Orfeo: Act II

Claudio Monteverdi

The buoyant mood of the first act continues as the second opens with an animated sinfonia. Orpheus takes up its melody, singing Ecco pur ch’a voi ritorno care selve e piagge amate (“Behold I return to you, dear woods and beloved shores”). A series of strophic numbers with instrumental refrains now follow in the pastoral spirit: a shepherd’s song drawing attention to Orpheus’s happiness, with ritornello featuring violini piccioli alla francese (“small French–style violins”); two shepherds’ In questo prato adorno (“in this ornamented meadow”) with refrain by ordinary violins; and a new ritornello with recorders, evoking images of Pan, joined by the full chorus to coax Orpheus to serenade them with the singing and playing for which he is famed.

Now a fourth, characteristically rhythmic ritornello with strong hemiola becomes the refrain for Orpheus’s Vi ricorda, o boschi ombrosi (“Remember, oh shaded woodlands”).

Monteverdi, Vi ricorda o boschi ombrosi from Orfeo (excerpt)

The pace slackens a little as a shepherd points out how forest and meadow have responded to Orpheus’s singing: he is about to press for an encore, but is interrupted by a messenger’s jarring interjection.

Monteverdi, Ahi caso acerbo from Orfeo (excerpt)

One of the shepherds recognizes the messenger as Sylvia, Eurydice’s close friend. She pleads with the shepherd to be finished with singing, for their rejoicing is at an end. Orpheus asks her to explain, and the two begin a dialogue in which she reveals that Eurydice is dead, and sings In un fioriti prato (“In a flowered meadow”). She relates that as Eurydice gathered flowers for a garland, she was bitten by a viper; after uttering Orpheus’s name, she breathed a sigh and died. Following some disbelieving words from shepherds, one of whom repeats Sylvia’s Ahi, caso acerbo, Orpheus begins his Tu se’ morta, mia vita, ed io respiro? (“You are dead, my love, and I breathe?”), rife with dissonance and chromaticism, most noticeably the major seventh.

Monteverdi, Tu se' morta from Orfeo (excerpt)

As Orpheus exits, nymphs and shepherds resume their rôle as chorus, commenting on what has happened and contemplating human mortality. Sylvia’s Ahi, casi acerbo becomes a choral refrain, this time with the melody in the bass voice, along with syncopated interjections of ahi among all the voices. They continue with Non si fidi uom mortale (“Trust not, mortal man”). After Sylvia laments her fate and vows to live her remaining days in solitary misery, two shepherds bemoan their unhappiness, made the more bitter considering their earlier rejoicing. They exhort everyone to pay their last respects to the deceased Eurydice, and as they leave the stage, the melancholy ritornello of the progolue returns, the more touching in light of the turn of events.

In addition to the renowned vocal talents of Mantua’s singers, Monteverdi made full use of the court’s instrumental resources. As in the Florentine version of the story, there is little action to move the story along until Sylvia (Daphne) arrives, and Monteverdi indulges fully in the spectacle of intermedio.

His second act opens with a lively sinfonia, followed by no fewer than four ritornelli — each coloured by very specific instrumental scoring — and strophic singing among various shepherds, culminating in Orpheus’s lively Vi ricordi o boschi ombrosi, which ends with the words Sol per te, bella Euridice (“But through you, beautiful Eurydice”) in propulsive hemiola. The pace slows, as if their energy is spent, at Mira, deh mira Orfeo (“See, oh see, Orpheus”), but even its bass steps along quickly. By contrast, the Florentine version, apart from Nel pur ardor della più bella stella which both Peri and Caccini set with ritornello, remains largely monodic.

The different approaches are especially clear when the drama actually gets under way with Sylvia’s entrance. Peri and Caccini expected their respective singers to project angst through emotional delivery over diatonic, somewhat static chords: Peri’s bass drops a tone, while Caccini’s continues on the same chord with which Orpheus has just concluded. Monteverdi’s bass, on the other hand, steps up a semitone, and the Messaggiera’s sudden interruption begins at the top of her range — a wail — and proceeds through marked syncopation and sharper dissonance. Peri, Caccini and their Florentine colleagues had paved the way with a new kind of dramatic singing: Monteverdi in his own unique way used it in the service of drama itself.

Orfeo I | Orfeo III ⇒

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