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Favola in musica in a prologue and five acts by Claudio Monteverdi to a libretto by Alessandro Striggio based mainly on the Orpheus myth as told in Ovid's Metamorphoses, though drawing also on the account in Virgil's Georgics; Mantua, ducal palace, 24 February 1607.Unlike its model, Jacopo Peri's Euridice (1600 – the earliest opera for which the music survives), Monteverdi's Orfeo was not written for dynastic celebrations, but simply as an entertainment for the 1607 carnival season at the Mantuan court. It was prepared under the auspices of Francesco Gonzaga, elder son of the Duke of Mantua, for performance before the Accademia degli Invaghiti. It is possible that Orfeo owes its existence to nothing more than sibling rivalry between Francesco Gonzaga and his brother Ferdinando, who from 1605 had studied at the university of Pisa and had become closely involved in musical and theatrical activity at Pisa and Florence. On 5 January 1607 Francesco wrote to Ferdinando mentioning the new opera and asking him to request the loan of a castrato in the service of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. The singer whom Ferdinando selected, the young castrato Giovanni Gualberto Magli, who did not arrive at Mantua until 15 February, was at first expected to sing the prologue and one other unspecified role (possibly that of Hope); later, he was also allotted the role of Proserpina. The other members of the cast, insofar as they can be identified, were the singer‐composer Francesco Rasi (presumably in the title role) and ‘a little priest’ (possibly Girolamo Bacchini) who sang Eurydice. It seems likely, then, that most, if not all, the principal female roles of the opera were sung by castratos. The instrumentalists and chorus were probably drawn from the court musical establishment. The apparently large and diverse instrumental ensemble required (related to the rich ensembles of intermedi, court entertainments of the period) can in fact be managed by a small group of players.

Orfeo was first performed in the ducal palace at Mantua in a room (not apparently a spacious one) in the apartments occupied by the duke's sister Margherita Gonzaga d'Este. Tradition has it that this was the Rivers Room, but the location is, in fact, uncertain. The duke ordered a second performance on 1 March. Two printings of the libretto survive from 1607 and presumably correspond to these two performances. A third performance was projected for the proposed visit to Mantua in 1607 of the Duke of Savoy, but the visit was cancelled, and the performance seems not to have taken place. The score of the opera was published at Venice in 1609, and a second edition appeared in 1615.

It has been suggested that Orfeo was presented at various Italian venues outside Mantua soon after its first performance, but none of these suggestions is based on sound evidence. A dramma pastorale with the title Orfeo was given at Salzburg in 1614, and another Orfeo was given there in 1619; these may have been performances of Monteverdi's work. A revival at Genoa before 1646 appears more securely documented. Thereafter, Orfeo seems to have remained unperformed until the early years of this century. The score was examined and discussed by the two 18th‐century music historians Charles Burney and Sir John Hawkins, and an abridged modern edition was published in 1881 by Robert Eitner. The first edition to have been given in a modern performance, however, was that published by Vincent d'Indy in 1905. D'Indy had directed concert performances of this edition, which omits Acts 1 and 5, at the Schola Cantorum, Paris, on 25 February and 2 March 1904, and it was later used for the first modern stage performance, a charity matinée given under Marcel Labey at the Théâtre Réjane, Paris, on 2 May 1911, with Robert Le Lubez as Orpheus, and Claire Croiza in the role of the messenger.


Subjects: Opera.

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