Instead of attending a Christmas Dinner, I spent some time re-listening to Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607)today and thought I would post my commentary. I suspect we all have heard this story from Greek mythology, codified in Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Orpheus, one of the Argonauts, marries Eurydice. After she dies, Orpheus descends into the underworld, using his gift of music to tame the beasts guarding the way. Hades grants Orpheus his wife back if he can return to the world of the living without looking at her. He fails in this task and Eurydice returns to Hades.
As we listen to the first act, we need to recall that Orpheus is completing his labors as a warrior and an adventurer. This fact is alluded to a few times throughout the first act such as when the chorus sings “Here is Orpheus, for whom but recently sighs were food and tears drink: today he is happy that he had nothing more to long for.” Orpheus is settling down to marry Eurydice and the entire countryside is rejoicing this fact. Nymphs and shepherds participate in retelling the triumph of their love. The shepherds also post an ominous warning that is not spoken commonly enough at weddings. “Let there be no one who, in despair, gives himself up in prey to grief, though at times it may powerfully assail us and darken out lives.” Ah, but what an orientation to have with fate. While we know sorrow and loss and frustration and suffering stand in front of us, we go in boldly each day for that slim hope of happiness. Too many of us either expect only happiness and face frustration and pain with disbelief. Others so expect pain that they do not risk joy.
Being an Italian opera, we do not need to wait long for fate to return Orpheus to his sorrows. (But we are gifted with a nice little aria celebrating his happiness. Sometime else most of us do too infrequently.) “The Messenger” brings news that Eurydice has died after suffering from a snake bite. Orpheus’ response here is key to the entire opera and its lesson for us, in my opinion. He refuses to accept destiny. Fate for him is something to struggle against, not passively accept or blindly follow. “You are dead, my life, and I still breath? You have gone from me, never more to return, and I remain? No, for it my songs have any power at all I will surely descent to the deepest abyss and, having softened the heart of the King of Shadows, will bring you back with me to see the stars again. Oh, if malign destiny denies me this, I will remain with you in the company of death.”
Hope (Speranza) takes Orpheus to the gates of the underworld but warns him of the futility of his mission. “Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate [Abandon all hope, ye who enter]” With that, Hope abandons Orpheus. Hope is a useless companion when wrestling with fate. Hope is the bastion of the weak. Enter Charon: “Hey, only dead people should be here. Don’t make me get the dogs. Wait, are you here for Persephone?” Orpheus explains but cannot get him to break the rules. Fortunately, Orpheus is such a brilliant singer, Charon falls asleep, allowing our hero to steal the river boat. With this, the chorus makes an important Promethean statement. “No enterprise by man is undertaken in vain, nor can Nature further defend herself against him. He has ploughed the waving fields of the uneven plain and scattered the seed of his labour, whence he has reaped golden harvests.” Historically this may suggest the optimistic humanism of the Renaissance or even portend the emergence of European capitalism. For me it just as strongly foreshadows Wagner and the “Destruction of the Gods” and the emergence of a self-confident and autonomous humanity. Orpheus, by overcoming Charon and entering the underworld take the realm of the divine for himself. By refusing to accept fate, he has conquered the means by which the gods keep us in control. The afterlife separates the past from the present and makes loss our greatest fear. Orpheus destroys this boundary, undermining natures hold over us.
The next act opens with Persephone convincing Pluto to return Eurydice to her husband. Persephone misread Orpheus and feels pity for his sorrow. Pluto knows better than to contradict his wife, but he also understands that Orpheus is not the pitiable figure his wife takes him for. He attaches the condition that “he may not once turn his eager eyes toward her, for a single glance will inevitably bring about her eternal loss.” Orpheus leaves with Eurydice behind him. The libretto (by Alessandro Striggio) is clear that Orpheus turns to gaze on her with defiance at the rule of the god. It is not a mistake brought on by recklessness, forgetfulness, or haste. Orpheus chooses to defy the gods and accept fate – as horrible as it is. Let’s take a look at this defiant passage. “Perhaps the gods of Avernus, impelled by envy, so that I should not be fully happy down here, prevent me from looking at you, blessed and radiant eyes, which can bless others with a mere look? But what do you fear, my heart? What Pluto forbids, Love commands. I must obey a more powerful divinity who conquers both men and gods.” The chorus at the end of Act IV want to put a damper on this victory by saying that a true hero can achieve victory over himself as well as others. But still, his conquest of Hades is doubtless.
The opera ends with Orpheus rejecting other women (in the original libretto this rightfully inspired the ire of Bacchus). He ascends into the skies with Apollo and has his image preserved in the stars. While this ending seems to undermine my reading of Orpheus as a Promethean figure as he finally accepts the advice and rules of the gods, even this was an act of defiance. My refusing the love of other women, Orpheus remained in rebellion until his end. Orpheus has a lesson to teach us about how we orient ourselves to a world that is almost always outside of our control. Fate is with us, but should be a force we wrestle with. Not something to despair over or accept meekly.
Note: Translations from the recoding booklet by Lionel Salter. See the production conducted by John Eliot Gardner (1987)