All Opera is Orpheus (Th. Adorno, Die bürgerliche Oper): The Myth of Orpheus in the first Operas of the 17th century1
“ὀνομάκλυτον Ὀρφήν” (famous Orpheus): This adjective bears Orpheus, when he first appears in the Greek literature, in the poetry of Ibycus, fr. 306 PMG (sixth century BC), shortly thereafter Pindar characterizes him in his fourth Pythian v. 177 as “εὐαίνητος Ὀρφεύς” (much extolled).
In all the mythical stories, in which the Thracian Orpheus is involved, it is always the power of his music that distinguishes him. As a singer who could charm wild beasts and coax even rocks and trees into movement he is praised by Apollonius of Rhodes in his Argonautica: In the fourth book, vv. 905 ff., when the Argo had to pass the island of the Sirens, it was Orpheus’ music which prevented the crew from being lured to destruction, while already in the first book (vv. 494 ff.) with the power of his song of a cosmogonic and theogonical content Orpheus prevents a conflict among the Argonauts. Neither his deeds during the Argonautica nor his theogonical and cosmogonical poetry, which seems to be known in Greece since the 6th century BC, nor the fact that Orpheus was reputed to be the founder of a mystical religious doctrine, the Orphic religion, which lasted until the late antiquity, charmed the authors of Renaissance and modern European literature. It was his descent into the underworld to bring his deceased wife back to the upper world. This legend is known to Aeschylus in his drama Bassarai, lost to us, and Euripides in his “Alcestis” (vv. 357 ff.). The latter suggests a happy return of both to the upper world. The implication in Alcestis that Orpheus was completely successful in rescuing his wife from death seems, at least to us, unfamiliar. Strange as it may seem to those familiar with the tragic Orpheus through the centuries, the Orpheus-Eurydice story may, in its original form, have been one of triumph over death. Not only Euripides but also most writers before Vergil, who refer to Orpheus’ descent, state or imply that the mythic hero succeeded in resurrecting his wife. Hermesianax in a fragment from his Leontium (fr. 7, 8 ff. Collectanea Alexandrina), preserved in the Deipnosophistae by Athenaios (13. 579 b-c), Pseudo-Moschus in the “Lament for Bion” (vv. 123 ff.) – here we hear for the first time the name of his wife, Eurydice, which she will henceforth always bear - and Diodorus Siculus (4.25.4) are good examples of the happy end of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. As we will see, this is an important remark, since the first operas dealing with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice do not have the tragic outcome, which the versions of Vergil and Ovid, to whom we owe the story in full length, have. Vergil (Georgica 4, 453–527) tells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in profound and moving poetry. The context involves Aristaeus (the son of Apollo and Cyrene) who, desperate because all his bees have died, consults his mother Cyrene and she sends him to the seer Proteus so that he may provide a solution for his problems. Proteus tells Aristaeus that the anger of Orpheus has led to the loss of his bees and recounts the story: Eurydice died of a snake bite, incurred while running away from Aristaeus’ advances. Orpheus went through the gates of hell to find Hades to get his love back. He played his sad music and Cerberus was silenced, the snakes in the Furies’ hair were transfixed, and Ixion’s wheel stopped turning. Persephone, goddess of the underworld, commanded that he go back the way he came and that Eurydice was to follow behind, unseen. Just as they were coming on the brink of the upper world, Orpheus was seized by what Vergil describes as “dementia” (madness of love, v. 488) and turned to look back at Eurydice. Sleep begins to cover her eyes and she falls back into the depths of hell. Orpheus returned to the earth, laid for seven months beside the river Strymon and wept, charming the trees with his sad songs. One day the Ciconian Bacchantes in a nocturnal orgy tore his body to pieces and scattered them everywhere.
Ovid divides the tale between books 10 and 11 of the Metamorphoses. The episode of book 10 (vv. 1-85) recounts Eurydice’s death on the day of her wedding getting bit by a poisonous snake, without Aristaeus being mentioned, Orpheus descent to ask for his wife back as a loan and his second loss of his bride; Book 11 (vv. 1-84) tells of the poet’s death at the hands of the Maenads and his subsequent reunion with Eurydice in the lower world. In between are a number of tales, mainly of homosexual or incestuous love, presented as the songs of the grieving Orpheus (10, 148-739).
