Is Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi the First Opera?

Do February 24th and the premiere of Orfeo by Monteverdi mark the birth of the Western Opera? It is both a musicological and historical question, which also offers an opportunity to review the genesis of one of the most popular musical genres.

The first performance of Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi was given in Italy at the theatre of the Mantuan court on February 24t 1607. This is considered by many musicologists and music lovers to be the birth of Western Opera. 

But did any other form of spectacle comparable to opera exist before 1607? If Monteverdi did not 'invent' opera he certainly combined various in vogue musical forms with gusto. He was able to innovate and popularise the great lyric spectacle while satisfying the ideals of the Italian aristocracy. 

Opera is the meeting of music and theatre. It utilises singers and an orchestra, with dancers also sometimes included. All of these elements play a part in the development of the plot. Opera therefore has a double identity: it is theatrical and musical, since the singer performs an individual and vital part in the score. 

Four hundred years after its premiere, each role in Orfeo is still embodied by a type of voice similar to that in the original production: Orfeo is sung by a high pitched male voice (a tenor), Euridice by a female soprano, Pluton by a deep bass voice etc. 

Only the role of La Musica, the character who sings about the virtues of the art of music at the opening of the work, requires a slight change. In the 17th century this part was sung by a castrato, a man with an artificially extremely high pitched voice. Castrati no longer exist nowadays and so the role of La Musica is now performed by a female soprano.  

This encounter between theatre and music did not of course wait for Monteverdi... In the Middle Ages, for example, biblical episodes, known as mysteries or miracles were performed on stage with music. 

But what distinguished opera from the forms that preceded it was the total involvement of music in the dramatic action. Music is not simply a decorative accessory. Both the singing and orchestration play a part in expressing the characters' feelings and creating different atmospheres as well as developing the plot. 

What is Orfeo?

According to its composer, Claudio Monteverdi, Orfeo is a fable in music (una favola in musica). This fable tells the story of Orpheus and his betrothed Eurydice who are separated due to the jealousy of the gods. 

Orpheus travels to the depths of Hell to find his beloved. But despite promising the god Pluto that he will lead Eurydice out of the darkness without looking back, Orpheus gives in to temptation and turns around to check that Eurydice is behind him. Orpheus has broken his side of the bargain and thus Eurydice vanishes forever. 

Euridice dans les bras d'Orfeo, dans une mise en scène de Michael Boyd, au Royal Opera de Londres (2015). Sombre présage que le choix de ce mythe par Monteverdi, car l’achèvement de l’Orfeo coïncide, en 1607, avec la mort de sa femme Claudia.
Euridice dans les bras d'Orfeo, dans une mise en scène de Michael Boyd, au Royal Opera de Londres (2015). Sombre présage que le choix de ce mythe par Monteverdi, car l’achèvement de l’Orfeo coïncide, en 1607, avec la mort de sa femme Claudia. © Getty  /  Robbie jack/Corbis

Is Orfeo the first opera ?

No. We know that already in 1597, the composer Jacopo Peri staged the Greek legend Dafne. And though the score of the work has now been lost, Peri went on to compose a second production Eurydice. 

However, in this first musical version of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (whose score has been preserved) we find opera-style canons, alteration between sung passages (arioso) and recitative (recitativo), a large number of instruments used for accompaniment and each character having a specific vocal identity. 

The composer Jacopo Peri was part of the Camerata Fiorentina, a small group of influential intellectuals and artists. At the end of the 16th century, in the palaces of Florence, this circle brought together poets and musicians who wished to revive the ancient style. They aspired to the ideals of the Ancient Greek Theatre tradition, advocating moderation and understanding of each word. The music should never obscure a singer's pronunciation, unlike in Renaissance polyphony. 

Dans la tragédie grecque – dont Sophocle (ci-dessus représenté) est l’un des principaux auteurs – on distinguait déjà les protagonistes des chœurs, et les scènes parlées des passages chantés.
Dans la tragédie grecque – dont Sophocle (ci-dessus représenté) est l’un des principaux auteurs – on distinguait déjà les protagonistes des chœurs, et les scènes parlées des passages chantés. © Getty

Orfeo is therefore not the first opera as Claudio Monteverdi partly inherited ideas from the Camerata Fiorentina. But, Orfeo does represent a major breakthrough. Even though his choice of a myth inherited from ancient Greece, conformed to the ideals of the Camerata it was no longer the words or the libretto upon which Monteverdi placed most importance but rather the expression of emotions by his characters

Monteverdi also broke with the recitativo narrativo tradition of Peri and the Camerata by introducing, close to the declamation, the recitativo rappresantativo, which was musically richer, more developed and evolved according to the feelings expressed.

The musical richness along with the expressiveness of the singers heralded the Baroque period. Monteverdi with his innovative genius was able to combine and mix the diverse musical forms of his day: recitativo, arioso, polyphonic choirs, dances and ritornellos, all of which found a home in Orfeo

And then? 

Upon the death of his fortune and protector Vincent I of Gonzago, Claudio Monteverdi had to leave the Mantuan court. Accompanied by his two young sons, he left for Venice where he became master of the Saint Mark's Chapel. 

But at the beginning of the seventeenth century, Venice was a rich and thriving city and a major cultural centre. It was here that another event occurred that was as significant as Monteverdi's composition of Orfeo, the opening of the first public lyric theatre, The Cassiano Theatre in 1637.It was for the Cassiano audience that Monteverdi composed his last two operas Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria (1641) et L’Incoronazione di Poppea (1642).

This is where the story of opera really began; in 1642, in Venice when Monteverdi's lyric works escaped the restricted elite circles and made themselves known to a wider audience. 

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