This 1607 masterpiece was the eureka moment in a new genre known today as opera.

Let’s get something straight from the outset: Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 music drama L’Orfeo, favola in musica was not the first opera. It wasn’t even close. Like the story of Orpheus himself, the idea that Monteverdi single-handedly gave birth to the modern music drama is nothing more than myth.

As with most great landmarks in Western music, the rumblings begin long before the main event. For instance, Johann Sebastian Bach’s monumental Das Wohltemperierte Klavier from 1722 – a kaleidoscope of prelude and fugues in all 24 major and minor keys – had many precursors and models. A cycle of 24 passamezzo-saltarello pairs by Giacomo Gorzanis from 1567 and Daniel Croner’s little organ pieces in successive keys from 1682 are but two examples. We are also quick to assert that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was the first instance of choral music within a symphonic setting; yet his contemporary Peter Winter beat him to the punch with his Schlacht-Sinfonie, composed a good decade earlier in 1814.  

Like Bach and Beethoven’s respective compositions, what should be attributed to Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo is the distinction of being the first “great” example. In a tiny courtly room in Mantua in 1607, Monteverdi gave the world what can be described as the finest exposition of what we now know as “opera” (a term that was not used until the middle of the 17th century).

Music drama didn’t appear with a bang; rather, it gestated in and around the Italian provinces for most of the 16th century. The popular story that a small number of Florentine humanists consciously crafted the idea of music drama as a reinvention of the Ancient Greek tragedy is misleading. While admiration for antiquity was an ever-present sentiment in Renaissance Italy, the recreation of Greek tragedy was not their sole intent.

As Monteverdi scholar Joachim Steinheuer explains, the model for the musicians and dramatists of the Italian Renaissance was immersed in an earthly, pastoral context: “Instead of depicting the tragic entanglements of kings and their like, situated in palaces or other appropriately courtly surroundings, early operas are generally set outdoors in country settings and are concerned with the love of gods, semi-gods, shepherds and nymphs. In this respect they belong instead to the contemporary tradition of the pastoral play, a dramatic genre that evolved only in early modern times, even though it referred to the long-standing, but non-dramatic bucolic tradition of Greek and Roman classic authors”. 

It was Angelo Poliziano’s Fabula di Orfeo (1480) that sparked the Italian Renaissance love-affair with Orpheus and pastoral settings. His fabula was a dramatic sketch, comparatively short at 352 lines, performed at courtly feasts and allowed musical interludes and accompaniments. Historians have highlighted how Poliziano encouraged greater involvement from instrumentalists and vocalists – a foreshadowing of the modern music drama a century later.

A steady evolution transpired over the course of the 16th century: from the accompanied fabula came the intermedium – madrigals and solo songs with instrumental accompaniment specifically composed to be performed between acts of more serious dramatic entertainment at princely courts. Again, the use of pastoral setting was strong. Come the 1570s, these Florentine composers (or “intermedi”) had begun to discuss the possibilities of song and text, its subsequent fusion and how best to present it in a longer, coherent form. Referring to themselves as a camerata (club or gathering), they took inspiration from antiquity, believing the Greeks and Romans to have sung most of their drama. Writing many years later, the camerata’s patron, Count of Vernio in Florence, Pietro Bardi, in whose palace the musicians, dramatists and theorists congregated, described the reason for the group’s discussions. “The academy’s principal goal,” he wrote in 1634, “was to improve modern music and lift it somewhat above the miserable condition in which the Goths, chiefly, had plunged it after the loss of ancient music and the other noblest arts and sciences.”

Bardi was under no illusion as to who was the first composer to present music and text in this new configuration: Jacopo Peri. “The first poem that was sung upon the stage,” recalled Bardi, “was La favola di Dafne by Signor Ottavio Rinuccini, set to music by Peri with few notes and short scenes; it was performed in a small room and sung privately, and I was stunned at this marvel.” Music for this work was also provided by Jacopo Corsi. Although the exact date of this performance is unknown, it is likely to have taken place during the Florentine carnival season of 1597-98. Word of this domestic performance spread and Peri was commissioned to write another, L’Euridice; this time for a much grander occasion – Maria de’Medici and Henry IV’s wedding festivities of 1600. Opera – or scena rappresentativa as its early innovators called it – had found an influential audience.

Peri and others “had no lack of imitators in Florence,” wrote Bardi, “the first centre for this sort of music, and in other cities of Italy, especially Rome, who continue to be admired in their scena rappresentativa; among the best of whom it seems appropriate to rank Monteverdi.”

Born in the north Italian town of Cremona in 1567, Claudio Monteverdi’s career as a composer until 1607 consisted largely of writing madrigals at the court of Vincenzo I of Gonzaga in Mantua. As a frustrated court singer and viol player, Monteverdi had gained considerable fame from his various Books of Madrigals, which furthered the development of polyphonic music. Eventually rising to the post of Vincenzo’s maestro della musica (court composer) in 1602, it was only natural, therefore, that Monteverdi should attempt the new form of music drama, bringing it to be at the Mantua Carnival festivities of 1607.

Monteverdi’s choice of subject is hardly surprising. Any quick survey of the first four decades of the 17th century would demonstrate that the early composers felt a strong affinity with Orpheus and his divine musical gifts. Peri’s L’Euridice (1600), Giulio Caccini’s Euridice (1602), Domenico Belli’s Orfeo dolente (1616), Stefano Landi’s La morte d’Orfeo (1619) and Heinrich Schütz’s Orpheus und Euridice (1638) are just a few examples of this early gravitation. For his L’Orfeo, Monteverdi collaborated with Alessandro Striggio Junior, a young lawyer and occasional player of the viol. Striggio provided Monteverdi with a libretto, evidently crafted from his interpretation of the Orpheus story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Virgil’s Georgics.

