Monteverdi's 'Orfeo' It's hard to say who wrote the very first opera, but there's little doubt about the first, truly great one — it's Monteverdi's 1607 masterpiece, Orfeo, and it comes to World of Opera from the Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam.

Monteverdi's 'Orfeo'

From the Netherlands Opera

Netherlands Opera on World of Opera -- 'Orfeo'

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  • Jeremy Ovenden .......... Orfeo
  • Judith van Wanroij ..... Euridice
  • Tania Kross ................. Silvia
  • Pascal Bertin .............. Hope
  • Alan Ewing ................ Caronte
  • Wilke te Brummelstroete ... Proserpina
  • Panajotis Iconomou ... Plutone
  • David Cordier ...... La Musica
  • Concerto Palatino and Tragicomedia
  • Stephen Stubbs, conductor


  • In Act Two, when Orfeo learns of Euridice's death, his moving response is the aria, "Tu se' morta, mia vita, ed io respiro?" — "You are dead, my life, and yet I breathe?"

Netherlands Opera on World of Opera -- 'Orfeo'

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The "B" Side

  • More a scene than a single, Orfeo's "Possente spirto" — "Powerful Spirit" — is his emotional appeal to Caronte to allow Orfeo to enter the underworld. Caronte interrupts near the end, denying passage, but he soon falls asleep and Orfeo slips past.

Netherlands Opera on World of Opera -- 'Orfeo'

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Is it possible for one person to invent an entire form of art? It would seem like a tall order, by any standard.

Judith van Wanroij is Euridice and Jeremy Ovenden sings the title role in Orfeo, from the Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam. Ruth Walz and Hans Hijmering hide caption

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Ruth Walz and Hans Hijmering

Judith van Wanroij is Euridice and Jeremy Ovenden sings the title role in Orfeo, from the Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam.

Ruth Walz and Hans Hijmering

For example, there is cave art as old as 30,000 years — the earliest paintings ever discovered. But it would be hard to claim that the artists who created them actually invented painting. Surely there were earlier painters whose work simply hasn't survived.

What about music? Courses on the history of western music often start with Gregorian chant — or even earlier, with the "Delphic Hymns" from ancient Greece. But those are just the earliest examples of music that was written down and preserved, not the earliest music ever created.

Still, there is one composer, Claudio Monteverdi, who sometimes gets credit for inventing opera — which just may be an art form entirely unto itself. Opera is more than just music combined with storytelling. It's also stagecraft, poetry and even philosophy — all rolled into one unique form of artistic expression. But, could Monteverdi really have invented it?

Technically, the answer is no. Opera evolved amidst a community of Italian artists in the last years of the 16th century. But nearly all of their earliest works have been lost. The ones that are still around aren't very satisfying, and they're almost never performed. That is, until you get to Monteverdi's Orfeo, in 1607.

With Orfeo, Monteverdi created the first opera that both survived the centuries and stuck in the repertory. It's the earliest example of opera's uncanny ability to present the straightforward words of its characters as well as their anguished and chaotic emotions — and to express all of this simultaneously, with the remarkable clarity and insight that are the trademarks of any great opera. You might call it the first opera that actually "works," and it's still working in opera houses all over the world 400 years after Monteverdi wrote it.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us Monteverdi's Orfeo — arguably the single work from which all other operas are descended — in a production from the Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam, featuring some of the world's finest performers of early music. Stephen Stubbs is the conductor, with tenor Jeremy Ovenden in the title role and soprano Judith van Wanroij as Euridice.

See the previous edition of WORLD OF OPERA.

The Story of 'Orfeo'

Orfeo (tenor Jeremy Ovenden, center) and friends celebrate his wedding, in the Netherlands Opera production of Monteverdi's opera. Ruth Walz and Hans Hijmering hide caption

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Ruth Walz and Hans Hijmering

Orfeo and Euridice (Jeremy Ovenden, right, and Judith van Wanroij) celebrate their wedding with a group of shepherds, in Monteverdi's Orfeo, from the Netherlands Opera.

Ruth Walz and Hans Hijmering

The messenger Silvia (Tania Kross) brings Orfeo the bad news that his new wife, Euridice, has been killed by a poisonous snakebite. Ruth Walz and Hans Hijmering hide caption

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Ruth Walz and Hans Hijmering

ACTS ONE & TWO: The opera's first two acts are both set in the fields of Thrace, where Orfeo and Euridice are married in a raucous celebration that includes a chorus of shepherds and nymphs. But as the second act begins, things turn dark. Orfeo is near the woods, with friends, when a messenger brings bad news. Euridice has been bitten by a poisonous snake, and is dead. The exchange between the dumbfounded Orfeo and Silvia, the messenger, is an extraordinary musical sequence with wildly contrasting harmonies, portraying Orfeo's refusal to accept reality. His denial is so absolute that as Act Two ends, he decides to travel down into the underworld to confront the forces of hell, and bring Euridice back.

ACTS THREE, FOUR & FIVE: Orfeo ventures into the underworld. At first, he is accompanied by the character representing Hope — but she leaves him to his own devices when they reach the gates of the underworld, and find a sign with the famous words, "Abandon hope all ye who enter."

The gates are also guarded by an intimidating character called Caronte. Orfeo appeals to him in one of the opera's most extraordinary and emotional musical numbers, called "Possente spirto" — "Powerful spirit." Orfeo's plaintive lines are echoed by instruments, and his pleas are interrupted by longer instrumental passages that reinforce his desperation. Caronte is unmoved, but the music eventually lulls him to sleep, and Orfeo slips past as the act ends.

In the fourth act, Orfeo confronts Plutone, Lord of the Underworld. He's not inclined to release Euridice, but with some extra persuasion from Plutone's consort, Proserpina, Orfeo wins the day. Plutone says that Orfeo can have Euridice — but only if he leads her out of the underworld without turning back to look at her. Orfeo agrees, but his love is too strong. On their way home Orfeo turns, sees Euridice, and loses her again — this time, forever.

Back in Thrace for Act Five, Orfeo is despondent. His lament is one of the opera's most beautiful passages, with a distant echo repeating his phrases, as though in sympathy. The tension is broken when the god Apollo appears. He offers to take Orfeo into heaven, where he can join Euridice among the stars. The shepherds and nymphs do a dance of celebration, while Apollo and Orfeo ascend, magically, into the clouds.