Mantua | Monteverdi’s Orfeo and the beginning of Opera
A new prestigious entertainment for the court of Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua
Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua attended the successful performance of Peri’s Euridice in Florence, which was probabily witnessed also by Monteverdi himself. The Duke immediately realized the originality of this new entertainment and the prestige that would reflect on the lord who sponsored it.
Claudio Monteverdi at the court of Vincenzo Gonzaga
Vincenzo Gonzaga employed at his court an extraordinary musician, whose operas were destined to live far longer in the music history than Peri’s: Claudio Monteverdi.
Born in Cremona in 1567 Claudio Monteverdi was a child prodigy. After studying singing, music composition and string instruments he worked as a musician in Verona and Milan until he got the post of viola player at the Mantua court.
Thanks to his talent and hard work in 1601 Monteverdi became music at Vincenzo Gonzaga’s court.
Monteverdi’s first opera: L’Orfeo (1607)
Gonzaga commissioned Monteverdi’s first opera which was premiered in Mantua in 1607. It was L’Orfeo, on a libretto by Alessandro Striggio.
Striggio, striving to create a compelling dramatic structure, used many sources including the libretto by Ottavio Rinuccini for Peri’s Euridice. Rinuccini was forced in his poetical choices by the occasion of his Orfeo’s performance – the celebrations of Maria de Medici’s wedding. Striggio could instead follow the original myth, in which Orpheus is killed and dismembered by the Maenads.
A show of unprecedented musical and dramatic expressiveness
Taking advantage of the Gonzaga’s wealth, Monteverdi employed for the premiere a rich instrumental ensemble of trombones, bass, viols and hornets: 41 instrument total. He also commissioned extravagant costumes, sets and stage machinery.
The result was a show of unprecedented musical and dramatic expressiveness.A few historical sources describe the event although we do not have any drawings or print to show the staging and costumes. We don’t even know where the first performance took place.
Although the tradition often indicates the Hall of Mirrors or Gallery of the Rivers, two vast rooms in the ducal palace in Mantua it’s more likely that L’Orfeo was premiered in a more intimate setting and for a selected audience.
With Monteverdi’s Orfeo it begins the long journey of opera
The first operas, such as L’Orfeo, were set on “pastoral” stories because they provided the unreal and idyllic setting to the characters for singing rather than talking on the stage.
With time, new subjects entered the repertoire which were taken from chivalric epic poems, hagiography and the “Comedy of Art” Commedia dell’Arte, with its funny characters, disguises, adventures.
The success of the new “Comedy in Music”
Later on librettos started to be taken or inspired by historic events – the first one recorded is L’Incoronazione di Poppea by Monteverdi himself – with no moralistic or educational purposes. Characters of these historical operas were often funny and ridiculous and made open reference to contemporary people and facts. Plots were complex, often rough and sexually explicit, with many common characters taken from the Comedy of Art . The happy ending was a must.
Musicians started to name their operas Comedy in Music. In a few years the new genre acquired a great success.
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