Monday, May 21, 2012

Opera Walk, 1601-1655

People have been combining music and story ever since the dawn of Humankind, so opera, in its wider sense, is indeed very very old! Nevertheless, conventional opera as we know it, is relatively new, if we measure it against the last million years or so of humanity.

The very first opera was staged in Florence during the height of the Renaissance. The year was 1597 and the opera was titled Dafne. It was a private performance at a party and the first recorded attempt to revive the lost art of Greek Theater during the Classical Age. 

So let our adventure begin! After Dafne, we will be going in increments of ten years until the present.

A n n o   D o m i n i    M D X C V I I  - D a f n  e
By Jacopo Peri
The tag line of Dafne is quite simple: Apollo lusts after a nymph  named Daphne who turns herself into a tree before she's caught. Unfortunately, the music of Dafne has not survived. At least, here is a sample of Jacopo Peri's beautiful music. You can imagine how the opera must have sounded like on a summer's eve in the gardens of a Florentine palazzo!

A n n o    D o m i n i    M D C    E u r i d i c e
By Jacopo Peri 
Two years later, Jacopo Peri presents another opera, a tragedy titled Euridice, The Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is probably the most popular story in the opera repertoire. There are over a hundred operas on this subject! Orpheus loses his beloved and sings so beautifully and sadly that the gods give him a chance to rescue his beloved from the Underworld under one condition: that he does not look at her on his way out. Being the foolish mortal, he does...and loses her forever! Here is a clip of Jacopo Peri's Eurydice, sung in the original Italian and accompanied by some lovely visuals:
A n n o   D o m i n i   M D C I  -  M D C X
(1 6 0 1 - 1 6 1 0)
Please continue to scroll down through the ages. Although we will only visit one opera per decade, I did include at least an image from every year, most of which are coins, because I only allowed myself to include images that were actually dated! If you look carefully, you can read the real date.  Particularly interesting below are the title pages of Shakespeare's Hamlet,  published in 1603, and Cervante's El Ingenioso Don Quixote de la Mancha, published in 1606. The major opera event for the decade of 1601-1610 is Monteverdi's Orfeo.

Mantua, Monteverdi was working as a court musician there when he composed his first major opera Orfeo.
A n n o   D o m i n i   M D C V I I  -  L ' O r f e o
By Claudio Monteverdi
News of Jacopo Peri's operas began to buzz in the neighboring Italian city states. Claudio Monteverdi, who was living in Mantua at the time, was mainly a composer of sacred music and madrigals, He caught on to this new form called "opera." His opera Orfeo, may not be the first opera, but it is certainly the first mature opera and a major template for what is to come within the next few centuries. 

This opera is brought to life by this amazing video. Please note  that these performances were usually presented at the palace of a wealthy and aristocratic patron. We will not see opera go public until the year 1637! 

By the way, as you scroll down the years, have a close look at the coin dated 1609. I have enlarged the image to allow a closer examination. According to sources, it is the world's most expensive coin! It sold for millions of dollars at a recent auction!
1609 - The world's most expensive coin!

A n n o   D o m i n i   M D C X I - M D C X X 

A n n o   D o m i n i  M D C X V I
L '  O r f e o   D o l e n t e
By Domenico Belli

The Italians just could not get enough of  Orpheus and Eurydice! Florentine composer Domenico Belli was a contemporary of Claudio Monteverdi who was renowned as the creator of L'Orfeo Dolente or "The Suffering Orpheus" (1616), a pivotal entry in the early history of opera. Here is an amazing video link of highlights from this rarely performed opera:
1617, from India!
A n n o   D o m.   M D C X X I - M D C X X X 


During the next decade, 1621-1630, opera is still a private affair in the palace of a wealthy and powerful patron. An opera house open to the public will come a decade later. Nevertheless, word about this new Italian art form has slipped across the Alps into France and the Germanic countries. The next milestone is in 1627, an opera is also named Dafne but with a different twist: it is sung in German!
A city in northeastern Saxony called Torgau, where Heinrich Schütz  wrote Dafne, the first German opera.

