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. It is the first chance I have had to lay pen to paper since yesterday, when the Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga put on L’Orfeo (the play I had spoken to you of months ago) for the Accademia degli Invaghiti. People filled the room to brimming, and I was almost without a seat. And for good cause. The parts were written by the talented Signor Alessandro Striggio, and were set to music by Signor Monteverdi. What poetry! And how cleverly the music amplified the emotion of the poetry! Call me lovestruck, if you will, for I tell you that I felt as if there were some divine being speaking to me through the favola en musica. Is not the story of Orfeo my story as well? To be governed by passion, for you, for music, for love. I trust you remember the story; I am eager to relate my thoughts on this masterpiece! In Act One, Orfeo and Eurydice sing solos to each other right before they are to be married. I remember this moment clearly, for I was shocked at Orfeo’s expression of his love. Whereas most of the rest of the act up to that point had been sung in catchy melodies with fast-tempos accompanied by a whole range of lively instruments, especially by the chorus of nymphs and shepherds, Orfeo begins his piece on a much lower register and drags his notes out, almost to the point of being doleful. He
accompanies himself on a lyre by plucking a few chords, mostly for emphasis. The dynamic of the song also changed. Rather than being a rather uniform loud volume, Orfeo sings much more softly. What of the exuberant love of youth? What of the ecstasy
of entering in holy matrimony with one’s beloved? Should he not be more energized by his love rather than sapped to the point of losing his ability to even strum the lyre? I decided I would pay special mind to how Monteverdi portrays the passion-filled Orfeo. After hearing more of the “rosa del ciel” solo, I thought, perhaps the changes in the music served to emphasize Orfeo’s love of Eurydice. When he sings to her and about her, he does not follow on the same musical themes as the chorus of nymphs and shepherds because he loses track of the physical reality. “Rosa del ciel,” he sings, dropping the tempo and register on “rosa,” gently rolling the “r” and letting the “o” build in volume and strength. Again, he does this with “vita del mondo,” stretching out “vita.” After his many descriptions of her, he asks, “Hast thou ever seen a lover more joyful and fortunate than I?” And here, he quickens the tempo and lets his voice soar to a high register. Yet, speaking of her again, “miu ben,” his voice drops again to the tender, long, intimate caress that he associates with her being. The long, drawn-out and tender notes paint a picture of Eurydice as gentle and innocent and long-lived in his memory. In Act 2, Silvia, Eurydice’s companion, rushes in to tell of Eurydice’s death. It is one of the most beautifully contrived and moving pieces I have ever heard. “Ahi casi acerbo,” she sings. “Ahi,” a loud, high note, pierces through the rhythmic and melodic theme of the pastoral songs that praised Orfeo’s happiness. It does not fit in with the harmony or the rhythm of the shepherds’ songs. The lyre accompaniment’s chords do not harmonize with Silvia’s singing. Just as her song breaks the various harmonies the momentum of pastoral songs, Silvia has painfully broken the happy moment and is poised to break Orfeo’s heart.
She relates the tale of Eurydice’s untimely death, a moving piece to be sure. She broke my heart when she sang, “Ch’ella I languidi lumi alquanto aprendo, e te chiamando, Orfeo, Orfeo!” This is the moment when Eurydice dies, the moment to which her life culminates and ends with a plea to Orfeo. I can’t quite describe how this hit me, how, as Sylvia’s voice rose and rose, both in register and in volume. “E te chiamando, Orfeo” all came out in one big gust, faster in tempo than the wordpainting of Eurydice’s closing eyes that had come the line before. I thought she had expressed all the fear and hope and sadness that one name could convey, until, riding on the momentum of this phrase, she paused and blasted another “Orfeo.” She sings the highest and loudest note in the entire piece on the “fe,” but “o” drops again, as if on this breath, while calling out his name, Eurydice’s spirit departs to the underworld. In Greek tragedy, each hero is confronted by a fatal flaw that will lead him to his unhappy fate. Yet, it is unclear whether the fault lies in the fate or the flaw, for sometimes it seems as if the flaw would not be a flaw at all if not for the fate. Orfeo, the passionate musician, as every young child knows, finds his flaw in his consuming passion. Yet, I find it hard to imagine a man who would not be so consumed by passion if he were thus in love. If I were in Orfeo’s shoes, if I had found the love of my life and lost her in the same breath, and to a serpent, to the devil, no less! Mistress, do you understand my gist? Any sane, dispassionate man, presented with the same fate, would find his brains beaten about in his head, his heart torn in shreds. I am truly impressed by the way in which Monteverdi gave life to Orfeo’s lines as he responds to the news of his beloved’s death. At first, unable to bear the news, Orfeo softly whispers, “Tu, se morta, se morta mia vita, ed io respiro?” The “tu” sounds like a
