended recitative from the opera L'Arianna relating the classical story of Theseus' abandonment of Ariadna on the island of Naxos. This lament, surviving in three different versions, the original solo song, a five-voice madrigal and a sacred hymn, was the model for operatic laments for a hundred years and more. Let's have a listen. The singer is Anna Caterina Antonacci:

The full-fledged opera grew out of a host of musical theatre pieces of different kinds that were created for the amusement of the noble courts of northern Italy in the late 16th century. The first actual opera was not by Monteverdi, but by Jacopo Peri in 1597. This was Dafne, written for a circle of humanists in Florence, but first performed in Venice in 1598. The libretto was by Ottavio Rinuccini who also wrote the libretto for Monteverdi's Arianna. Indeed, one recurring theme in all these vocal works is the tight and interactive relationship between the text and the music that we see not only here, but in the madrigals we were looking at. Unquestionably, the most important poetic text for the development of this relationship was Il pastor fido, the tragicomic pastoral by Giovanni Battista Guarini published in 1590 and the source of the texts for a host of madrigals.

The first opera that we have complete that is regularly performed today is L'Orfeo by Monteverdi on a libretto by Alessandro Striggio, but it was very much inspired by the second opera by Peri, Euridice, on a libretto by Rinuccini, first performed in 1600. Euridice was, of course, the wife of Orfeo, whom he attempted to rescue from Hades. This is rather as if another playwright had written a play titled "Juliet" which Shakespeare emulated by writing one titled "Romeo"! It is remarkable what a close circle of creative poets, composers, musicians and noble patrons were responsible for the birth and flourishing of opera.

We are going to spend at least one post on the remarkable opera, L'Orfeo, by Monteverdi, but that will be for next time. For now, let's listen to a performance that attempts to recreate what the original might have sounded like. This rather magnificent performance was directed by Jordi Savall:


Will Wilkin said...

I have the very excellent luck of living near New Haven, where Yale University has a world-class graduate School of Music (which includes a lot of baroque performances), plus an "undergraduate" (much-supported by faculty and the YSM) Yale Baroque Opera Project, plus a Divinity School-sponsored Institute of Sacred Music --so contrary to the midwestern cities and probably much of Canada, I frequently hear live baroque music, including opera. The Baroque Opera Project focuses on 17th century opera, including of course Monteverdi but also Cavalli. Next week we'll hear Cavalli's "La Didone."

It was after hearing my first Monteverdi opera ("il retorno d'Ulyse in patria") that I bought a nice box set of "complete" Monteverdi operas, which totals to 3 --and according to the notes in that Brilliant Classics box set, 1 of the 3, "L'Incoronozione di Poppaea" in its surviving forms seems to be an amalgamation from several operas by several composers, with virtually nothing indisputably traceable to Monteverdi himself, who may or may not have had a hand in the opera as it survives today. "Il ritorno d'Ulisse" and "Orpheo" at least have clear attribution to Monteverdi, according to those notes. And zero mention of the fragments of 7 other operas you mentioned, which would definitely be an interesting collection to hear recorded.

Just yesterday I saw an HD live simulcast of the Met Opera's production of Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin". Perhaps irrelevant to your article today except to note the obvious: the opera form of musical drama, begun in Italy in the early 17th century, certainly caught the fancy of audiences and composers ever since!

Bryan Townsend said...

You are very, very lucky indeed! Sounds like a wealth of music. I rather avoided opera for most of my life, unless they were paying me to play in the orchestra, of course! But I also never lived in a place where really outstanding opera was commonly performed.

David said...

Toronto, the self-proclaimed metropolitan centre of Canada, is home to a number of opera companies. One of them, Opera Atelier, specializes in baroque operas and mounts two presentations a year. The spring offering this year was Charpentier's Medee. I had the good fortune to attend a performance last week, sitting in "the gods" for only $39! I mention this because the production (with a complement of 80 singers, dancers and musicians) will perform in the Versailles palace opera theatre later this year as part of events in France celebrating Canada's 150th anniversary of Confederation (nationhood). The Opera Atelier production proved that there is still life in this masterpiece 320 years after its premiere in 1693!

Bryan Townsend said...

David, that is wonderful to hear about! A friend of mine used to play in the COC orchestra and I have heard of the Opera Atelier, but never heard a performance. Have to look on YouTube. Tafelmusik is also an outstanding Toronto early music ensemble and I have several of their CDs.