Womp Womp Womp: Orphean Operas

24 Jun

I love opera. I sincerely believe that the best Sundays are Sundays spent listening to Puccini. This interest started last autumn when I took an Art History class called “The Art of Spectacle in Baroque Rome” and one of these types of spectacles included the new musical form of opera.

Now where did opera start? With a misinterpretation of Greek drama! (Of course)

Before the development of opera, there was solo singing in a dramatic context with some pretty simple music, as well as performances of choral music without a real narrative. But during the revival and discovery of Greek dramas during the Renaissance, some musicians misinterpreted the “chorus” role as being sung, and some believed even the solo speaking roles were sung. So by combining narrative with music and singing was seen as a return to the high point of Greek drama.

With that, just as in the visual arts, composers turned to Greek and Roman narratives for their source material. Also, according to my professor from “Spectacle,” Baroque Romans and Florentines weren’t all that great as suspending their disbelief when watching people break out into song, especially when the people on stage were supposed to be just normal people. So within the narrative the roles needed to be 1. divine, half-God, full-God 2. Ancient or 3 somehow possessing a gift of music.

Guess which myth totally fits the requirements? That’s right: Orpheus and Eurydice.

So in case you don’t know the myth…

Orpheus kills at charming people with his music. Hermes invented the lyre, but Orpheus perfected the playing of it, but he also sang. He was taught the lyre by Apollo and the art of epic poetry by his mother, muse Calliope (see the song and narrative coming together…familiar?) He falls in love with Eurydice, a lovely oak nymph. He plays song and she dances, attracting the attention of a satyr. To avoid him, she falls into a pit of vipers. When Orpheus finds her, he is so overwhelmed with grief that he plays songs so mournful that all the gods and goddesses weep and they encourage him to go to the Underworld to retrieve her. He goes to the Underworld and plays music for Hades and Persephone and charmed them into letting him take Eurydice back. However, there was a condition. He was to walk in front of her and not look back until they were both on solid ground. But when he arrived at the upper world, he was so anxious that he looked back a moment too soon, and Eurydice is lost forever.

Orpheus and Eurydice by Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein, 1806


Now as you can see, what not for a Baroque opera composer to love? 1. Amazing musical talent in the protagonist as a metaphor for themselves 2. Because it is myth there can be reinterpretations of it 3. DRAMA

The first surviving opera, by Jacopo Peri, was Euridice performed in 1600 for the wedding of Henry IV and Marie de Medici at the Palazzo Pitti. Beginning with the wedding of the lovers, it follows the myth pretty closely until the end: where Eurydice gets to come back to the upper world and everyone is happy! (I admit, this is a much better ending for an opera performed at a wedding ).

But the real Baroque masterpiece of Orphean opera is L’Orfeo, by Claudio Monteverdi. Peri did it first, but Monteverdi did it bigger, better and sadder, with foreboding choruses and the original sad ending.

This video shows Orpheus singing “Rosa del ciel, vita del mondo,” Eurydice singing “Io non diro qual sia neltuo gioir” and the chorus singing reprises of earlier choruses.

This is a different production from the last video. This one appears appears to be entirely on youtube in 12 parts, if you want to check it out. Definitely a little cheesy and overdramatic. But this scene includes with Orpheus looks back at Eurydice and a really frightening looking Hades.

But what if you hate Baroque opera? I know I am probably in the minority for liking it. Well how do you feel about folk music?

Folk musician Anaïs Mitchell staged a “folk-opera” of the myth called Hadestown in 2007 and then released the music on an album in 2010. It features Justin Vernon, beloved Bon Iver lead singer, in the role of Orpheus, Ani DiFrance as Persephone, Ben Knox Miller from The Low Anthem as Hermes and Mitchell herself as Eurydice. Mitchell’s voice, which sounds like a combination of Vanessa Carlton and Joanna Newsom, takes some getting used to, but the album as a whole is pretty great and an awesome interpretation of the myth.

“Wedding Song” from Hadestown by Anaïs Mitchell feat. Justin Vernon

If you want to learn more about Orpheus, you could read Ovid’s Metamorphoses where Orpheus’s story appears or Orpheus: The Myth of the Poet by Charles Segal.

If you want to learn more about Baroque opera, you could read Monteverdi and the End of the Renaissance by Gary Tomlinson or check out Agnes Scott’s collection of opera recordings including L’Orfeo by Monteverdi, as well as a selection more modern opera composers like Puccini, Wagner and Verdi.

Agnes Scott Library does not have Hadestown, but I still highly recommend it if you are into some epic folk music. Plus you can follow Mitchell’s interpretation of the myth on her website  by reading the libretto, as well as her personal history of how her interpretation developed.


One Response to “Womp Womp Womp: Orphean Operas”

  1. H.M. Goodchild June 28, 2011 at 2:11 pm #

    Even before Hadestown (sounds wonderful by the way, I’ll check be sure to check it out) the story of Orpheus made it into the folk tradition in the form of ‘King Orfeo’. It’s Child Ballad no. 19 or no. 15 in the Oxford Book of Ballads. There’s a lovely recording of it on Malinky’s album ‘The Unseen Hours’. Unlike the original Greek myth it has a happy ending.

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