Peri’s Euridice is often hailed as the first extant
opera. Written to a text by Ottavio Rinuccino for the marriage
of Henry of Navarre to Marie de Medici it was intended as a
cultural trump card to demonstrate Florentine superiority. Peri
employed the recitar cantando as a medium through which
to convey this elevated invention – a melodic line for the singer
and another instrumental part, the basso continuo; chordal progressions
were suggested only in cases of doubtful interpretation. Peri’s
primary objective was to promote and enhance textual understanding.
It’s very much a case of music serving the text and this highlighting
of the recitation seems to have been pragmatic in relation to
rhythm and stress. The erudite note writer and musical director,
Anibal Cetrangolo, to whom I’m indebted for his many insights,
notes that Peri’s contemporary Giulio Caccini arrived at similar
rhythmic and melodic solutions as Peri and that points, at least,
to the highly literary nature of early opera and its promotion
of clarity as a means of understanding text.
The opera proceeds as declaimed action broken
by strophic passages. Classical tropes are invariably invoked
– the Prologue of Monteverdi’s Orfeo with its figure of personification
will be the most obvious analogue to Peri’s figure of Tragedy
in the Prologue (after Luca Marenzio’s Sinfonia a 5, presumably
an inauthentic instrumental interpolation, that opens the opera).
The recitation is broken by choruses, sung strophically and
this divides the opera into sections or Acts. The Chorus can
include dance motifs or embodies Personifications (of, say,
demons) and also assume the Greek ritual function familiar from
Recitative is especially expressive and resonant
in Per quel vago boschetto and there is some impressive
monodic recitation in Cruda morte with its imitative
choral response. I was struck by the swelling and falling of
the choral outburst in S’Appenin a movement of such inherently
dramatic veracity. The plangency of Orfeo’s recitative Funeste
piagge is almost, in itself, a paradigm of the interior
power of the operatic monologue – it’s tempting, though maybe
anachronistic, to see it as foreshadowing all other developments
in the self-consciousness of the operatic tradition. Poi
che gli eterni imperi is also especially beautiful
with its unison line gaining in depth, volume and strength.
At such moments one can feel the weight of Peri’s structure
taking root and burgeoning almost in spite of itself into a
form far beyond its own literary constraints.
Notes are excellent – Cetrangolo has a discursive
way with words that is rather whimsically appealing – and performances
are good, but not outstanding. The acoustic is somewhat problematical
but Pavane is to be commended for giving us the fons et origo
of all operas.