I won’t say too much… the role of Euridice in Monteverdi’s Orfeo

This article is posted in connection with the production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo for Vaasa Baroque Festival in October 2019.

See also The Orfeo Page by Il Corago for further articles and a documentary film.

Whilst Rinuccini’s verse-drama, set by Peri and Caccini in 1600, has the title L’Euridice, Striggio’s 1607 libretto for Monteverdi presents the same mythological ‘fable in music as a theatrical show’ – favola in musica rappresentata – as L’Orfeo, and the focus is almost exclusively on the protagonist. Following the trend towards Personation – increasingly ‘realistic’ embodiment of theatrical roles – seen also in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and other dramas circa 1600, Striggio seeks to move the audience’s passions by encouraging them to watch how each event affects the central character, Orpheus himself.

As Rhetoric,  baroque music-drama persuades by Logos (word), Pathos (emotions) and Ethos (character). Details of poetic imagery in the text use the power of Energeia not only to express, but to induce listeners to share in ever-changing emotions, from the very beginning of the first Act: In questo lieto e fortunato giorno (happy and lucky)… sospirato e pianto (sighing and crying)… lieto e fortunato (happy and lucky again). As the first Pastore delivers those words and sends out waves of Energia (the communicative spirit of passion), he also mentions and gestures towards nostro semideo (our demigod)… Orfeo, directing the spectator’s attention to the protagonist. The audience then sees the present happiness and good fortune as well as the past melancholy and tears, all mirrored in the face and gestures of the principal actor, reflecting and amplifying the emotional Energia. This amplification is all the more effective, because that actor embodies a character renowned for his divine ability to convey emotions in music. Logos, Pathos and Ethos thus unite to convert poetic Enargeia into emotional Energia, with music as the catalyst.

Also, Orpheus is the presiding figure at the pastoral court of Arcadia. Renaissance courtiers were accustomed to watching their Prince, to gauge his reactions to any event. As the audience at a performance, they would divide their attention between the performers and their Lord: their appreciation of the show depended on his approval. So the split-screen effect on stage (simultaneously showing the action, and Orpheus’ reaction to it) takes advantage of the audience’s real-life experience to super-charge the emotional impact.

This is most obvious in the long Messenger scene, where Eurydice’s death (too terrible to be enacted, and too impractical to show on stage effectively) is narrated in every detail, with almost cinematic changes of pace from the girls fussing around her dying body with cold water and powerful charms to the heroine’s languid eyes and last deep sigh. (There are similar contrasts of pace, with slow-motion effects and rich poetic detail, for the death of Clorinda in Monteverdi’s Combattimento.)

As we hear detailed narration, we envisage the scene. And the 1607 audience also saw Orpheus’ reactions: at the bitter news, the unhappy man is like a mute stone, who for too much grief cannot grieve. A l’amara novella rassembla l’infelice un muto sasso, che per troppo dolor non puo dolersi.

Nevertheless, it does seem surprising that Eurydice herself has only two speeches in the entire music-drama. In the original production, the part was played by a male soprano (perhaps the little priest who had so much difficulty memorising words), but this in itself would not have been an obstacle to extending the role. Shakespeare’s plays, even the great love stories of Romeo and Juliet or Anthony and Cleopatra were originally performed by all-male casts, and the Mantuan audience would have been accustomed to this convention.

The result of the concentration of Eurydice’s entire role into just a dozen lines (six in Act I and another six in Act IV) is to invite us to weigh carefully every word she utters, and to listen attentively to Monteverdi’s realisation of her emotions in the most expressive genre of dramatic monody. More about Monteverdi’s monody here.

I won’t say…

Io non diro qual sia
Nel tuo gioir Orfeo la gioa mia,
Che non ho meco il core,
Ma teco stassi in compagnia d’Amore.
Chiedilo dunque a lui, s’intender brami
Quanto lieta gioisca, e quanto t’ami.

I won’t say what might be
In your joy, Orpheus, my own joy,
For I don’t have my heart with me,
But it is with you, in the company of Love.
Ask this therefore of my heart, if you desire to understand
How happily I rejoice, and how much I love you.

Whereas Orpheus’s love song Rosa del ciel is a rhetorical and musical tour de force, opening with the solemn dignity of an invocation of Apollo over a sustained bass on Gamut (the foundation of all music), Eurydice begins plainly. Her first words show the feminine modesty expected at the time, and Monteverdi’s music obediently takes up the D harmonies from the end of Orpheus’ song. And in spite of the structured poetry in rhyming couplets, she does not sing, but speaks (in the convention of expressive Monody).

But what expression Monteverdi introduces! The harmonic shift to the hard hexachord in the continuo-bass C#6 – E major – A minor foreshadows the harmonies of the Messaggiera’s despairing wail Ahi, caso acerbo!, of Orpheus’ tragic wrong turn in Hell ma qual eclissi, ohime, v’oscura? and of his last request to Apollo Ma non vedro piu mai  de l’amata Euridice i dolci rai? (But won’t I ever see again beloved Eurydice’s sweet eyes?)

Euridice does not say much, but with her words “I will not say..”, Monteverdi says all that could be said.

