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There are several other stunning moments of similar innovation throughout the opera. One of the most breathtaking uses of recitative comes in act two, when, as Orpheus and his nymphs and shepherds are relaxing in the shade, the Messenger arrives to deliver the news that Eurydice is dead. Her dissonant utterance—“Ahi, caso acerbo!” (Ah, bitter blow!)—and subsequent exchange with the shepherds and Orpheus finds Monteverdi using all of the harmonic and wordpainting skill at his disposal to underscore this moment of tragedy. At a similar moment, in act four, when Orpheus makes the fateful turn to see if his beloved is truly following him out of the Underworld, Monteverdi uses similar means to make the dramatic point. Orpheus catches a fleeting glimpse—“O dolcissimi lumi” (O sweetest eyes)—and the music seems to stand still through the simplest means, hushed declamation over a pedal point before an unsettling interruption signals her disappearance.

chorus with more freedom, in the style of his madrigals, for example, in the Chorus of Spirits that closes acts three and four. Monteverdi’s vocal writing in the strophic numbers, as well as in the recitatives, is incredibly expressive. Seldom have words and music been so carefully untied, and with such dramatic purpose. This reaches a peak in Orpheus’ act three “Possente spirito,” his plea to Charon to cross the River Styx. Monteverdi writes music that is increasingly florid, elaborate, for each successive stanza, to reflect Orpheus’ increasing desperation, his heightened emotional state. For the sixth and final stanza, all of the decoration falls away, and we hear Orpheus sing his plea with moving simplicity. It is a wonderful example of the rhetorical bent of Monteverdi’s writing, another instance of a simple gesture employed for maximum impact. It is this accumulation of simple gestures, masterfully deployed over L’Orfeo’s roughly one and three-quarter hours of music, that distinguishes it as a unique and path-breaking masterpiece.


Orpheus’ hymn to his father Apollo, “Rosa del ciel” (Rose of heaven). Here we begin to sense Monteverdi’s unique gift for word-painting and atmosphere. A succession of philosophical reflections offered by the shepherds and nymphs follows, interspersed with ritornelli to create another strophic structure. A brief chorus, capturing perfectly Orpheus’ transformation from sad sack into happy bridegroom, ends the act. It’s a stunning display of mastery of musical architecture on Monteverdi’s part, combining several fairly simple and brief building blocks into a larger and dramatically compelling structure.

— John Mangum

The chorus also plays an important role, appearing as pastoral figures in acts one, two, and five and as spirits in acts three and four. Monteverdi lavishes considerable skill on his choral writing. The monumental mourning scene at the end of act two alternates chorus and soloists in a homophonic setting of the Messenger’s “Ahi, caso acerbo!” music. In other places, Monteverdi treats the 17

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