Major Operas | L’Orfeo, favola in musica by Claudio Monteverdi | Early & Middle Baroque

Orpheus, a Legend in Music

L’Orfeo, favola in musica consists of a prologue and five acts – a prolonged performance for its time. Monteverdi used several devices to extend the action of the opera. He wrote recitatives to be performed between the duets, as well as polyphonic madrigals, of which he was a master. Further additions included dances.

The opera, commissioned by the Gonzaga family for the carnival of 1606–07, was first produced privately in Mantua at the Accademia degli Invaghiti in February 1607. The performance was something of a relief to Monteverdi, who had been forced to overcome a crisis – a shortage of castrati (male sopranos) in Mantua. Monteverdi had to recruit a castrato from Pisa, but he intensified the crisis by arriving late. The composer had to give him a crash course to enable him to memorize words and music in record time. Copies of Striggio’s libretto were specially printed and distributed among the audience so that they could follow the performance while it was in progress. It was so successful that Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga ordered a second performance. A third was planned but never took place. Orfeo was published in 1609, with a dedication to the Duke.

Composed: 1606
Premiered: 1607, Mantua
Libretto by Alessandro Striggio, after Ottavio Rinuccini and Ovid


The figure of Music welcomes the audience and flatters the patrons (the Gonzaga family), telling of the magic and power of music and asking for silence during the performance.

Act I

In the fields of Thrace, nymphs and shepherds gather to celebrate the long-awaited marriage of demi-god Orfeo to beautiful Euridice. Amid joyous dancing and singing and teasing lovers’ games, Orfeo delivers a romantic aria to Euridice. The pair then leave for the wedding.

Act II

Returning from the wedding, Orfeo sings with the shepherds about how wonderful life is now that he has married Euridice and how miserable his life was before the wedding. A messenger, Silvia, arrives with bad news; she tells Orfeo that Euridice has suffered a snake bite and has died, whispering Orfeo’s name in her final breath. The grieving Orfeo resolves to fetch his bride back from the underworld, while Silvia, mortified by the terrible news she has had to bear, shuts herself away.


Hope escorts Orfeo to the entrance of the underworld, where she leaves him. There he encounters Charon, the boatman of the dead, who ferries souls across the River Styx. Charon is unwilling to let him pass, but Orfeo sings to him and plays his lyre until the boatman is lulled to sleep. Orfeo then crosses the river and enters the underworld.

Act IV

Proserpina, the wife of Plutone, ruler of the underworld, is profoundly affected by Orfeo’s music and pleads with her husband to release Euridice. Plutone agrees that Euridice may follow Orfeo out of the underworld, on the condition that Orfeo does not turn around. As they make their way along, Orfeo is seized with doubt and looks behind...

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