Now the harmonies turn to the natural hexachord, C major, with Orpheus’ joy and hers too. But a strange melodic leap and high dissonance highlight the poetic imagery “I have no heart” – this conventional trope will gain uncanny power in Act III when Orpheus argues that since his heart (Eurydice) is no longer with him, without a heart he cannot be alive, so he must qualify for passage on Caronte’s ferry to the underworld.

In a speech artfully crafted to appear naive, the rhetorical term dunque stands out as an unexpected connector …therefore… Perhaps Striggio is marking connections to other appearances of this word: in the first Pastore’s opening speech (where it underlines a rhetorical repeat of the first lines); in the second Pastore’s reminder that joy comes from heaven; in the Shepherds’ praise of Orpheus and his Lyre in Act II; and in Apollo’s formal invitation to heaven at the end of the whole drama.

In Eurydice’s first speech, by the time we reach the word Amore, we have returned to the soft hexachord and to the harmonies of Orpheus’ song. And her last words are the simplest possible declaration, “I love you”, all on one note. This is a musical code: the absence of melody tells the audience to pay attention to the words. And if we listen carefully, two words are repeated in this short speech, emphasising the emotional tone: love and joy.

But nevertheless there was a hard hexachord hint of trouble ahead when Orpheus’ desire is coloured by B natural, whilst Eurydice’s love has soft hexachord Bb. Bramare (to desire) evokes the Choleric humour associated also with anger, violence and Bacchic excess; whereas amare (to love) is associated with the generosity, joy and hope of the Sanguine humour. With delicate choice of similar but contrasting words and notes, Striggio and Monteverdi drop a subtle hint that Eurydice’s feelings are appropriately warm, but Orpheus’ passions are already too hot.

Too much!

Ahi, vista troppo dolce e tropp’ amara!
Cosi per troppo amor, dunque mi perdi?
Ed io, misera, perdo
Il poter piu godere e di luce
E di vita, e perdo insieme
Te, d’ogni ben piu caro, o mio consorte!

Ah, sight too sweet and too bitter!
Thus through too much love, therefore you lose me?
And I, wretched girl, lose
The power anymore to enjoy light
And life, and I also lose
You, of every good thing the most dear, Oh my husband!

Only one word from Eurydice’s first speech is heard when she speaks again: that word is Amor – love. But two new words dominate this short but emotionally searing lament: troppo – too much, and perdere – to lose, and they are connected by another rhetorical dunque. The message could not be clearer: it is Orpheus’ excessive emotions that have resulted in total loss.

This verdict will be underlined by the commenting chorus at the end of the Act: Degno d’eterna gloria fia sol colui ch’avra di se vittoria. (Worthy of eternal glory is only he who will have victory over himself.)

And at the end of the story, Apollo hammers home the lesson, arriving when Orpheus is ‘in greatest need, driven to a desperate end with extreme grief by anger and love’. Al maggior uopo arrivi, ch’a disperato fine con estremo dolore m’havean condotto gia sdegno ed Amore.

Apollo’s message is stern and clear:

Troppo, troppo gioisti
Di tua lieta ventura,
Hor troppo piangi
Tua sorte acerba e dura.

Too much, too much you rejoiced
In your happy luck,
Now you cry too much
For your bitter and harsh fate.

But with the following dunque (the last one), drawn out and high in the voice, Apollo connects his severe judgement to an invitation to eternal life in heaven, and Orpheus is saved to admire Eurydice’s beautiful face in the sun and the stars.

Euridice’s Act IV music is also loaded with information and emotion. The expressive exclamatione in the soft hexachord, “Oh!”, with a tender dissonance against Eb (compare Grandi’s O quam tu pulchra es here) twists unexpectedly to hard hexachord and the fatal harmony of E major on dolce, an ominously troubled sweetness. Amara returns to soft hexachord Eb again, but with the bitterest dissonance this hexachord allows.

The crucial verse is heralded by the use of narrative style – speaking on a monotone F# warns the audience to pay attention to the words, without being distracted by pretty tunes. And with the genius for expressing emotions that the ‘divine Claudio’ was famous for, this story-telling F# collides heartbreakingly with Orpheus’ love-music of G minor, on the word Amor itself. Monteverdi even manages to convey Eurydice’s disbelief by turning Striggio’s statement into a question, with an upwardly inflected cadence. This musical gesture corresponds to the actor’s upturned hand, indicating a question.

The dissonance on misera (wretched) stabs harsh G# into soft hexachord F, leading inevitably to fatal E major and the Messaggiera’s C# 6. The word caro is given soft hexachord Bb, and another tender exclamatione expresses unhappy Eurydice’s last sigh, before the Infernal Spirit thunders (in E major, of course) Return to the shadow of death! Torna a l’ombra di morte, infelice Euridice!

17th-century poets and poetry-fans would collect beautiful verses in isolation, to admire them, and to insert them into a longer poem when opportunity arose. In the centre of this speech, at the crucial moment in the whole drama, here surely is one such line from Striggio, shining sadly like a dark gemstone in Monteverdi’s artfully bitter-sweet setting:

Cosi per troppo amor dunque mi perdi!

 

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