Orfeo: Act IV

Claudio Monteverdi

Having ushered Orpheus into the underworld, Striggio’s version of the story diverges from its Florentine predecessor. Whereas Rinuccini’s hero pleads with Pluto at some length, in this version they never actually meet. Instead, Proserpina appeals to Pluto on behalf of the man who wanders the underworld plaintively calling Eurydice’s name.

Monteverdi, Signor, quell'infelice from Orfeo (excerpt)

Pluto
Pluto
(Wikimedia Commons)
Pluto assents on condition that Orpheus is to precede Eurydice on their journey back to earth, and must not look at her until they have safely returned. After this decree is announced by several spirits through the kingdom, Orpheus and Eurydice depart.

The atmosphere brightens, Orpheus singing a light strophic song in praise of his lyre and the musical gift that have won his request,

Monteverdi, Qual onor di te fia degno from Orfeo (excerpt)

but he soon has doubts: he has no concrete assurance that his beloved is actually behind him.

Monteverdi, Ma mentre io canto from Orfeo (excerpt)

As he turns and his eyes meet hers, a crashing sound is heard, and the gloom returns. A spirit pronounces Orpheus’s default, and Eurydice sings her second and final song, lamenting that she is lost because she is loved too much. The spirit commands that she turn back, while Orpheus finds himself prevented from following her. Bracketed by a sinfonia, a closing chorus of spirits comments that one gains glory only by gaining victory over oneself. The opening ritornello again returns to evoke a feeling of tragic inevitability.



Monteverdi continues carefully to specify instrumental Orpheus & Euridyce
Orpheus & Euridice
(Wikimedia Commons)
accompaniment, especially after the turning point of the story. Following the crack of sound that follows his transgression, Orpheus sings Ma che odo? Ohimé, lasso! (“but what do I hear, ah, alas?”) accompanied by harpsichord, viola da braccio and chitarrone; then O dolcissimi lumi, io pur vi veggio! (“O sweet lights [eyes], I can see you!”) with organo di legno; and then Ma qual eclissi, ohimé, v’oscura? (“but ah, what darkness obscures you?”) to harpsichord, bass viola da braccio and chitarrone. The rapid succession of different instrumental colours adds to the sense of confusion and mirrors the quickly shifting emotions he is feeling.

Orfeo III | Orfeo V ⇒

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