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Greek actors, Orpheus myth, Jacopo Peri, Orazio Vecchi, Heinrich Schutz

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As its all-encompassing form suggests, opera is the product of diverse influences. Its earliest known forerunners were medieval church pageants that included provisions for solos, choruses, instrumental interludes, and theatrical production elements, such as sets and costumes. One example, The Play of Daniel, has been staged and recorded in modern times; others exist in manuscript form. Sung in a mix of Latin and spoken European languages, these evolved into the grander mystery plays of the 13th and 14th centuries, which told biblical stories.

In Italy pageants and descendants of the mystery plays began to serve nonreligious purposes. At the court of the Gonzaga family, in Mantua (Mantova), a musical movement coalesced around the madrigal (song with two or more voice parts). Some of these madrigals were strung together in cycles with a dramatic subtext; the most famous of these was L’Amfiparnaso (1594) by Orazio Vecchi. In northern Italian courts, a fashion developed for sumptuously mounted verse plays interspersed with choruses and ballets. Their subjects included the Greek myths of Orpheus and Daphne, which later became the basis for several of the earliest operas.

The first true opera, a little of whose music survives, was Dafne (1598) by Jacopo Peri. Another composer, Marco da Gagliano, subsequently reset its text in 1608. Gagliano’s version survives, but a contemporaneous German version by Heinrich Schutz—the first German opera—does not. In 1600 Peri turned to the Orpheus myth for his opera Euridice, a modest entertainment composed for a royal wedding. Peri was a member of the Camerata, a society of scholars, poets, and amateur musicians in Florence. For 20 years, the Camerata had researched the manner in which classical Greek drama had been performed, with a view toward reviving it. They concluded that the Greek actors had delivered their lines in a declamatory style halfway between speaking and true singing. In their efforts to recover this lost Greek art, the Camerata essentially invented a new type of solo singing, called monody, that was performed in free rhythm to simple accompaniment. Thus, Peri and his librettist, Ottavio Rinuccini, told the mythological story of Orpheus and Eurydice using recitative sustained by chords from a small orchestra of seven instruments. In the end, opera was not a re-creation of Greek drama, as the Camerata had intended, but the creation of a powerful new type of drama instead.

It fell to another man, however, to realize the full potential of this dramma per musica (drama through music) that the Camerata had invented. Claudio Monteverdi, like Peri, was an educated gentleman; unlike Peri, he was a professional musician, not an enthusiastic amateur. Born in Cremona, Italy, Monteverdi flourished at the court of the Gonzaga family and ultimately directed the choir of Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. In 1607 he composed his own operatic version of the Orpheus and Euridice myth, Orfeo. The difference between Peri’s Euridice and Monteverdi’s Orfeo is the difference between an experiment and a masterpiece. Monteverdi expanded the orchestra, which included bowed and plucked strings, harpsichord and organ, trumpets and drums for ceremonial passages, recorders, and various novel instruments. He gave each character a distinctive accompaniment and wrote a heraldic overture. Monteverdi’s recitative, more than a mere vehicle for the text, has a life of its own. The opera’s orchestral harmonies are full of dramatic contrast and display a remarkable boldness and color.

Monteverdi’s final opera, L’Incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppaea, 1642), shares some of the sensational subject matter and magnificent vocal composition that would come to characterize much of opera. Set in ancient Rome in the time of the Emperor Nero, the opera owes its magnificence to the coloratura that ornaments its vocal lines and to the grandeur of its instrumental music. Passages of recitative are punctuated by short arias to heighten emotion. After more than 350 years, Poppea retains its emotional power. Composed for a Venetian public theater rather than a court, the opera ruthlessly satirizes imperial morality. Poppaea and Nero are heartless sensualists who kill off any obstacles to their eventual union—including Nero’s wife and Poppaea’s discarded fiance. The matter-of-factness of the drama still seems shocking, especially as it is presented without any moral commentary.

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