Let’s hope the Australian premiere of the world’s oldest opera goes better than it did in 1600.

When Henri IV of France married Maria de’ Medici in October 1600, Florence spared no expense. The groom, however, was not in attendance, being far too preoccupied with his current mistress. It’s unlikely that anyone involved in the festivities had an inkling of the significance of one of the entertainments provided. As a new genre it lacked a name, being described as a “dialogue in music”. But the word ”opera” was soon applied to it, and we now recognise this particular entertainment as the first opera performance for which the music survives. 

Librettist Ottavio Rinuccini and composer Jacopo Peri had already treated the Florentines to La Dafne three years earlier, but the music of this work is lost. It was the same duo who were asked to provide the major entertainment for Maria’s wedding, but a third person managed to insinuate himself into the production – rival composer Giulio Caccini who was also the teacher of some of the young performers. Caccini, apparently miffed at being passed over in favour of Peri, allowed his pupils to participate only on condition that he set the music that they were to sing. So the first performance of L’Euridice on October 6, 1600 was rather a joint production.

Peri seems to have accepted the situation with grace – what he may have said behind the scenes is not recorded – and prepared to have the score, as performed, printed with a dedication to Maria as a souvenir of the occasion. But Caccini was having none of this. He quickly composed music to the remainder of the libretto and became the first person to have his opera printed. Peri consequently published his version in its entirety, and though printed a month or two after Caccini’s, it is certainly the first in order of composition. 

The story of Orpheus and Eurydice would subsequently become the subject of many operas (versions by Gluck, Telemann, Offenbach to name a few), but most, from Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo in 1607 onward, were to be named after the hero rather than his partner. 

This year’s Woodend Winter Arts Festival will see Peri’s L’Euridice recieve its first Australian performances. Novelist Rodney Hall will direct the staging and myself the music, for which I have prepared a new edition from the original score as published in February 1601. Jacqueline Porter and Robert Macfarlane perform Euridice and Orfeo, while the eight remaining singers perform multiple roles, as was common practice from the beginnings of opera. The orchestra is essentially a continuo band – two harps, harpsichord and organ – supplemented by two violins and viola da gamba. 

The birth of opera was also the birth of recitative. Music students learn of the development of recitative among the so-called “Florentine camerata”, where the names Peri and Caccini along with Counts Bardi and Corsi are invariably mentioned, apparently as one big happy family. The reality is clearly otherwise, though recitative emerges as a common factor. For the past century there had been increasing interest in the setting of words, especially paying attention to their accentuation and declamation as well as finding rhetorical or pictorial devices by which music could mirror the text. But this was within a context of polyphony, which was already an artifice. The Florentines were endeavouring to find ways of presenting words by a solo voice in a manner that was as close as possible to speech. The only other musical component in this new recitative is the continuo, a basic harmonic support performed on such instruments as lute, theorbo, harp, harpsichord or organ. Among the ‘discoverers’ of recitative – for these people believed that they were indeed re-discovering the arts of ancient Greek theatre – Peri is a master. 

The irony of the choice of the Orpheus and Eurydice story for Maria de’ Medici’s proxy wedding was not lost on the audience of the day: Orpheus was willing to travel to hell and back to rescue his beloved, whereas Henri could not even bother travelling as far as Florence to collect his new bride. 

L’Euridice plays at Woodend Winter Arts Festival, June 6-9