A Trendsetting Triple Threat: Monteverdi, Gluck, and 'Orfeo'

1421-250Do you know which age old story inspired two of the most important works in the history of opera?  It's the story of Orpheus, and its remarkable operatic history goes all the way back to the days when opera barely existed.

The myth of Orpheus is among the most ancient in Western literature, and when it comes to opera, the story has been around from the very beginning:  It's the subject Monteverdi chose when he wrote what's widely regarded as the first great opera ever composed, Orfeo, which appeared in 1607.

It would certainly be hard to credit any one person with the invention of an entire form of art. For example, there is cave art as old as 30,000 years -- the earliest paintings ever discovered. But it would be hard to claim that the artists who created them actually invented painting. Surely there were earlier painters whose work simply hasn't survived.

When it comes to music, courses on the history of Western music often start with Gregorian chant -- or even earlier, with the "Delphic Hymns" from ancient Greece. But those are just the earliest examples of music that was written down and preserved, not the earliest music ever created.

Still, Claudio Monteverdi often gets credit for inventing opera -- which just may be an art form entirely unto itself. After all, opera is more than just music combined with storytelling. It's also stagecraft, poetry and even philosophy -- all rolled into one unique form of artistic expression.  But, could Monteverdi really have invented that seemingly miraculous artistic mix?

Technically, the answer is no. Opera evolved amidst a community of Italian artists in the last years of the 16th century. But nearly all of their earliest works have been lost. The ones that are still around aren't very satisfying, and they're almost never performed. That is, until you get to Monteverdi's Orfeo, in 1607.

With Orfeo, Monteverdi created the first opera that both survived the centuries and stuck in the repertory -- a work of music and theater that displayed a brand new sort of artistic alchemy.  Somehow, it managed to present the straightforward words of its characters, and express the anguished, chaotic emotions behind those words -- both at the same time, and with remarkable clarity and insight. You might call it the first opera that actually "works," and it's still working in opera houses all over the world more than 400 years after Monteverdi wrote it.

In Monteverdi's Orfeo, along with other operas of the time, music was seen as a tool to serve the story.  Words were set in a simple, declamatory style, with the music illuminating the poetry and drama of the libretto in a straightforward, no-frills manner 

But it didn't take long for opera to change -- drastically.  As the 18th century rolled around, the trendiest operas were in the style known as <em>opera seria</em>, in which the words of an opera often took second place to rapid-fire, vocal virtuosity. Sometimes, it took dozens of notes to sing a single word -- or even a single syllable!   Things got so extreme that by the middle of the 1700s, some composers were fed up, and even offended, by the way opera seria showcased virtuosity -- too often, they thought, at the expense of the written word. 

Chief among them was Christoph Willibald Gluck, who headed a movement to "reform" opera --  to take it back to its roots. He did this by returning to a simpler style, in which the music was less showy, and devoted simply to expressing the drama and poetry of the words -- as in Monteverdi's day.  And not coincidentally, for one of his "reform operas," Gluck chose the same story that had inspired Monteverdi more than 150 years earlier:  the story of Orpheus, the legendary poet and musician who sought out his dead wife Eurydice in the underworld.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us a fascinating double bill, featuring both of these groundbreaking operas.  Monteverdi's Orfeo comes to us from the Misteria Paschalia Festival in Cracow, Poland. Tenor Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani sings the title role, in a production led by conductor Claudio Cavina.  After that, it's Glucks' Orfeo ed Euridice, in a production from the Göteborg Opera in Sweden featuring soprano Katerina Karnéus as Orfeo, and led by conductor Laurence Cummings.