Euridice, an opera by Jacopo Peri, with additional music by Giulio Caccini is the oldest surviving opera, first performed in Florence on this date in 1600 at the Palazzo Pitti with Peri himself singing the role of Orfeo. An earlier opera by Peri, Dafne (1597), is now lost. The libretto by Ottavio Rinuccini is based on books X and XI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses which recount the story of the legendary musician Orpheus and his wife Euridice. Because Europe’s actual oldest opera is lost, this date is the best we can do for dating the genesis of modern opera. Euridice was created for the marriage of Henry IV of France and Maria de Medici.
At the premiere, many of the roles were filled by members of Caccini’s entourage, including his daughter Francesca Caccini. Peri composed all of the music for the first production, but owing to the integral involvement of Caccini and his performers, some of Peri’s music was finally replaced by that of Caccini. When Caccini discovered that Peri intended to publish the opera with the added Caccini pieces, he rushed to finish his own version of Euridice using the same libretto, and managed to have his published before Peri’s. In his preface, Peri notes that all of the music was completed by the date of the first performance earning his efforts the designation Prima Euridice.
In creating the music for Euridice, Peri envisioned a vocal style that is half sung and half spoken. For less dramatic parts he created vocal lines close to the style of spoken language set over a sustained accompaniment. For impassioned scenes he explored stronger and more rapid melodies with steadily changing harmonies. Peri’s critics have observed that within the score of Euridice, he created no musically remarkable examples of either. However, he did use ranges and widths of register, as well as frequency and power of cadences, to distinguish different characters and dramatic moods. The voice and accompaniment are carefully paced to emphasize the tension and release in the text. Rhythmic and melodic inflections in the vocal lines closely, almost scientifically, imitate dramatic speech. In addition, impassioned exclamations are set with unprepared dissonances and unexpected movements in the bass. This extract may serve to show the style of the piece. It is pleasant enough, but not remarkable musically.
Euridice has its detractors, but there is general agreement that Peri established sound principles for operatic composition. Classic opera, henceforth, tells a story that exploits the interplay between aria and recitative, and uses a mix of solo, ensemble and choral singing. Peri’s Euridice tells the story of the musician Orpheus and his wife Euridice based on classic Greek legend, but with allowances for artistic license. According to the legend (which is actually retold in a number of ancient texts in Latin), Orpheus was a great musician who journeyed to the underworld to plead with the gods to revive his wife Euridice after she had been fatally injured.
The opera opens with a simple melody by a singer representing the Tragic Muse, La Tragedia, and a short ritornello. Shepherds nearby and the Tragic Muse sing a conversation in recitatives and choruses, Daphne enters to notify everyone that Euridice has been fatally bitten by a serpent.
All of the nymphs and shepherds gather to celebrate the wedding of Orfeo and Euridice.
Orfeo is content after his wedding but is soon interrupted by Dafne. She brings the terrible news that Euridice has been bitten by a venomous snake and has died. Orfeo then vows to rescue her from the underworld.
Arcetro recounts that while Orfeo lay weeping, Venus, goddess of love, carries him off in her chariot.
This opens with Orpheus pleading with Venere, Plutone, Prosperina, Caronte, and Radamanto in the underworld for the return of his beloved wife Euridice. Nearly the entire scene is carried in recitative. When the act closes, Orpheus is back with Tirsi and the other shepherds.
Venus and Orfeo arrive at the gates of the underworld. Venus suggests that through his legendary voice he might persuade Pluto to return Euridice to life. Orfeo succeeds and is allowed to leave with his bride.
Orfeo and Euridice return from the underworld and rejoice.
The entire opera, with libretto in Italian with an English translation, is here:
If you know the story of Orpheus and Eurydice you will know that the ending of the opera does not coincide with the Greek legend. In the original, Hades allows Orpheus to take Eurydice back but she is still a “shade” until she reaches the sunlight and gains human form again, and Orpheus must not look back until she is in the sunlight. Because she does not have a body, when she walks behind Orpheus she does not make any sound, and Orpheus, fearing he has been tricked by Hades looks back just before he reaches the surface to check she is there, and she is taken back to the Underworld. Lesson #1 people – HAVE FAITH.
Today’s recipe is for a version of pasta in brodo from the cookery book Opera (first published 1570) from Bartolomeo Scappi, who was active from 1536 to 1570 – the period of this opera. I chose it, partly because it is contemporary Italian, partly because I am a fan of pasta in brodo, and partly because of the coincidence of names (“opera” in the book’s title means “works” or “actions”). Note that the soup can be made with broth or milk and that the seasonings include sugar and cinnamon. By all means boil up a crane or hare to make your broth.
Per far minestra di tagliatelli
Impastinosi due libre di fior di farina con tre uoua, & acqua tepida, & mescolisi bene sopra una tavola per lo spatio d’un quarto d’hora, & dapoi stendasi sottilmente con il bastone, & lascisi alquanto risciugare il sfoglio, & rimondinosi con lo sperone le parti piu grosse, che son gli orlicci, & quando sarà asciutto però non troppo, perche crepe rebbe, spoluerizzisi di fior di farina con il fetaccio, accioche non si attacchi, piglisi poi il bastone della pasta, & comincisi da un capo, & riuolgasi tutto lo sfoglio sopra il bastone leggiermente, cauisi il bastone, e taglisi lo sfoglio cosi riuolto per lo trauerso con un coltello largo sottile, e tagliati che saranno, slarghinosi, & lassinosi alquanto rasciugare, & asciutti che saranno, fettaccisi fuora per lo criuello il farinaccio, & facciasene minestra con brodo grasso di carne, o con latte, & butiro, & cotti che saranno, seruanosi caldi con cascio, zuccaro, & cannella, & uolendone far lasagne taglisi la pasta sul bastone per lungo, & compartasi la detta pasta in due parti parimente per lungo, e taglisi in quadretti, & faccianosi cuocere in brodo di lepre, ouero di grua, o d’altra carna, o latte, & seruanosi calde con cascio, zuccaro, & cannella.
To prepare soup with tagliatelle
Work two pounds of flour, three eggs and warm water into a dough, kneading it on a table for a quarter of an hour. Roll it out thin with a rolling pin and let the sheet of dough dry a little. Trim away the irregular parts, the fringes, with a cutting wheel. When it has dried, though not too much because it will break up, sprinkle it with flour through a sieve so it will not stick. Then take the rolling pin and, beginning at one end, wrap the whole sheet loosely on to the pin, draw the pin out and cut the rolled-up dough crosswise with a broad, thin knife. When they are cut, flatten them. Let them dry out a little and, when they are dry, shake off the excess flour through a sieve. Make a soup of them with a fat meat broth, or milk and butter. When they are cooked, serve them hot with cheese, sugar and cinnamon. If you want to make lasagnas of them, cut the dough lengthwise on the pin, and likewise divide it lengthwise in two, and cut that into little squares. Cook them in the broth of a hare, a crane or some other meat, or in milk. Serve them hot with cheese, sugar and cinnamon.