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’
(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’
(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...
Scena prima: The first scene takes place in a forest where nymphs, shepherds, and the bride–to–be look forward in anticipation to the happy event. Eurydice’s friends have some dialogue of their own, but together they represent one amorphous chorus who, as in classical Greek drama, participate passively and comment on the story. The singing and music consist mainly of simple diatonic melody and chords. The scene closes with Eurydice inviting everyone to the shade of a flowering arbour and nearby stream where they can pass the time in singing and dancing.
Scena seconda: In another part of the forest, Orpheus, friend Arcetro and other shepherds are making their own preparations. Orpheus implores Phoebus (Apollo) to hurry his chariot across the sky to hasten the day and bring the ceremony closer, and ponders with Arcetro his good fortune after past suffering. Some dancing ensues as Thyrsis sings a song with flute ritornello, invoking the blessing of the gods on the happy couple. Suddenly, the nymph Daphne enters, bringing terrible news that she is reluctant to impart. The mood and music change abruptly:
Alas! such fright and pity
freeze my heart in my bosom!
Wretched beauty, how in an instant,
oh! you are seen no more.
Ah, such a bolt of lightning
tears across the serene night sky,
but is the wing that hurries
human life to its fatal day.
After considerable coaxing and cajoling, Daphne is finally persuaded to reveal that Eurydice has been bitten by a serpent and is dead. As she recounts her story, the music changes to reflect the varied emotions she is feeling. She begins in somewhat monotone over relatively static bass — her grief and disorientation implied by the constant shifting between major and minor — as she describes Eurydice and her companions in song and dance, then becomes more animated as she relates how Eurydice makes a garlard of flowers for herself and, dancing across the meadow, is bitten by a serpent hiding in the grass. The pace slackens as Daphne describes how Eurydice collapses in the arms of her companions, grows pale and cold, then uttering Orpheus’s name, turns her eyes toward heaven and dies.
Following a pause in which Arcetro expresses his disbelief and grief, Orpheus begins his own famous lament Non piango e non sospiro (“I weep not, and I sigh not”) which, like Daphne’s speech, wends its way through a series of emotions, from numbed incredulity and disbelief, through anger and agitation, to his final resolve to go after Eurydice and bring her back from the underworld:
I weep not and I cry not
Oh my dear Eurydice,
To sigh, to weep I cannot.
Oh my heart, oh my hope, oh peace, oh life!
Alas, who has taken you away from me?
Where have you gone?
Soon you shall see that not in vain
Did you, dying, call upon me your lover.
I am not far away, I come, oh dear life, oh dear death!
The scene closes with more dialogue among nymphs, shepherds, and chorus, and a final choral meditation on mortality and mourning, in contrast to the celebratory closing of the first scene.
Scena terza: Arcetro recounts to the audience and chorus that he followed Orpheus who, in his grief, has rushed to the scene of Eurydice’s death. Asked why he did not go to the aid of his friend, Arcetro explains that as he did so, he was dazzled by a bolt of lightning as a goddess appeared from heaven in a celestial chariot drawn by two doves. After seeing her carry Orpheus off into the sky, Arcetro has hurried back to tell his friends. They all depart in song, joyful for Orpheus’s well–being and the divine aid he has apparently received.
- Scena quarta: Venus, goddess of Love, brings Orpheus to the edge of the underworld, charging him
prega, sospira e plora (“pray, sigh, implore”) so that his song, which has moved heaven, may
now do the same in hell. As she departs, Orpheus begins his famous Funeste piagge, ombrosi orridi campi
(“fatal shores, horrible shadowed fields’). Peri again uses his trademark devices: dissonance,
moving bass, syncopation, to express
Orpheus’s pleading and sorrow. Each of Orpheus’s three speeches ends with Lagrimate al mio pianto,
ombre d’Inferno (“Weep for my tears, you shades of Hell”).
Pluto, god of the underworld, asks what mortal dares appear in his realm. Orpheus continues his entreaty, with which Pluto sympathizes because of the power and sincerity of Orpheus’s singing, but he maintains that he cannot break his own divine laws by releasing Eurydice back among the living. Orpheus persists, and appeals to Pluto’s love for his wife Proserpina, who tries to intercede with her husband. Following more persuasive song on Orpheus’s behalf by Rhadamanthus and Charon, Pluto finally relents. The scene closes as the chorus, now composed of shades and infernal deities, praises the powers of love and Orpheus’s prowess with lyre and song.
Scena quinta: Back on earth, the wedding celebrants await news of Orpheus. Amyntas arrives to tell them that Orpheus is indeed alive, and that he has returned with Eurydice. They eventually put aside their disbelief and begin to rejoice.
Scena sesta: Orpheus and Eurydice return. Eurydice assures her friends that she is indeed alive; to their questions, she replies simply Tolsemi Orfeo dal tenebroso regno (“Orpheus tore me away from the land of darkness”), to which Orpheus adds de ... mio dolce canto, e ’l suon di questa cetra (“by my sweet song and the sound of this lyre”). After shepherds and nymphs praise the gods and Orpheus’s skill, the opera closes with an extended movement accompanied by dancing, various groups alternating stanzas with the entire chorus.
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.