Orfeo: Prologue & Act I
Special or important events have, since the middle ages, often been marked with a fanfare, typically performed by brass instruments — trumpets, horns and so on. Beyond the simple function of commanding the attention of spectators, a fanfare brings dignity and moment to the proceedings. To open his first opera, Monteverdi provides a toccata che si suona avanti il levar de la tela tre volte con tutti li strumenti (“played three times by all instruments before raising the curtain”).
An allegorical figure welcomes guests and introduces the story. La Musica’s strophic song comprises five stanzas, each quasi–improvised over the same bass line
and each punctuated with an instrumental, somewhat introspective, ritornello.
Act One begins with a shepherd’s monody In questo lieto e fortunato
giorno (“On this joyous and happy day”) inviting his fellows to join in celebrating Orpheus’s happiness in his
love for Eurydice. The song is in ABA form insofar as the first five lines are repeated at the end.
(Wikimedia Commons) This is followed by a chorus of nymphs and shepherds invoking Hymen, attendant of Love and God of the Wedding Feast.
Next comes a lively second chorus Lasciate i monti, lasciate i fonti (“Leave your mountains, leave your fountains”) inviting carefree nymphs to join in the merrymaking. The instrumental ritornello features rhythmic hemiola and was almost certainly danced. Another shepherd invites the hero himself to profess his new happiness, and Orpheus sings his famous Rosa del ciel, vita del mondo (“Rose of heaven, life of the world”).
Eurydice reponds with the brief monody Io non dirò qual sia nel tuo gioir (“I shall not say how, in your joy”). She has very little to do and, as in Rinuccini’s version, she is little more than a prop; indeed, her lines non ho meco il core, ma teco stassi (“I have no heart my own, but yours”) portray her as simply another aspect of Orpheus himself.
The choral dance Lasciate i monti is repeated, as is the hymn Vieni, Imeneo (“Come, Hymen”). Now come solos and ensemble numbers from among the nymphs and shepherds in their function as Greek chorus, reflecting on the bounty of heaven despite earthly adversity, and urging all toward the temple to give thanks. An instrumental refrain is heard between each of these numbers. The full chorus rejoices in the end of Orpheus’s past sadness and new–found joy to close the first act.
It is no accident that Monteverdi is not known as a composer who wrote quickly and easily, given the explorative atmosphere of his time. He was clearly at pains to discover how best to set his music in his own characteristic way, and he put his own stamp on the new favola in musica form and its vehicle, monody. Like Peri, he uses syncopation in his recitative but with a style all his own, often anticipating the chord in the melody and thereby pushing dissonance in the compelling manner that Artusi had problems with.
Certainly Monteverdi understood the ideology of monody, but he was not prepared to swallow its entire canon uncritically. The earlier Florentine efforts may be criticized for a certain amount of formlessness, but Monteverdi uses structure, especially ritornelli, in a way that helps drives the story forward.