First Performance of Monteverdi’s

Between 1597 and 1600, the first operas were performed. However, these tentative forays into the emerging genre failed to employ music as a dramatic, rather than a merely ornamental, element. The first work to realize the potential of operatic performance fully was Monteverdi’s La favola d’Orfeo, considered the first masterpiece of the genre.

Summary of Event

In the last two decades of the sixteenth century, several groups of literati, comprising poets, musicians, philosophers, and members of the Florentine aristocracy, assembled at each others’ houses on a regular—albeit informal—basis to discuss the current state of Italian culture. A favorite meeting place was the palace of Count Giovanni Bardi, Bardi, Giovanni himself a musician, writer, and scientist. The group that met at the count’s palace became known as the camerata Bardi
Camerata Bardi , and it included Vincenzo Galilei Galilei, Vincenzo (c. 1520-1591), lutenist, composer, music theorist, and father of Galileo; Giulio Caccini Caccini, Giulio (1545-1618), composer, singer, and a protege of Cosimo I de’ Medici; the poet Ottavio Rinuccini Rinuccini, Ottavio ; the composer Jacopo Corsi Corsi, Jacopo (1561-1602), himself a noted patron of the arts; and the composer and singer Jacopo Peri Peri, Jacopo . The discussions among these learned people, their correspondence, and their published writings became the theoretical basis on which the first entirely sung dramatic spectacles were composed and performed during the last decade of the sixteenth century and the first years of the seventeenth century. [kw]First Performance of Monteverdi’s La Favola d’Orfeo
[kw]La Favola d’Orfeo
[kw]Monteverdi’s La Favola d’Orfeo
Theater;Feb. 24, 1607: First Performance of Monteverdi’s La Favola d’Orfeo
Music;Feb. 24, 1607: First Performance of Monteverdi’s La Favola d’Orfeo
Italy;Feb. 24, 1607: First Performance of Monteverdi’s La Favola d’Orfeo
Favola d’Orfeo, La (Monteverdi)
Opera, Italy

A strong influence on the ideas of the camerata Bardi was Girolamo Mei, Mei, Girolamo a Florentine by birth but a resident of Rome since about 1560. Mei and Vincenzo Galilei corresponded extensively on topics ranging from descriptions of musical composition and performance in the works of classical authors to the present state of sixteenth century music. Mei believed that monody was a more suitable way of setting words to music than the excessive polyphony that was the fashion of the day—and which, by virtue of its contrapuntal intricacies, obscured not only the individual words being sung but also the general meaning of the text being set. Music;Italy

Galilei, in his Dialogo della musica antica, et della moderna (1581; Dialogue of Ancient and Modern Music
Dialogue of Ancient and Modern Music (Galilei) , 2003), concluded that, based on reports by ancient authors, the emotional response of the ancients to monody must have been much more intense than the response of sixteenth century listeners to contrapuntal music. To recapture the intense emotional effects of ancient music, Galilei recommended that singers study the techniques of declamation practiced by actors. He believed that such a course of study would help singers discover what inflections of the voice best matched particular emotions expressed in a text, as well as enabling them to understand how such inflections could appropriately reflect the social, economic, and marital status of the characters they portrayed through song.

Claudio Monteverdi, composer of the first great opera, La favola d’Orfeo.

(Library of Congress)

The first staged operatic performances took place in conjunction with major social events, such as carnivals and aristocratic marriages: for the Carnivals of 1591 Emilio de’ Cavalieri Cavalieri, Emilio de’ (c. 1550-1602) set to music and staged two works, now lost; of these, one was La disperazione di Fileno
Disperazione di Fileno, La (Cavalieri) (pr. 1591), including a superb performance by the renowned singer Vittoria Archilei (1550-c. 1620). Cavalieri’s works are called opera by some scholars, but they are usually categorized as intermezzi or pastorals, which anticipate but do not yet achieve the status of opera. For the Carnival of 1597, Rinuccini and Peri collaborated, at the urgings of Jacopo Corsi, in the making of the text and music for Dafne
Dafne (Rinuccini and Perio) (pr. 1597, partial pb. 1600), the first work to count as opera in the estimation of most historians.

On October 6, 1600, at the Palazzo Pitti, the wedding of Henry IV of France and Marie de Médicis was celebrated with a splendidly staged performance of Rinuccini and Peri’s Euridice
Euridice (Peri) (pr. 1600, pb. 1601), the story of Orpheus told in verse with the text sung in its entirety. The dramatic structure of the libretto was modeled on ancient Greek tragedy—a genre intentionally and artfully emulated by Italian humanists. The Prologue was sung by Lady Tragedy, who introduced the story and the characters. The subject matter was most appropriate for a musical play, as the legend centered around a legendary musician of the ancient world, the tragic story surrounding the death of his wife, Euridice, on their wedding day, and Orpheus’s journey to the Underworld to rescue her.

Contemporary writers described the lavish sets, which included serene pastoral landscapes filled with light for the nuptial scenes and the burning flames of hell for Orpheus’s descent to Inferno in search of his beloved Euridice. The costumes were kept simple, elegant, and of classic cut. The dramatic structure, the music—both vocal and instrumental—and the stage setting were in perfect harmony with the nature of the subject and designed to address an audience whose members were not only of the upper classes, but also well acquainted with ancient and modern literature and music. In other words, refined cognoscenti were the opera’s target audience. Euridice is the earliest opera still extant in its entirety, including both music and libretto.

