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: