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Work data
Title: Orpheus
Original title: L'Orfeo
Title page

Title page

Original language: Italian
Music: Claudio Monteverdi
Libretto : Alessandro Striggio
Literary source: Orpheus legend
Premiere: February 24, 1607
Place of premiere: ducal palace in Mantua
Playing time: just under 2 hours
  • Orfeo (medium pitch with tenoral highs and good lows)
  • Caronte (deep bass)
  • Plutone (bass)
  • Apollon (middle pitch with tenoral highs)
  • 1. Pastore (baritone)
  • 2nd pastor (tenor)
  • 3. Pastore (alto)
  • 1. Spirito (baritone)
  • 2. Spirito (tenor)
  • La Musica (soprano)
  • Euridice (soprano)
  • Messagera (mezzo-soprano)
  • La Speranza (mezzo-soprano)
  • Proserpine (soprano)
  • Ninfa (mezzo-soprano)
  • Eco (soprano or tenor)
  • Choir of Nymphs and Shepherds / Choir of Spirits

L'Orfeo (Eng .: "Orpheus", SV  318) is a Favola in Musica by Claudio Monteverdi . The libretto is by Alessandro Striggio the Younger . The opera consists of a prologue and five acts . The content is a free rendering of the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice .

Monteverdi started work in 1606. The premiere by the Accademia degli Invaghiti (Academy of Lovers) on February 24, 1607 on the occasion of the birthday of Francesco IV Gonzaga in the ducal palace in Mantua was extremely successful. The two castrati Giovanni Gualberto Magli and Girolamo Bacchini performed as mezzo-sopranos at the premiere .

With L'Orfeo Monteverdi made a decisive contribution to the development of the emerging genre of opera in the 17th century, some describe the work as the first opera at all.



The music itself appears and announces that it will tell of Orpheus, who conquered the wild beasts and even hell and achieved immortal fame.

first act

Shepherds and nymphs praise the day Orfeo won Euridice's love. They ask Hymenaios , the protector of marriage, for assistance in the upcoming marriage of the two. Orfeo and Euridice sing about their exuberant happiness. The choir of nymphs and shepherds closes the act with the call that nobody should fall into despair, since darkness, pain and cold are always followed by better times.

Second act

Euridice picks flowers while Orfeo continues to sing with his companions. He praises his past love torments, because they make him all the happier. A messenger comes and reports that Euridice died of a snake bite. Orfeo is desperate. He decides to bring Euridice back from the underworld or, if he does not succeed, to stay with her in the realm of the dead.

Third act

Hope accompanies Orfeo to the entrance of the underworld. From here on he has to go on without her; because over the entrance is carved: “Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch 'entrate” ( Let go of all hope you who enter , cf. Dante, Inferno , 3rd song, line 9). Charon confronts him full of anger and distrust: no living person is allowed to reach the dead. Whether Orfeo wanted to humiliate him (like Heracles at the time ) by capturing Cerberus or to take Proserpine away from Pluto (like Zeus every year) ? Orfeo pulls out all the stops of his singing art in this central scene; he sings with exuberant ornamentation, stone-softening intimacy and unleashed passion. Charon confesses that he is moved by the singing, but does not give in because it is not appropriate for him. Finally he falls asleep. Orfeo then crossed over with Charon's boat himself. The choir of spirits extols man's ability to conquer nature.

Fourth act

Out of pity , Proserpina asks Pluto to return Orfeo's mistress; she reminds him of his own love for her. Pluto agrees out of love for Proserpine, but only on the condition that Orfeo does not look at Euridice on the way back. Her words touched an old wound in his heart, and that is why he asks Proserpina to remain with him in gratitude for his courtesy: ... so your soul should never again long for heavenly joy so that you do not leave your marital bed more leaves.

Pluto's counterclaim is an original invention of the librettist. The humanistically educated audience of the premiere understood the allusion without further explanation: Just as Orpheus lost his bride to the underworld, Pluto loses his companion Persephone to the upper world every year. She will therefore have to remain a prisoner of the underworld forever if Euridice returns to life. Since Persephone is a fertility goddess in the eight months of her stay on earth, Pluto would succeed in this way to extinguish life on earth. This almost incidental allusion draws the audience's attention to the fact that death must be accepted for the sake of life and that Euridice's return to life, contrary to nature, cannot be desirable.

Orfeo now praises himself as completely happy and sets off, followed by Euridice. However, he fails to obey Pluto. Startled by an unexpected noise, he turns to Euridice and thereby loses her forever.

The chorus of spirits comments: Orfeo conquered the underworld, but then he was conquered by his own feelings (affects). Only those who defeat themselves deserve eternal fame.

Fifth act

A moment ago, rejoicing as high as the sky, now sad to death, Orfeo finds himself alone in the forests of Thrace , his home. Only the nymph Echo answers him, monosyllabic and plaintive (the humanistically educated premiere audience had to understand this allusion: the nymph destroyed herself with her over-sized lovesickness; she is a warning sign of what threatens Orfeo). Orfeo sings a lament for the dead for Euridice, which concludes with a hateful curse on all other women.

At this point, Apollo, his father, intervenes. Quite Deus ex machina , he hovers down from heaven on a cloud; but he does not act as god - he does not magically ensure that the story comes to a happy ending after all, but rather helps Orfeo to help himself and, fatherly, admonishes: It was never the kind of noble ones to become a slave to their own passions because that is shameful and dangerous. You have basked too much in happiness, and all too much you now weep over your hard fate. Don't you know yet that no happiness lasts down here? Rise to heaven with me if you want to enjoy immortality!

Orfeo asks anxiously if he will never see Euridice again. No, he will inevitably not. But in the sun and the stars he would see a beauty like her.