Besides Vergils Georgica and Ovids Metamorphoses we find this form of the myth with some small variations in Vergil’s Culex 268-295, in Seneca’s Hercules Furens 569-591 and Hercules Oetius 1061 – 1089. The detailed description in Lucan's Orpheus is lost to us. Emphasis is primarily given to the effects of Orpheus’s wonderful music, which overcomes and defeats the inexorable forces of death and darkness. Not only the underground royal couple but also the cruel Eumenides (e.g. Verg., Georg. 483; Ovid, Met. 45; Sen., Herc. Furens 577) and the strict judges of the dead (e.g. Sen., Herc. Furens 569 f.) are moved to tears. Cerberus is soothed (e.g. Ver., Cul. 270; Georg. 483), the Fates replenished Eurydice’s life thread, (Sen. Herc. Oet. 1083), or they suspended their work for some time (Lucan, fr. 3), Charon abandons his boat and comes closer to listen (Sen., Herc. Oet. 1072 f.), the shadows of the deceased gather around Orpheus (Verg., Georg. 471 ff.) and cry (Ovid, Met. 10,41 ff.). While Orpheus sings, the penitents in the underworld are exempt of their torments because they are either oblivious, or their tormentors, defeated by the music, are distracted from their work (eg. Verg., Georg. 484; Ovid. Met. 10, 41; Sen., Herc. Oet. 1068 ff.). The reason for Orpheus’ overturning is, according to the most testimonies, the doubt and the impatience, in Culex 293 is Orpheus overwhelmed by his desire to kiss his wife. It goes without saying that Vergil and Ovid are the major sources for the literary adaptations and treaties of the myth. The few poems about Orpheus and Eurydice during the Middle Ages close with a happy outcome.
Angiolo Poliziano’s Fabula d'Orfeo, a lyrical drama performed at Mantua in 1480 with musical accompaniment is the first Italian tragedy, yet model of early Baroque opera and theatre. In Poliziano’s adaption of the story from Vergil and Ovid the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice became a classic story that demanded music for its essence to be realized, not incidental music, but music essential to the drama of Orpheus colliding with powerful forces affecting his destiny. So the story of Orpheus possessed the entire spirit of the new opera art form that was awaiting its birth.
Jacopo Peri with his librettist and poet Ottavio Rinuccini, members of the Florentine Camerata, a group of humanists, musicians poets and intellectuals in late Renaissance Florence from 1577 up to the beginning of the 17th century, whose principal attempt was to revive the ancient Greek tragedy, adapted Poliziano’s Favola d’Orfeo a century later: their favola in musica, was called Euridice (1600), the first surviving drama set completely to music from beginning to end. Rinuccinis text was modified to dispense with Orpheus’s backward glance, and the hero successfully brings Euridice back from the underworld to the rejoicing of Arcadian shepherds and nymphs. Euridice was first performed as a part of the festivities marking the wedding of Maria de’Medici and Henri IV of Navarre. This was indicated in the Prologue by the personified Tragedia and the audience expected a happy end of the story, lieto fine: that was the reunion of the mythical couple, known from the ancient Greek versions of the myth, as we saw above. Peri developed a musical version of dramatic declamation, which is the “stile rapresentativo” or “stile recitativo”: this was the recitation of the dramatic text that was declaimed in a single-voiced melody (monophony); the “recitar cantando,” or declamatory style of speech-song would mirror the natural inflections, rhythms, and syllables of speech, and be accompanied by musical instruments. A new understanding of music structure awakens in the here and now of the dramatic event: the music reflects on the one hand the rhetoric of speech, on the other expresses strong emotions. The happy outcome also serves the intention of the creators: Orpheus persuades Persephone and Pluto. With his triumph, which is underscored dramatically by the melody, the happy husband Orpheus realizes the power, the beauty and the grace of his own song. It is a happy End and with it the beginning of the opera.
Following the guidelines of the Camerata, the first great figure in the history of opera was Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), a rare and extraordinary genius, who was the first to exploit the dramatic richness available in this new art form. He decided to set a drama to music and chose the myth of Orpheus in a text by Alessandro Striggio: Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, Favola in Musica premiered in 1607 in Mantua, the very court where the myth had been dramatized a century earlier by Poliziano. After having conquered the divinities of the Underworld with his music, Orfeo, unsure that Euridice follows him, turns to behold his beloved. He briefly sees her before she disappears, then cries out in song for losing what he loved too much. Orfeo is drawn back into daylight as Spirits note that he is defeated by his own affections. Back in the fields of Thrace, he laments praising Euridice’s soul and body, but sings angrily of all other women. In the original libretto, which was published in the period of carnival 1607, Striggio followed the tragic version of Vergil and Ovid (fine tragico). Monteverdi in his score, which was printed in 1609 and reprinted in 1615, changed the end to make it more enjoyable, adding the appearance of the deus ex machina and father of Orpheus, Apollo, his dialogue with Orpheus and the ascend of the latter into the heavens beneath a chorus of Orpheus’ comrades (lieto fine). The end of the symmetrically structured favola in musica in five acts appears not as a triumph of love, but with the intervention of Apollo as a glorification of music. Monteverdi’s monophonous recitative had to convey profound emotions, the underlying music with its intensity and its chromatism supports rather than obscures the text. Although Orfeo represents opera in its embryonic form, Monteverdi was indeed the first composer to grasp the essentials of music drama and translate the character’s heightened emotions through music. Monteverdi’s Orfeo utilizes many traditions that still dominate opera today: recitative, arioso, duet, choral and dance interludes, musical characterization and continuity through leitmotif. Monteverdi became a pioneer in dramatic instrumentation: he extended the resources of the orchestra and recognized its power to enhance the dramatic representation. Orfeo also represented a synthesis of existing theatrical elements, such as stage scenic design, dance and ballet episodes, songs and ballads, madrigal-style and pastoral-style choruses and recitative; all of these parts were integrated into an opera, a singular integration of all theatrical elements.