Heinrich Schütz not only created the first opera in German; he is also ranked with Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms as one of the elite German composers of all time! He borrowed an Italian opera, had the libretto rewritten in German by a colleague, and created a particular style of music that was sensitive to the words that were being sung. The following year he went to Venice to meet Claudio Monteverdi, who was now director of music at St. Mark's Cathedral. Here is a recent production of this significant opera:

For the next couple of decades, the focus is going to be on Venice and the first opera house in history!
 A n n o   D o m.   M D C X X X I - M D C X L 
Here is a steet in Venice called Calle del Teato Vecchio (Old Theater Street). This is where the Teatro de San Cassiano once proudly stood. San Cassiano was the very  first opera house open to the public. Monteverdi and Scarlatti and Vivaldi performed their operas there. The last performance was in 1806. It became a major fire hazard after several incidents, so in 1812, the remains of the building were demolished and never rebuilt again,
The year 1637 was a significant milestone in the history of opera. The very first opera to be performed in a public theater was an opera by two composers, Benedetto Ferrari and  Francesco Manelli. Their collaborative work was (alled Andromeda, based on that Greek myth about the princess who was sacrificed to a sea monster and rescued, just in time, by Perseus. Even today, the myth continues. to be exploited in the recent movie remake of the Clash if the Titans.

A n n o   D o m i n i  M D C X L
R i t o r n o  d ' U l i s s e   i n   P a t r i a
By Claudio Monteverdi


This particular Monteverdi's opera is only second to his greatest work, la Coronazione di Poppea or the "Coronation of Poppea " in 1642. He composed his two masterpieces when he was old and quite ill. 

In modern English, Il Rirono d'Ulisse in Patria  could be translated into "Ulysses Returns Home". If you are familiar with Homer's Odysseus, you'll remember that things were not so ideal when this old, tired, and sick hero finally returns home after many years in the Trojan wars and that long detour back home. Ulysses is another favorite subject for many operas to come. He is the major literary figure who will lend his name to James Joyce and his monumental work 300 years later. The video above  is quite a treat, not only for the excellent singing, staging and acting, but also for its English subtitles. In opera, it makes a big difference when you can understand what the singer is talking about; wouldn't you think?

A n n o   D o m i n i   M D C X L I - M D C L 
Peter Ustinov as Nero and Patricia Laffan as Poppaea in the 1951 movie Quo Vadis. These are also the main characters in Monteverdi's landmark opera L'Incoronazione di Poppea in 1642, perfomed at the Teatro de San Cassiano in Venice.
A n n o   D o m i n i  M D C X L I I
L ' I n c o r o n a z i o n e   d i   P o p p e a
By Claudio Monteverdi

This is truly a beautiful opera! Every time I revisit it, I find something new. I was about to post, again, the beautiful duet in the finale, (I will probably post it again under a special program called "Duets in Opera") but came across this little gem of a video. This is the scene where Poppea rejoices that she is rid of Seneca and that her dream to marry the Emperor Nero is now closer than ever!
This is a modern interpretation of Monteverdi's opera and shows how timeless the story is. Poppea has had her prayers answered and now is in the clutches of the madman emperor who murdered his own mother! This picture says a thousand words!
Ursa Major - The Great Bear, perhaps the most familiar constellation in the sky (The Big Dipper). According to Greek myth, the chaste nymph Callisto was raped by Zeus (Jupiter) who disguised himself as Artremis (Diana) in order to lure Callisto into his embrace. Later while bathing with the goddess, she was discovered to be pregnant and a very angry Artremis changed her into a bear. She gave birth to Arcas, who, years later, was about to slay his own mother in the forest, when Zeus intervened and placed the both of them in the sky. This is the story of Francesco Cassini's opera Calisto which opened in a new theater in Venice called Teatro San Apollinare.
A n n o   D o m i n i   M D C L I - M D C L X 

A n n o   D o m i n i  M D C L I
L a   C a l i s t o
By Francesco Cavalli
Cavalli was the most influential composer in the rising genre of public opera in mid-17th century Venice. Unlike Monteverdi's early operas, scored for the extravagant court orchestra of Mantua, Cavalli's operas make use of a small orchestra of strings and basso continuo to meet the limitations of public opera houses. He also uses a lot of humor. As you can see in the video of his opera La Calisto above, there is a sense of fun. Cavalli clearly wanted to entertain his public! The subtitles are in French.

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