Orfeo no longer complains, but declares himself ready to become a worthy son of Apollo and to follow him. Singing highly virtuoso coloratura, Apollo and Orfeo rise to heaven together.

The opera closes with exuberant singing and dancing by the nymphs and shepherds. They praise Orfeo, who has achieved heavenly honor and complete happiness, and bring him incense offerings on his altars.


On the one hand, the libretto is a shepherd's play (Favola pastorale), on the other hand it unmistakably draws on elements of Greek tragedy . Orfeo, the (only) protagonist of the plot, presented as a demigod (semideo) by the commenting choir at the beginning of Act 1, suffers a fall from a great height to the limit of self-destruction. The cause of the impending doom, his weakness, but also his strength, are the strong feelings (affetti), with whose musical expression he enchants people, animals and even the underworld, but to which he also succumbs. From the beginning he is not ready or able to endure the alternation of happiness and unhappiness as inevitable earthly fate with composure and thus also to conquer his own nature, but praises despair, since it increases happiness all the more, basks in the Happiness as if it could last forever and fail to recognize the well-founded power of death.

The teaching given to him (and the audience) to avoid excess, to maintain moderation and attitude, is expressly Apollonian . Therefore, Orfeo's expected downfall is ultimately averted by Apollo - and by Orfeo himself - so that the opera does not end like a tragedy, but comes to an end with Orfeo's self-erection and his acceptance among the gods, which the librettist and composer (if not even by every interpreter and viewer) is perceived as a good ending.

It can only be speculated whether the theme of the opera was connected to the early death of Monteverdi's wife Claudia (died 1607?) And therefore Monteverdi “was Orfeo himself”.


Monteverdi's music for L'Orfeo stands out for its dramatic power and emotionality. The tragedy is developed in musical images and the melodies are clear and straightforward. With this opera Monteverdi created a completely new form of music, the dramma per musica (musical drama), as it was called. Monteverdi's operas are usually counted as early baroque.

The toccata played at the beginning is a quote from the Gonzaga fanfare, as a reminiscence of his client. The opera plot begins after the toccata with the ritornello and - according to the ancient pattern - with a prologue.

For the time, the opera is quite lavishly orchestrated, although the choice of instruments, especially the line-up of basso continuo , is (and was) partly at the discretion of the respective conductor.

What is decisive is the differentiation between the instruments of life (strings and recorders with a basso continuo composed of strings and harpsichord ) and that of death (wind instruments with the exception of flutes, especially prongs and trombones , plus a basso continuo with organ / shelf ).

The demands placed on the Orfeo singer can be reduced to a simple formula: in order not to be implausible in this role, he must have an exemplary beautiful voice and high virtuosity. However, according to the taste of the time, this voice was by no means a radiantly bright tenor (in the sense of today's opera singers) and certainly not a castrato voice . Rather, it was considered beautiful to have a medium voice that avoided all extremes despite effortless highs and lows. This vocal range is therefore required for Orfeo (the term “baritone” was not in use at the time). Apart from the very high and low notes, everything is required of him: the bucolic song singing, the bravura singing, the languishing and flattering, intimacy, despair, anger and the highly artificial ornamentation - plus an almost uninterrupted presence on the stage. The same applies to the voice of Apollo, who is also not occupied with a bright, shining tenor voice.

The instruments associated with Orfeo generally consist of plucked instruments in addition to the strings; but to the words non viv 'io, no ( no, I'm not alive ), for once, the prongs answer him as instruments of death.

Orfeo's musical counterpart is primarily Charon, an abysmal deep bass, which is accompanied rigidly by the winds of the underworld, like a woodcut, in the style of survived instruments ( crooked horns and Pomeranian ), and which refers to a past (dead) musical taste, while Orfeo is an (then) innovative musician with his lively musical expression of feelings.

In the fifth act, however, when Orfeo's rejection of all women, Charon's style is eerily transferred to Orfeo. This is the moment when Apollo appears to save his son.

The aria Possente spirto Orfeos , which he sings to the ferryman Charon in order to be allowed into the underworld, bears a special characteristic - Monteverdi wrote it in two different versions for the singing voice. The first is rather recitative , the second is decorated with partly sweeping coloratura that can only be performed by a professional and extremely flexible voice. With the note "Orfeo [...] canta una sola de le due parti" (Orfeo sings only one of the two versions) excessive or incorrectly applied decorations by the singer are stopped.

German version

A new German version comes from Carl Orff ; the first version was premiered on April 17, 1924 at the Nationaltheater Mannheim , the second and final version on October 4, 1940 in Dresden under the musical direction of Karl Böhm .


  • L'Orfeo. Favola in musica, SV 318. Study score with the complete libretto including the text parts not set to music in the original as well as in German and English translation. Schott Music, Mainz 2004, ISBN 3-7957-6986-8 .
  • L'Orfeo. Favola in musica. Facsimile of the first printing of the opera score, Venice 1609 and of act 5 of the Mantuan libretto from 1607. Bärenreiter, Kassel 1998, ISBN 3-7618-1167-5 .
  • L'Orfeo. Favola in musica. Facsimile of the first edition Venice 1609. Laaber, Laaber 1998, ISBN 3-89007-399-9 .
  • Claudio Monteverdi: L'Orfeo. Libretto by Alessandro Striggio. Translation of the Italian text into singable German by Gertrud Scheumann, Longtai Verlag Gießen, Heuchelheim 2011, ISBN 978-3-938946-17-6 ( Gertrud Scheumann's opera series , 3).
  • Ulrike Kienzle: Claudio Monteverdi's “Orfeo” and the birth of a new dramatic art of expression, in: zur debatte (Topics of the Catholic Academy in Bavaria) 5/2019, pp. 28–34.

Web links

Commons : L'Orfeo  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Claudio Monteverdi: Orfeo, by John Whenham, p. 16