caress, but by the end of “morta,” his voice dies out, and the lyre dies completely for a short, painful silence. He restates “se morta” but this time, his lyre pucks out a dissonant chord which filled my heart with anguish, especially when the phrase resolves at “mia vita” with a beautiful, clean, harmony but is cut off again by an unnerving, brief silence. The silences suggest death, as we do not expect each phrase to be cut off with complete, deliberate silence just as Orfeo did not expect Eurydice to die so soon. To an extent, it also mimics the sudden catching of breath during sobbing. This leads us to “ed io respiro,” which has a slightly louder dynamic, but its most defining characteristic is the change in rhythm to two dotted notes and a full note. The rhythm makes the phrase sound declarative, a question of why but also a statement of fact. Eurydice is dead, but Orfeo is breathing. Alas. However, this is not all that the silences do. They also serve to break up the phrases to prevent momentum from building in the music. Why would Monteverdi not want momentum to build at this clearly momentous moment? The broken structure and momentum-less structure of the first rhetorical question draws attention to the sudden gust of emotion in the second, parallel rhetorical question: “Tu se da me partita, se da me partita per mai più, mai più non tornare, ed io rimango?” The pattern of repetition within this rhetorical question is carefully crafted to ramp up momentum and intensity of feeling. The two repeated phrases, “se me da partita” and “mai più” are repeated such that they are separated by a brief breath from their twin and so that each part fits in seamlessly with a different part of the sentence. The repetitions do not drag. Instead, they allow Monteverdi to intensify the dynamics and the pitch seamlessly. “Ed io
rimango” follows the same rhythm as “Ed io respiro,” and becomes the climax of his
craze as he questions and acknowledges his loss. His lament heightens and heightens in intensity until, all of a sudden, his voice becomes softer again. He has decided that he will go into the underworld and rescue his love. And he does. He follows Speranza to the underworld, sings Caronte to sleep with the most beautiful verses that I have ever heard uttered, and convinces Pluto to let Eurydice go under the promise that he will not look back at her until he has led her to daylight. As he leads her out, he sings a wonderful skipping ode to his lyre which has helped return him to his love. His lyre plucks out a fast, steady beat while his song matches his lyre in enthusiastic and steady harmony. In the next section of his song, he begins to question whether or not he is being tricked into walking out of the underworld without his Eurydice. His accompaniment loses its steady rhythm and quick tempo, and his voice does too. However, he does not lose his lyricism. He ponders whether or not to look back, and decides that it can do no harm to follow his heart. Although I had expected him to look back just then, he did not! Rather, pounding noise from behind the scenes frightens Orfeo into doing so. After the noise, there is a distinct change in Orfeo’s voice. He no longer exuberant or mildly suspicious. He is terrified that something has happened to his lovely Eurydice. And how his terror passed through me as well! “Ma, che odo?” escapes from his mouth, no longer a sweet, harmonious sound, but rather words pulled out of their poetry and thrust into the furor of the moment. Orfeo sings forcefully, the dynamics of his voice rising and sinking, pounding unanswerable questions into an unknown audience. “Ed io ‘l consento?” he sings, echoing in melody and rhythm his rhetorical questions from before, when he promised to save Eurydice.
I knew then that he would turn. And he did. And even though I knew, even though I had seen this story played out on stage many times, my heart still shattered at Eurydice’s song. Well accompanied, words of happiness and love harmonized well with the lyre and words of bitterness and misery and despair received harshly plucked, dissonant chords. Typical of Eurydice, she does not blame Orfeo; rather, she says, “Cosi per troppo amor dunque mi perdi,” which names the culprit an excess of love. Her “ed io misera” distorts Orfeo’s “ed io” phrases, being both in a minor key and dropping in volume at the last word. It is discordant and not declarative; rather, it is almost a sigh. The parallelism between the words but the divergence with the music allows us to feel, yet again, the pain of Orfeo and Eurydice’s separation. Mistress, I know the accepted interpretation of this piece would denounce Orfeo for not honoring his promise not to look back. It is his personal weakness and his passion which causes his unhappiness. Yet, I cannot but wonder after seeing this opera, is it truly so? Were I in Orfeo’s place, and you behind me, having heard a loud noise, could I resist turning? Putting words with music in this way truly allows several layers of meaning to be hidden into each verse. Oime indeed. I could bore you with more and more pages about this delightful opera. The costumes, the contraptions, news of the singers. By itself, it has proven my trip to Mantua a worthy one. Yet my candle burns low, and I must end this letter. Please let me know how you are and when I may next see you.
Awaiting your reply, FL.
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