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
(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.
Atto primo: The water goddess Tethys learns that Orpheus is to be killed by Maenads — followers of Bacchus — and she begins to descend to earth to protect him. She is forestalled by Fate however, who tells her his future is foreordained. The River Hebros, on whose banks Orpheus is to celebrate his birthday, encourages Dawn to hasten with a beautiful day, and she sends three Breezes to awaken the River’s waves and banks. A chorus of shepherds foreshadows the proceedings with musings on mortality.
Atto secondo: Orpheus beseeches nature to enjoy his birthday celebration, and invites all the gods of heaven to participate, except for Bacchus: Orpheus has renounced women, wine and pleasure since his loss of Eurydice. Mercury arrives with two youths bearing nectar sent from Jupiter, who has elected to remain in heaven, saddened at the impending disaster. Apollo congratulates Orpheus from heaven but urges him to flee, but Orpheus refuses. A chorus of satyrs closes the act extolling the pleasures of wine and love.
Atto terzo: Bacchus is furious at having been snubbed, and incites the Fate Nisa to vengeance, but she tells him that she has been ordered by Jupiter to remain in the underworld for the day, and
Dürer, Death of Orpheus
(Wikimedia Commons) tries to dissuade Bacchus from his plan. He however summons his Maenads who, in an echo chorus, vow Orpheus’s death. Two shepherds note the horrible site of the women and depart to save their flocks. Bacchus prompts Nisa to goad the Maenads to a frenzy, while a chorus of shepherds observe nature’s unfavourable response to events.
Atto quarto: Mercury arrives to summon gods and goddesses, now assembled in the celebration of Orpheus’s birthday, to Jupiter’s council. Orpheus laments their departure and turns his thoughts back to Eurydice and his own unhappiness. The Maenads discover him hidden in a thicket and fall upon him. Meanwhile his mother Calliope, journeying to take comfort in her son’s singing, encounters Philemon who, in the rôle of messenger, tells her that Orpheus is dead. He recounts Orpheus’s attempt to calm the Maenads with his lyre and his singing, but they are so maddened that these have no effect, and they beat him to death, dismember him, and are now spreading his limbs across the earth. A chorus of shepherds recalls Orpheus’s powers and bemoan his demise.
Atto quinto: The shade of Orpheus arrives at the Styx, announcing himself to Charon as having returned in death to be united with his beloved. Charon mocks him, telling him Eurydice has forgotton all about him and, besides, he cannot enter the underworld while his body is yet unburied and uncremated. Mercury appears to take Orpheus to heaven as a hero but Orpheus at first declines — he wishes to be with Eurydice. Mercury orders Charon to bring her to Avernus, where she says she does not know Orpheus, neither loves nor hates him, but wishes to return to the shores of Elysium. Charon, in his famous drinking song, urges Orpheus to quaff the waters of Lethe and assuage his pain, then to begone and never return. Orpheus arrives in heaven where he is named a god; a chorus of gods and shepherds closes the story.
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.