The new genre took root, and interest in it spread from Florence to other Italian cities and courts. One of these was Mantua, which on February 27, 1607, played host to the work that is regarded by many as the first fully realized opera, La favola d’Orfeo (pr. 1607, libretto pb. 1607, score pb. 1609, 1615). The work featured libretto by the poet and Humanist Alessandro Striggio the Younger Striggio, Alessandro, the Younger and music composed by Claudio Monteverdi Monteverdi, Claudio . It was designed in conjunction with the long-planned marriage between Francesco Gonzaga, the heir to the ducal throne of Mantua, and Margaret of Savoy. This marriage was postponed several times for political reasons, however, and ultimately took place in 1608, a year after the opera was first performed. Monteverdi would compose a second opera, Arianna
Arianna (Monteverdi) (pr. 1608, partial pub. 1608, 1623), for the actual wedding.

La favola d’Orfeo, like its predecessor Euridice, included a prologue (sung by Lady Music) and comprised five acts incorporating arias, recitatives, orchestral interludes, dances, and choral numbers, all preceded by an opening instrumental overture, which Monteverdi called a toccata. The singers for its initial performance were some of the best that the country had to offer. The tenor Francesco Rasi sang the part of Orfeo; the castrato Girolamo Bacchini sang Euridice’s part; and the famous Florentine castrato Giovan Gualberto Magli, a pupil of Caccini, sang the character that personified Music. The backdrops, representing the plains of Thrace and the Inferno, were painted and hung on the walls of a large room in the ducal palace. Due to the immense success of this first performance, Francesco Gonzaga ordered a second one to be given on March 1.


La favola d’Orfeo is the earliest work that historians of opera routinely evaluate as a masterpiece or a work of genius. The qualities that justify such evaluations are notoriously difficult to define, but in the case of this opera they have several sources. La favola d’Orfeo skillfully combines themes and tropes of ancient myth and classical tragedy with musical conventions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, creating a truly new form that is nevertheless in substantial dialogue with its source material. Music does not merely comment on or heighten the drama but becomes an integral part of the dramatic technique of the work. This integration occurs both within specific moments—as when two characters’ vocal parts emphasize different chords to indicate lack of understanding between them—and on a larger scale, as repeated musical patterns are used to unify specific sections or entire acts of the opera.

Opera continued to evolve throughout the seventeenth century. For example, while La favola d’Orfeo and its Florentine predecessors addressed a limited, aristocratic audience and were performed as a rule in the homes of the noble and wealthy, Venetian opera took a different direction. In 1637, the Teatro San Cassiano opened its doors to anyone who could afford the price of a ticket. This in turn had a tremendous impact on the development of the genre. For the Florentine literati, the libretto had reigned supreme, and music was simply meant to enhance the meaning of the text; the more numerous and somewhat more plebeian Venetian public, however, demanded sumptuous spectacles and elaborate musical numbers. In 1678, following in the footsteps of Venice, Hamburg was the second European city to open a public opera house.

Opera at Venice grew into a grandiose affair that included large orchestras, choruses, and elaborate machinery allowing gods to descend from the sky (deus ex machina) and sieges and naval battles to be represented onstage. Two of Monteverdi’s later operas, Il ritorno d’Ulisse
Ritorno d’Ulisse, Il (Monteverdi) (pr. 1641; Ulysses’ homecoming) and L’Incoronazione di Poppea
Incoronazione di Poppea, L’ (Monteverdi) (pr. 1642; the coronation of Poppea) were composed for and set in Venice. The extent to which the demand for opera in Venice grew is best illustrated by the extraordinary output of one of Monteverdi’s pupils, Pier Francesco Cavalli Cavalli, Pier Francesco (1602-1676), who composed no less than forty-one works in the genre.

The tradition of lavish performances involving extremely complex stage effects was exported to other European cities and courts: A famous example is the performance of Il pomo d’oro
Pomo d’oro, Il (Cesti and Sbarra) (pr. 1668; the golden apple) by Antonio Cesti Cesti, Antonio (1623-1669) and Francesco Sbarra Sbarra, Francesco (1611-1668), written for the 1666 wedding between Emperor Leopold I and Margaret of Spain but not performed until Margaret’s birthday in 1668.

England developed its own brand of opera, a private, aristocratic entertainment called a masque, comprising closed numbers such as dances, songs, recitatives, and choruses. Of the surviving masques, the most elaborate was Cupid and Death (pr. 1653, rev. 1659), a collaboration between playwright James Shirley (1596-1666) and composers Christopher Gibbons (1615-1676) and Matthew Locke (c. 1621/1622-1677).

Further Reading

  • Arnold, Denis. Monteverdi. 3d ed., rev. by Tim Carter. London: Dent, 1990. Examines Monteverdi’s life and works and devotes several chapters to Monteverdi’s dramatic music. Early 17th cent.: Revenge Tragedies Become Popular in England; c. 1601: Emergence of Baroque Music; c. 1601-1613: Shakespeare Produces His Later Plays; c. 1601-1620: Emergence of Baroque Art; 1603-1629: Okuni Stages the First Kabuki Dance Dramas; Sept. 2, 1642: Closing of the Theaters; 1664: Molière Writes Tartuffe; c. 1673: Buxtehude Begins His Abendmusiken Concerts.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

Gian Lorenzo Bernini; Thomas Betterton; Francesca Caccini; Girolamo Frescobaldi; Jean-Baptiste Lully; Claudio Monteverdi; Henry Purcell; Heinrich Schütz. Favola d’Orfeo, La (Monteverdi)
Opera, Italy