A tragedy in a prologue and five scenes.
Text by Ottavio Rinuccini (the word ‘libretto’ had not been invented yet): written in verse and a very elegant poem in its own right.
First performed in the Pitti Palace in Florence on 6 October 1600
The opera begins with a Prologue delivered by a singer representing Tragedy. She explains to the audience that she has not come this time to reduce them to tears with stories of sorrow, death and cruelty, but has changed her usual costume in order to awaken much sweeter emotions in the human heart. Future artists may well follow in her footsteps, when the whole world admires what she can do in this changed form: the new queen whose wedding is being celebrated, she says, will be more garlanded with laurels than anyone ever was in ancient Athens or Rome. She herself is going to dress up for the royal wedding, and while France prepares to receive its new queen, the wedding guests can relax and listen to the singing of Orpheus.
A chorus of nymphs and shepherds enter and Aminta, one of the shepherds, calls all the nymphs and all pastoral lovers to join in the happy celebrations as heaven joins bold Orpheus and blessed Euridice in marriage. A nymph responds by begging Apollo, the sun god, to shine even more brightly on the happy day, and Aminta adds that all the heavenly bodies can smile upon the happy couple. The nymph urges her fellow nymphs to sing and they are happy to comply, and Arcetro, a friend of Orpheus, joins in the celebrations. Euridice too is happy and thanks them all for their good wishes. Daphne, one of the nymphs, cannot believe that any creature would not be happy on such a wonderful day. Euridice suggests that they should all go and sing and dance in a woodland glade and they all trip happily off.
Orpheus now enters and recalls the time before he met Euridice when he used to sing sad songs and make even the plants and trees droop with sympathy. He wonders why the day is passing so slowly and urges the sun to hurry up so that he can marry Euridice. Arcetro comments on how happy Orpheus looks and reminds him how often in the past he had urged him to hope for love one day, and how young ladies tend to respond to ardent young suitors. Tirsi, another of Orpheus’s companions, produces his pan-pipes and sings a jolly little rustic song about the pleasures of marriage and Orpheus and Arcetro reiterate their great joy.
(So far, the audience would have gone along with everything they had seen and heard: happiness and lovers and a wedding in the offing.)
Suddenly, Daphne returns with terrible news. She comments on the transience of pleasure and Arcetro and Orpheus ask her what has happened. She is reluctant to tell them, but eventually the story comes out: Euridice was having a wonderful time dancing beside the streams and across the meadows, picking wild flowers to make a garland for her hair, but when suddenly a snake concealed in the grass bit her foot, she fell to the ground mortally wounded; the nymphs had tried to support her, but she just called Orpheus’s name and then died.
Orpheus is incapable of reaction. He says that her final call to him will not go unheeded and that he will join her in death. Arcetro resolves to follow Orpheus to prevent him from killing himself and Daphne agrees that this would be wise. The nymphs return to the scene, subdued by what has happened, and sing about how death has spoiled all their happiness in a chorus punctuated by solos and a melancholy trio.
A little time has passed. Arcetro tells the nymphs how he had followed Orpheus and watched him sink deeper into despair, with the creatures and the plants sharing his sorrow, until he reached the place where Euridice had died. He fell, desolate, on the spot stained by her blood and Arcetro was just about to move forward to support his friend when he saw a goddess in a shining chariot drawn by doves come down from heaven and lift Orpheus to his feet. Happy that his friend had been saved from suicide, Arcetro had hurried off to tell what he had seen. The chorus sings of the power of fate and expresses happiness that Orpheus has been saved from suicide and taken up to heaven.
The goddess, however, was Venus herself, and she has not taken Orpheus to heaven. She has taken him instead to the entrance to the underworld, where she tells him to have hope and that he will triumph over death. Orpheus asks her what he must do and she tells him that no living creature has ever been there before and that he must use his music to win the sympathy of the god of the underworld: Orpheus’s song of sorrow had softened her heart, she says, so it might soften Pluto’s heart too. She then leaves Orpheus alone.
Orpheus obeys her command, and immediately launches into a lament for his lost love, pleading for pity from those who rule the realm of death. Pluto hears the song and asks what mortal man has dared to enter the underworld. Orpheus begs him for mercy and Pluto responds that if it was in his power to grant mercy, Orpheus’s plea would be successful. Orpheus, however, will not take no for an answer and he renews his lament, softening Pluto’s heart even more. But rules are rules, says Pluto, and they cannot be broken. Orpheus asks Pluto to look at the tears in the eyes of his own wife, Proserpina: she has been moved by the lament. Proserpina indeed has been affected by his grief (after all, she was once an earth-dweller who was forced and tricked into her marriage with Pluto). She intervenes on Orpheus’s behalf; she persuades Pluto to grant Orpheus’s request. But Pluto is still resolute, and when Orpheus renews his appeal, Pluto asks why he should ignore his own laws. Charon, the gatekeeper of the underworld, joins in the debate, supporting Pluto’s hard-line stance. He says that all men die eventually so all men must come to this place sooner or later; why should Pluto make an exception for this one man? Pluto, however, has at last been persuaded by the beauty of Orpheus’s music and he agrees to his request. He orders that Orpheus should be escorted into Hades to where Euridice is and then be allowed to return with her to the earth. Orpheus is ecstatic, and a double chorus of the gods of hell comment on the unprecedented nature of the event they have just witnessed: no living man has ever entered the kingdom of the dead, and now Orpheus has not only done the impossible, but even gained permission to return to life. Such is the power of music, they observe.
Back on earth it is dawn. Arcetro and the nymphs are wondering what will happen next: there is no sign of Orpheus, but since a goddess took him away, he must be safe. Aminta arrives to tell them that Orpheus has regained his happiness. Arcetro listens in disbelief, but Aminta assures him that it is true, and that both Orpheus and Euridice are safe and close by: he had gone to comfort Euridice’s parents in their grief, and while he was there he saw Euridice with his own eyes, blushing and smiling while a heavenly choir sang in the background. Arcetro is convinced, and as he begins to rejoice, Orpheus and Euridice themselves enter: Orpheus bids the world rejoice at his song of joy and Euridice reassures her companions that she really is restored to life. She tells everyone how Orpheus had saved her and Orpheus acknowledges the help of Venus. As Daphne and Arcetro ply the lovers with questions, Aminta praises the triumph of music over all adversity, and the opera ends with a joyous ballet/chorus of great happiness.
Other related OperaStory articles can be found on
- The circumstances which led to the creation of opera
- The reasons for the choice of the story of Orpheus and Euridice
- Other operas based on the story of Orpheus and Euridice
- The lives of Jacopo Peri and Ottavio Rinuccini
- and many other aspects of the story and of the history of opera
© Roger Witts 2007