Orfeo 2.0 – a baRock Opera

On the 24th February 1607, the premier of Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi marks the beginning of modern music as we know it. The selected audience at the Gonzaga court must have felt that they were witnessing a performance that showed them the future of contemporary music, as it opened numberless possibilities for the expression of emotions and for the expressivity of the musical language.

Those who listened to the premier of Bolero by Ravel must have felt such an emotion, or maybe this is how Miles Davis felt when he first listened to Charlie Bird Parker and Dizzie Gillespie playing live. George Martin described his bewilderment when John Lennon played Strawberry Fields Forever for him: maybe that’s how it felt to listen to the first Orfeo sing Possente Spirto?

Being aware of this, how can we perform Monteverdi’s Orfeo today, when all we have is a score and very little information on the orchestration? Moreover, think of jazz, if no recording were available today; we would know only 10% of the notes that so many great artists of this genre actually played! Well, Monteverdi’s score tells us nothing about the notes or the rhythm played by the organists, the harpsichordists, the harpists, guitarists and lutinists in L’Orfeo. We can form our opinion of this repertoire through philological studies, still we are convinced that if we could travel backwards in time and listen to how this music was played in 1607, we would be shocked. How can we then “cleanse” our sense of hearing and our musical memory, so that this music may sound as new and revolutionary as it was?

Opera was dawning in 1607. Euridice by Jacopo Peri (1600) is considered as the first opera in history. Claudio Monteverdi thought the expressive power of such music was limited by a theoretical assumption - that of showing the supremacy of monody and recitar cantando over polyphony - that he found too big a limit for the spontaneity of musical inspiration. His reply was L’Orfeo, amazing first attempt in the new representative genre.

Again, the study of the sources gives us a lot of enthusiasm, as it shows us how to bring back to life a repertoire that was considered to be confined to music history books. Still, how can any rock-, pop- or jazz concert display a much higher communication power than any classical music performance, and this despite the extreme beauty of the texts and the virtuosity of its performers?

This Orfeo – a baRock Opera - was first created at the Festival at Aix-en-Provence in 2007. During the stage rehearsals, musicians played with the musical material, rearranging it on the spot in a modern style that amused the singers and yet allowed them to vibrate deeply with this kind of music, in a way that they hardly considered possible. From here came the idea of broadening the experiment and to narrate the full tale of Orfeo, trying to recreate the original bewilderment.

From Blues to Jazz-Rock, Progressive and Post-Punk, to our hearing all of these styles fit the modal melodies of Orfeo. This great opera’s antiquity turns into a resource of great modernity.

The performance of Orfeo at the Gijon Early Music Festival in 2009 turned an intuition into a full-scale theatre production.

But why would we perform Monteverdi’s Orfeo in this form? The answer lies in the affections expressed, and in their expression through the performance of music. There is something incredibly touching and universal in the music that Monteverdi composed for Orfeo, which we haven’t felt in any of the modern performances we have heard so far. This potential in communication should be expressed through a new way of singing, set in contemporary sounds and rhythms. In this way, some 406-years “old” music would be ready for very vast audiences of all ages – though mostly young -, who would listen to it without any intellectual filter, much like they listen to the songs in a musical.

We don’t claim that Monteverdi would agree with us, but we are certain that he would recognise the passion which moves this experiment, which is entirely rooted in the greatness of his music.

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