The Voice | Three Operas | Early Baroque | Classical
What distinguishes Peri’s Euridice from other musical dramas staged at the time, and allows it to claim the status of the first opera, is the composer’s use of a new style of singing, intended to imitate speech in song.
It was partly the outcome of attempts to recreate the direct and expressive declamation of ancient Greek and Roman dramas, and partly the natural progress of composers seeking to express themselves in new ways; it led to the development of operatic recitative.
Peri’s music for Euridice includes choruses that comment on the events and solos that either express the character’s emotions in song or narrate the story in the new declamatory style of singing, stile recitativo. The declamation closely follows the rhythm of the words. Expressive details, such as dynamics and ornamentation (trills, runs and so on), are carefully notated to discourage singers from improvising, and the continuo accompaniment is carefully paced to match the ‘passions’ of the singer’s words.
The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is also the subject of Monteverdi’s opera Orfeo, first performed in Mantua in 1607. While the early Florentine operas can sound rather sparse, Monteverdi’s music creates a richer sound-world that is derived from the intermedi tradition. What interested him was how to portray as vividly as possible the emotions and actions of the characters.
The accompaniment is provided by a large and varied orchestra. It includes lighter combinations of recorders, violins, chitarroni and harpsichord for pastoral scenes; darker trombones, bass viols and organs for the infernal scenes; and the whole range for the opening fanfare and many of the choruses, which often use lively dance rhythms. The emotional and musical heart of the opera is Orpheus’s ‘Possente spirto’, in which he tries to charm the boatman Charon with his renowned singing powers so that he may cross the River Styx. Each of Orpheus’s verses is punctuated by an instrumental ritornello, and the style and instrumentation change with each verse.
Monteverdi’s last opera, L’incoronazione di Poppea (some of the music is by other composers), was written many years later, in 1642. Although it uses a much simpler orchestra than Orfeo, Monteverdi’s carefully structured music brings to life characters who are not mythological, as in the early Italian operas, but human – subject to human emotions and ambitions. The stile recitativo is now a much more intense representation of speech – notably in Octavia’s recitative lament ‘Disprezzata regina’ (‘The Scornful Queen’) – with characters often interrupting one another in recitative dialogues. The arias and duets are substantial, lyrical and richly expressive, particularly in Nero and Poppea’s final duet, ‘Pur ti miro’ (‘I Look for You’).
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