Orfeo: Act III

Claudio Monteverdi

Where Rinuccini’s Orpheus is taken to Hades by Venus, Striggio’s protagonist is accompanied by Hope, and he is taken only as far as the river Styx. If he is to pass, she tells him, or d’uopo è d’un gran core e d’un bel canto (“now are needed a great heart and a beautiful song”), for it is Charon who must be convinced. She is unable to go further because, as Dante describes in his Inferno, Orpheus must quite literally lasciate ogni Speranza voi ch’entrate (“abandon all Hope, you who enter”).

In his confusion and apprehension at her departure, Orpheus attracts the attention of an indignant Charon, who demands that he turn back.

Monteverdi, O tu ch'innanzi morte from Orfeo (excerpt)

After a sombre ritornello Orpheus takes courage and begins his renowned Possente spirto (“Powerful spirit”) to charm Charon into allowing him safe conduct. It is the showpiece of Monteverdi’s opera: the composer has Orpheus pour all the power of his song into his appeal in a tour–de–force performance of ornamentation and passaggi, complete with instrumental echo effects. Orpheus acknowledges Charon as guardian of Hell and transporter of souls, but explains that his beloved bride has been taken from him. Without her love, how can he himself be living? He pleads for Charon’s aid and implores him not to resist the power of his song.

Monteverdi, Possente spirto from Orfeo (excerpt)

Although Charon is impressed by Orpheus’s singing, he at first refuses: lunge, sia da questo petto pietà (“far from this breast is pity”). Orpheus declares his grief in simpler recitative and, as he subsides with rendeteme il mio ben, tartarei numi (“return my love to me, Tartarean spirits”), Charon falls asleep. Orpheus slips into Charon’s barque and pushes out towards the shore of Hades, vanishing into the darkness, still singing rendeteme il mio ben. There is a reprise of the ritornello, after which a chorus of spirits considers human determination in the face of obstacles.

When Charon demands an explanation for Orpheus’s presence, his triadic song is reminiscent of the same kind of technique used by Peri when setting Pluto’s disputation with Orpheus, imparting a regal, authoritative air. In fact, Charon’s melody line closely follows the bass line itself. When Orpheus invokes the Sun, prole de lui che l’universo affrena (“child of he who rules the universe,” i.e. Apollo) in act one’s Rosa del ciel, he begins with a similar diatonic melody over a sustained, static bass.

Monteverdi’s Possente spirto is strophic insofar as it follows essentially the same harmonic outline in each Charon
(Wikimedia Commons)
succeeding stanza. The score includes two lines for Orpheus, the one containing the outline of the recitative, the second one highly ornamented, with each verse more complex than its predecessor. Monteverdi’s instructions were that the singer was to perform only one of the lines: certainly given the reputation of Mantua’s singers, the choice was obvious, but the composer seems to have been especially anxious that the outline of the melody itself should not be lost among the vocal fireworks. The aria is as much a treatise on the improvisation of emotional affect as Caccini’s Nuove musiche.

Orpheus’s petition is accompanied throughout by organo di legno and chittarone, but there are interjections by other instruments, which Monteverdi is equally careful to specify. Not only do the varying instrumental colours provide interest and continuity, they are meant to portray the power of Orpheus’s playing with specifically idiomatic passaggi. The echo effects played first by two violins, then by two cornetts are a deliberate use of an otherwise conventional trick to evoke the vastness of the underworld. Next, an arpa doppia enagages in some virtuosic passages, a simulacrum of Orpheus playing his lyre, after which the hero reveals his famous name and his mission. Tempering the pace, accompanied by violins, he asks Charon’s acquiescence not in response to his emotional state nor to his pitiable circumstance, but through the power of his song.

Orfeo II | Orfeo IV ⇒

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