The premiere of L’Orfeo, favola in musica took place at the ducal palace in Mantua on February 24, 1607. The day before, a Mantuan nobleman wrote to his brother describing the prospect of such a “curious” undertaking: “It should be most unusual, as all the actors are to sing their parts; it is said on all sides that it will be a great success. No doubt I shall be driven to attend out of sheer curiosity, unless I am prevented from getting in by the lack of space.”

Notwithstanding the small room in which it was premiered and the “narrow stage” described by Monteverdi, the music drama was received favourably, enough so that an encore performance was demanded for “all the ladies resident in the city” (suggesting that only men attended the premiere). The cast too, as far as can be gathered, was an all-male affair, with castrati filling the female roles.

Crown Prince Francesco Gonzanga instructed Striggio to have the libretto printed for the opening performance, “so that everyone in the audience can have a copy to follow while it is sung”. The music, however, was not published until 1609 (and again in 1615), and displays possible re-workings by Monteverdi in that time.

“Those two publications are all that we have from Monteverdi,” laments Paul Dyer, artistic director of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, who will be performing a world premiere edition of L’Orfeo in September. “It’s just been released by Barenreiter and was edited by a good friend of mine, the harpsichordist Rinaldo Alessandrini. There has been a lot of intrigue surrounding those two publications since its premiere. What Alessandrini has done is put them together in one fantastic new edition.”

Staging L’Orfeo has been a long time coming for Dyer – an ambition spanning 21 years. It’s also, he believes, a culmination of everything the ABO has ever done. “Others, of course, have done L’Orfeo before, but this is exciting for me because my career has focussed on a very specific period of music.”

Dyer describes the upcoming production as “lavish”, hoping to couple the old with the new by incorporating modern sounds into the work. “I want to make this opera very current. I want to make it as pure as possible, but tell it in such a way that people don’t just think it’s an old piece of music.”

Dyer’s pleasure in the work as a whole is palpable: “It’s utterly spectacular. It’s a piece of music I’ve always wanted to present in its contemporariness. It’s a classical drama, yes, but Orfeo’s journey to a state of self-loathing – perhaps what we would now term “depression” – is profoundly moving. It’s awesome and scary, thrilling and deeply passionate.”

Part of the uniqueness of the score lies in Monteverdi’s very fragmentary markings and instructions. As was common for that period, Monteverdi encouraged instrumental ornamentation and embellishment, presenting his score as what today might be considered skeletal. This gives every performance of L’Orfeo its own distinct sound and identity.

This is not to say, however, that Monteverdi’s music is simple or incoherent. L’Orfeo’s structure and design point to a composer in complete control of his craft and the musical atmosphere in which it was written. Monteverdi deployed particular instruments for musical characterisation, for example, with muted trumpets and trombones used for the opening ceremonial Toccata, specifically “before the raising of the curtain”. On other occasions, Monteverdi instructed on what should be played rather than how: “performed to the sound of all the instruments”, or “sung to the sound of five violins, three chitarrone, two harpsichords, a double harp, a double-bass viol and a sopranino recorder”, or “to the sound of a regal, a chamber organ, five trombones, two bass viols and a double bass viol”.

Struggling with these frugal instructions has been a challenge for Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin, who is currently working with fellow Australian, Barrie Kosky, on an “adaptation” of Monteverdi’s three great operas – L’Orfeo, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse, and L’Incoronazione di Poppea – to be performed as one mammoth 12-hour trilogy at the Berlin Komische Oper. “All you have to work with is the vocal line and the bass. Nothing else! It was very much a discovery for me,” says Kats-Chernin from her live-in quarters inside the Komische Oper. “I was amazed at how Monteverdi could make the music appear so simple on the surface, but then he brings forth the most complex ideas and sounds. The modulations, too, astounded me. The way Monteverdi could surprise his audience by writing either a C Major or F Major chord, and then progress to the most foreign key. I found the freedom that Monteverdi afforded his writing to be amazing. It’s really kept me on my toes!”

Approached by Kosky three years ago, Kats-Chernin has spent the best part of two years completing the music for the trilogy. As much as her and Kosky’s adaptations bring a new flavour to Monteverdi, Kats-Chernin recognises his works’ inimitable beauty. “I think the drama in Monteverdi’s operas is timeless. They deal with a richness of the senses. The stories are poetic and emotional. Monteverdi was a visionary.”

Indeed, more so than any of his contemporaries, Monteverdi brought the various existing musical forms and modes together into a wonderfully innovative coalescence. He underlined his mastery as a madrigalist and polyphonic writer, while effortlessly incorporating the monodic sung style, both in recitative and aria. With L’Orfeo, Monteverdi established himself as the first great dramatist, displaying an intuitive understanding of the relationship between music and text. It’s why Paul Dyer describes performing it as “going back to square one”.

In 1616, Monteverdi criticised a proposed libretto – Le nozze di Tetide – because of its abstract characters, Zephyr and Boreal (west and north winds). Writing to Striggio, he declared, “How should I, dearest friend, imitate the speech of the winds if they do not speak, and how should I stir the emotions with them? Arianna shudders because she is a woman, and Orpheus was stirred because he was a human being and not a wind! Arianna inspired me to a (dramatically justified) lament and Orpheus to a (dramatically justified) entreaty!”

With this, Monteverdi lay forth his genius for understanding humanity and representing it in music – a gift that has defied the centuries.

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s production of L’Orfeo runs from September 12–15 in Brisbane, September 19-26 in Sydney and September 23 in Melbourne.