Born in Cremona, Duchy of Milan, which is now known at Lombardy, Italy, this composer is considered a vital interim character during the artistic transition between the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Claudio Giovanni Antonio Monteverdi was not only a composer of music, he was also a singer, a Catholic priest, and a gambist, which is an instrument that resembles the viola.
It was Monteverdi’s use of basso continuo methods, which were distinctive to the Baroque epoch, that set him apart from the traditional polyphony (musical textures) and madrigals (vocal stylings) of the Renaissance style, which are also devices he used a great deal. We would like to take a look at some of the works that put this composer on the opera map.
This work falls under the genre of favola in musica, which basically means opera, and has a libretto written by Alessandro Striggio. The piece was inspired by the story of Orpheus, who is of Greek myth and had the gift of charming everyone with his music. It focuses on one aspect of Orpheus’ journey when he travels down the Hades hoping that his dead wife Eurydice will come back to life.
The court commissioned the work in 1607 for their Carnival at Mantua, an annual local festival. L’Orfeo isn’t the oldest known opera, but it is the eldest opera that is still performed on a regular basis. It was this Monteverdi work that stimulated the theatrical practice of “intermedio”, which was a theatrical performance during the Italian Renaissance, that was staged in between the acts of another play. The “intermedio” would soon evolve into opera and this work paved the way.
Since its first performance on February 1607, this early opera has been regularly performed around the world. The first staging was a success according to the few accounts historians can find.
2. L’incoronazione di Poppea
Giovanni Francesco Busenello penned the Italian language libretto for this next Monteverdi opera. It was premiered at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo, a prestigious theatre in ancient Venice, in 1643 in the midst of carnival. This work is one of the first in the world of opera to take historical events and turn them into a tale for the stage.
Poppaea is the mistress of Nero, a famous Roman emperor, who desired to be Nero’s wife. The next known staging was in Naples a few years later but after that there is no record of any company reviving Poppea, for more than 200 years. When the score was found in 1888, historians studied the piece well into the 20th century. By the 1960s, Poppea has been revived many times throughout the world and continues to engage audiences.
The first manuscript, written by Monteverdi, has disappeared, yet copies that were penned in the mid 17th century are still around, yet they are in contrast of each other in content to the point that Monteverdi’s authoring of the work has been debated. Still, it is sealed in the repertoire as a Monteverdi work in the world of opera.
The Coronation of Poppea, by the Norweggian National Opera & Ballet, is available to watch here.
3. Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria
Meaning The Return of Ulysses to his Homeland, this opera is based on the Odyssey by Homer, and tells the tale of the King of Ithaca who comes home after the Trojan Wars to find men trying to seduce Penelope, his queen. This opera was written toward the end of Monteverdi’s life and is one of several composed for the opera scene in Venice, which was up-and-coming at the time.
Once Il ritorno found success in Venice, it moved its way to Bologna and then was staged back in Venice again. After that there is word that a revival was produced in the late 1600s in Vienna for the Imperial court but this has no way of being truly confirmed. It faded into near non-existence for three centuries, until it was resuscitated in the 20th century.
Yet, when they published the score in the early 1920s, another question of legitimacy arose and, once again, Il ritorno, disappeared. But it only took three decades opposed to three centuries before it was shot into the spot light again. Once the mystery had been solved and it was decided fact that Monteverdi created this piece, it was revived in Vienna and at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera in the late 20th century and, since this last resurrection, it has been performed on every corner of the globe.
4. Il Combattimento di Tancredi
Only sung with three voices, this next Monteverdi opera is a romantic opera that has the First Crusade as the setting. La Gerusalemme Liberata an epic poem by Torquato Tasso, was the inspiration for this opera and it was staged for the first time in 1624 but there are no copies of it prior to a 1638 printed version that is included in the eighth book of madrigals, a work written over several years by Monteverdi.
In this piece the voices of the vocalists are distinctively separate from the music created by the orchestra. He put the strings in four section, which was different from the typical five that was popular for the era. The use of four sections became the norm a century later. It is also in the work that he first uses pizzicato, which is a technique of stretching and plucking the strings of an instrument that became popular during the Baroque period.
It also is one of the first times in opera that a composer used tremolo, a technique that is the continual replication of a single note. This opera is important in its illustration of Monteverdi’s love of trying new things even though none of his peers adopted the practices.
The last opera on our list of Monteverdi works today is number two in a long line of operas created by the composer. The premiere performance was given at the royal wedding of the Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga in Mantua on May 28, 1608. There are no copies of the work left except for a portion that is called “Lamento d’Arianna.” Yet, the libretto endured, which was written by Ottavio Rinuccini. The author based the story on Heroides, a collection of epistolary poems written by Ovid, a famous Roman poet.
Monteverdi has made the claim the pressure he was under to compose this piece nearly put him in his grave. Yet, the premiere was a huge success and the piece would be staged in Venice with Monteverdi in the director’s chair at the Teatro San Moisè in 1640. After that there are no chronicles of the opera ever being performed again, which has been the fate of several Monteverdi operas.
The composer passed on in his beloved Venice in late November of 1643.
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