Jacopo Peri, 1600

The Orpheus myth carries within itself the myth of opera and the Italians.

— Anibal E. Cetrangolo. Peri: Euridice, liner notes.

The presentation of a pastoral play to celebrate a wedding in sixteenth century Florence was to be expected: it had been going on for over a century. But Corsi’s and Peri’s effort was unique insofar as it was sung throughout — there was no spoken dialogue — and it made especial use of monody to move the action along.

Florentine poet Ottavio Rinuccini based his libretto on Ovid’s version of the Orpheus myth as recounted in the latter’s Metamorphoses (hence the Latin, rather than Greek names). The demigod Orpheus, son of a Muse and of a Thracian prince, is renowned for the power of his music, especially his singing with lyre accompaniment. It is said that he can Jacopo Peri as Arion in the fifth intermedio of ’La Pellegrina‘
Jacopo Peri as Arion in the fifth intermedio of ‘La Pellegrina’
(Wikimedia Commons)
change the course of rivers and move the rocks of the hillside with song. As he and his betrothed Eurydice make preparations for their wedding, she is bitten by a serpent and dies. Orpheus vows to retrieve her from the underworld, and makes his way into Hades. He pleads his case with music before Pluto, god of the underworld, who is overcome with pity and wonder. Pluto reluctantly agrees to release Eurydice, but only on the condition that Orpheus may not look upon her until both have arrived back on earth. As they journey, however, Orpheus is assailed by doubts and, unable to resist looking back at her, loses Eurydice forever as she is pulled back into the underworld.

The story was apt: a wedding among demigods, with whom contemporary nobles liked to think they rubbed metaphoric elbows, it Prologue, from the first publication of ‘Euridice’
Prologue, from the first publication of ‘Euridice’
(Wikimedia Commons)
demonstrated the power of music, song especially, in accordance with the theorizing that the Camerata had cultivated for the past quarter century. Of course the unfortunately sad ending wouldn’t do for such a happy occasion, and it was simply changed.

Rinuccini’s libretto comprises six scenes, which are sometimes divided into two acts of three scenes each. The opera opens with a Prologo sung by La Tragedia (“Tragedy”), who addresses the audience in general, and the guests of honour in particular, preparing them for the unfolding of the story, and making the connection between the real–life royal wedding and the one to take place in the story. Her song is composed of several verses sung to the same music, but which can be freely improvised upon, each one separated by a brief instrumental ritornello:

I, desiring loud sighs and tears,

my face marked now with grief, now with menace,

who made the people of theatres

appear pale with pity...

For the non-Italian speaker, Euridice can at first seem tedious. Indeed, this criticism was occasionally levelled against it and against Caccini’s effort even in its own day. Being unable to understand the words leaves one disadvantaged, unable to participate in the unfolding drama in the face of what seems interminable monotone. The union between word and music fails. Later in the same discussion as quoted above, Centrangolo continues

To participate in the world of opera entails accepting this fundamental rule of the genre, and its acceptance requires a kind of initiation for those who do not understand Italian: the tiresome reading of the parallel translation.

Melodic segments are reserved for comment by members of the chorus, or for reflection on the part of the actors, but not for the action. Nothing happens without the recitative. In four hundred years of opera, this structure has remained almost entirely unchanged, established in the very first one.

The score for Peri’s opera mostly comprises two lines, singer and figured bass, although the choruses and some of the dances are written out for several voices, and sometimes instruments are specified, as for instance flutes during Thyrsis’s dance and song in scene two. This does not however, necessarily imply a dearth of instruments should be used. The first performance evidently included a number of chordal instruments, harpsichord, lutes, theorbos, etc., that probably all played at the same time, and likely included some violins. As with any other such performance, contemporaries expected that instruments, venue, singers, even parts of the story, would be altered to fit the unique circumstances of the occasion.

It appears that Euridice met with a mixed reception: Corsi and Peri were not asked to participate in later festivities. As so often happens, its seminal position in the history of music in general, and of opera in particular, only becomes clear in hindsight.

⇐ The Big Three | Caccini, Euridice

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