Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) was one of the world’s first opera composers. He wrote at least eighteen operas, but most of them have been lost.
His earliest surviving opera, L’Orfeo (Orpheus), was first performed in 1607 in Mantua, Italy, at the court of Duke Vincenzo I. Monteverdi was forty years old at the time, and was already well-known as a composer of madrigals and religious music.
The French opera blogger Jean-Louis Dubois (“toutloperaoupresque”) calls Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo “the first opera in history, even if there had been shows before it that were ‘almost’ operas.” At least two of these forerunners (by Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini) were called Euridice, and they also told the story of how the legendary singer and luth player Orpheus sang his way into the underworld in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to rescue his bride Euridice, who had died of a snake bite on their wedding day.
So far I have seen Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo five times in three different productions: twice at the Bockenheimer Depot in Frankfurt as staged by David Hermann, once in a very different production by John Dew in Darmstadt, and twice at the opera house in Reims, France. My lead photo at the top of this post shows the singers and conductor taking their bows after one of the performances in Reims in 2013.
Monteverdi’s operatic scene Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, first performed 1624 in Venice, was staged as “Combattimenti” by David Hermann in Frankfurt in 2006 along with two shorter fragments by Monteverdi. Especially memorable in this production was the “Dance of the Ungrateful Women”, featuring Juanita Lascarro as Amore and Katharina Magiera as Venere.
The story of Tancredi and Clorinda is from a long epic poem called Jerusalem Delivered by the Italian poet Torquato Tasso (1544–1595). The poem takes place in the First Crusade, from 1096 to 1099, and includes countless episodes (mainly imaginary) which have been made into numerous operas. This particular episode is about a Christian knight, Tancredi, who falls in love with a Muslim warrior-maiden called Clorinda. During a nighttime battle he mistakenly kills her, not recognizing her in the darkness, but as she is dying she converts to Christianity and he baptizes her.
A much later opera by Monteverdi is Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (The Return of Ulysses to his Homeland), first performed 1640 in Venice. I saw it in Frankfurt in 2007, as staged by David Hermann.
Monteverdi’s last opera was L’incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea), first performed 1642 in Venice. I’ve seen it in four different productions, first as staged by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito in Stuttgart 1999; then by Rosamund Gilmore in Frankfurt 2000; by Ute M. Engelhardt in Frankfurt 2014 with Gaëlle Arquez as Nero; and by Serena Sinigaglia in Kiel 2019.
L’incoronazione di Poppea has a happy end, at least for Nero and Poppea, who celebrate their love in a beautiful duet after they have married and she has been crowned as the new empress. Of course it is not such a happy end for some of the other characters who have been murdered, exiled or forced to commit suicide, but their plight seems to have been forgotten for the moment.
Monteverdi was 75 when he composed Poppea, and he had some talented students and assistants who may well have helped him with parts of it, particularly Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676), who went on to write forty operas of his own and become one of the most prominent of the second-generation opera composers. (I have seen two of Cavalli’s operas so far, Giasone at the Bockenheimer Depot in Frankfurt in 2007 and L’Eliogabalo in Dortmund in 2011.)
In the program booklet for Poppea in Kiel, the orchestra conductor Alessandro Quarta is quoted as saying: “I believe the famous final duet ‘Pur ti miro’ is by Cavalli, but of course I have no documentary proof. Actually, I am more interested in the fact that it is one of the outstanding compositions in the history of music, and not so interested in deciding who composed it.”
My photos in this post are from 2013, 2014 and 2019. I revised the text in 2023.