La Morte d’Orfeo

Stefano Landi, 1619

When Agostino Agazzari staged his opera Eumelio at the Seminario Romano in 1606, it is likely that among the spectators was nineteen–year–old singer and organist Stefano Landi, who had been studying there since 1602. It may indeed be that he studied under Agazzari himself, the Seminario’s maestro di cappella, and perhaps even took part Stefano Landi
Stefano Landi
(Wikimedia Commons)
in Eumelio in some capacity. He is mentioned as the composer and director of a pastoral production for the Carnival season of 1607.

Landi was born in Rome early in 1587, and entered the Collegio as a soprano in 1595, taking holy orders four years later. His enrollment in the Seminario may have been abetted by members of the Cesi family. In 1610 he was employed as organist at Santa Maria in Trastevere (where Frescobaldi had spent several months in 1607), and by 1614 he had acquired the position of maestro di cappella at Santa Maria delle Consolazione. His first publication — a motet — appeared in 1616.

Two years later, Landi moved to northern Italy, publishing a book of madrigals out of Venice. It was at Padua, where he was now maestro di cappella, that he wrote his first opera, La Morte d’Orfeo (“The Death of Orpheus”), published in 1619.

The occasion for which Landi’s opera was produced is unknown. There is speculation that it was written for a wedding celebration of some sort, while others believe it may have been created simply to exhibit Landi’s considerable talent. There is no record that it was ever performed, and even the author of its libretto remains nameless. It treats events following Orpheus’s loss of Eurydice and the circumstances leading up to his dramatic death.

The less conservative northern Italian style must have had some influence on Landi: scholars point out that the recitative of Morte d’Orfeo is neither wholly Florentine nor Roman, but rather more structured and lyrical. There are no purely instrumental numbers, but the ritornellos feature instruments in addition to the continuo. It is one of the first operas to feature comic scenes, such as the group of drunken satyrs, and there is a surfeit of different characters, such that cast members could have played more than one rôle.

Perhaps more surprisingly for a Roman composer, Morte d’Orfeo is a story devoid of religious allegory, at least on an obvious level. Agazzari’s Eumelio was couched with symbolism appertaining to the soul, temptation, and redemption at the hands of the gods. In the Rome of the next decade, Mazzochi’s La Catena d’Adone would be similarly characterized, while Kapsberger’s Apotheosis of Saints Ignatius and Xavier would be plainly pious. The obvious symbols are there in Landi’s opus — Orpheus again descends into hell, where Mercury tells Eurydice Dunque non lo conosci? Ei per te more ... (“But do you not know him? He died for you ...’), and Orpheus ultimately is taken into heaven. But Landi presses none of these, treating the story only in pastoral terms.

⇐ Gagliano, Dafne | Kapsberger, Ignatius & Xavier

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