The Root Of All Opera: 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 a truly great opera house, Milan's La Scala.

The Root Of All Opera: Monteverdi's 'Orfeo'

From La Scala

An Audio Introduction to the Opera

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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.

THE HIT SINGLE

  • In Act Two, when Orfeo (baritone Georg Nigl) 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?"

'Tu se' morta'

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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.

'Possente Spirto'

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Luigi De Donato (left) plays Caronte, with Georg Nigl as Orfeo, in La Scala's production of the 1607 opera by Monteverdi. Lelli e Masotti/Teatro alla Scala hide caption

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Lelli e Masotti/Teatro alla Scala

Luigi De Donato (left) plays Caronte, with Georg Nigl as Orfeo, in La Scala's production of the 1607 opera by Monteverdi.

Lelli e Masotti/Teatro alla Scala

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 often 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 -- a work of music and theater that displayed a brand new sort of artistic alchemy. Somehow, it managed to present the straightforward words of its characters, and express the anguished, chaotic emotions behind those words -- both at the same time, and with remarkable clarity and insight. 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 a company that has premiered many of opera's greatest masterpieces -- Milan's La Scala. Rinaldo Alessandrini is the conductor, with baritone Georg Nigl in the title role and soprano Roberta Invernizzi as Euridice.

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