Among the operas on Orpheus Stefano Landi’s music drama "La morte d'Orfeo" (1619) (libretto: Alessandro Matthei) holds a special place in the history of opera. Unlike Euridice and L’Orfeo, in which central theme is the power of music and love, surpassing the death, this opera deals not with the death of Eurydice and the attempt of Orpheus to fetch her back, but with the last part of the ancient myth: the grisly death of the divine singer. Orpheus, who after losing his beloved denies any earthly joy and pleasure invites to his birthday celebration the gods and shepherds excluding Bacchus and women, because they are "the plague of the world." Bacchus deeply offended instigates the Maenads, who remain unmoved by the propitiatory effect of Orpheus’ song, to dismember him in a pitiful way. Once again, Orpheus descends to Hades, this time as a dead, Charon does not let him go because his body has not been burned and buried. The assertion of Hermes, heaven is ready to accept him, leaves Orpheus cold. He only wishes to be with Eurydice, who having drunk from the water of Lethe does not recognize him anymore. Now Orpheus understands that death means oblivion, he abandons his beloved and follows Hermes to the throne of Zeus.
In "La morte d'Orfeo" Landi abandoning the florentine model enriches his drama with a variety of songs, tutti and soli. While the previous operas focalize on Orpheus and Eurydice, this opera is distinguished by a series of central and secondary characters, gods and allegorical figures, allowing the composer many possibilities of musical expression both in the arias and in the ensemble. For the first time in the history of the opera the comic element is combined with the tragic one. Comic scenes with the satyrs and the Charon, who is a wholly comic figure, contrast with the tragic moments of the drama. Landi characterized his drama as «Tragicomedia pastorale» in his attempt to blend in one opus tragedy, comedy and satirical drama following so the traces of Giovanni Battista Guarini (16th cent.) in his pastoral drama «Il pasto fido». Orchestral and scenic variety and vocal brilliance of the choir at the end of each act make "La morte d'Orfeo " perhaps the first opera, which deserves the characterization “baroque”.
The grounding of the opera by Jacopo Peri and Claudio Monteverdi was not made accidentally in the traces of Orpheus. In the myth of Orpheus these composers recognised the power of music to bend and soften the forces of destiny so that the man can escape from their authority and power. Peri and especially Monteverdi introduce with their operas the emotional function of music with its metaphysical character and of course there was no better subject than the mythical Orpheus, the paragon of the singing man and musician who used his music, his song and his instrument as a weapon against the Fate. Driven by love he overcomes the horrors of the underworld and defeats the death. Are the power of music and the power of love in all its forms not the most fundamental components, the main contents of the opera as a genre? So, the famous dictum of Adorno ««it would be no exaggeration to say that all opera is Orpheus” seems perfectly understandable. This view can also be justified by the fact that the western European music from the beginning until now always refers to the mythical singer Orpheus when it comes to eliminate or to banish entrenched patterns of musical sounds or to innovate sound perception, shapes and forms. Not only the above discussed operas but also e.g. Orfeo et Euridice by Gluck (1762), with which its composer reforms the opera and Orpheus in the Underworld by Offenbach (1858), the first operetta, are milestones in the history of the music theatre.
The myth of Orpheus symbolizes not only the magical power of song but also the man who communicates and expresses himself through song and music fascinating others. On the one hand it is obviously the most attractive subject for important milestones in the history of music theatre, on the other it perfectly justifies the “song on stage” and so the existence of the opera. Four hundred years after the first opera the singer and musician Orpheus, the archetypal of the opera, still inspires the creators of music dramas with his eternal faith and love to Eurydice. As long as he visits the gates of Hades he will ask with his music new ways of expression to bend the forces of fate. As long as he turns his gaze backwards facing his beloved he will always be the central theme because "All opera is Orpheus."
1This paper was presented during the 5th International Congress of Greek Culture, Municipality of Soufli, 7-9 September 2012 in the Section: “Myth and the Arts - The Myth as a Form of Power, Creativity and Cultural Revival”.