About the operas

L'Orfeo


Orfeo at the PromsThe history books tell us that L’Orfeo was one of the earliest surviving operas, and the most frequently performed of its era. Yet Monteverdi and his librettist called it a 'fable in music', one which re-enacts the famous story of Orpheus who descends to the underworld in an attempt to bring his dead bride, Eurydice, back to life. His journey through Hades proves fruitless, as he cannot prevent himself from looking back at Eurydice as she follows him back to the living world and is then forced to return to the world of the dead. Orpheus suffers, grows, loses himself in the violence of grief, and finally comes to a new and deeper understanding of himself. L'Orfeo is a magical introduction to Monteverdi's probing investigation of human nature, character and desire by means of music.

Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria


il ritorno d'Ulisse in patriaBased on the second half of Homer’s Odyssey, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria is a tale of treachery and deception, eventually overcome by fidelity and love. When Ulysses, King of Ithaca, returns home from the Trojan wars he finds his faithful queen, Penelope, besieged by a trio of unctuous suitors and urged by her advisors to accept one of them as her new husband. Ulysses (with both the help and hindrance of the quarrelling gods) eventually convinces her of his true identity, routs the three suitors and regains his kingdom. Monteverdi and his librettist  Badoaro chart the trials and twists of Ulysses’s journey, introducing us to a Shakespearean cast of characters  — from the quarrelling gods, to the noble protagonists, their scheming servants, the evil courtiers, and rustics that are either innocent, faithful or merely foolish. It is astonishing how accurately and subtly Monteverdi's music reflects the salient features of each personage. Most strikingly, he underlines the essential humanity of Ulysses and Penelope, so that we are moved to share in their sorrows and joys.

L'incoronazione di Poppea


l'incoronazione di PoppeaMonteverdi’s final opera, L’incoronazione di Poppea, first performed in the 1642-43 carnival season in Venice, was unusual in its time for abandoning mythology in favour of a retelling of historical events. The opera portrays Poppea’s progression from Nero’s mistress to his acknowledged queen. In stark contrast to L’Orfeo and Il ritorno d’Ulisse, Monteverdi's operatic swan-song is a celebration of carnal love and ambition triumphing at the expense of reason and morality. Set in the decadence of Imperial Rome it explores the emotional core of a group of characters as they form and dissolve alliances to achieve their amorous goals and social ambitions. From the outset Monteverdi achieves stark contrasts - the way, for example, he juxtaposes a scene in which two disgruntled sentry guards satirise Rome's degenerate society and prepare us to despise Nero and Poppea, and then follows it with a  portrayal of the two lovers as they exchange and entwine musical lines which leave us under their irresistible spell.

Vespers

nwe1In 1964 a brilliant young undergraduate mounted a performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers (Vespro della Beata Vergine) in the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge. That concert has become part of musical legend, and the undergraduate, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, is now one of the world’s most notable and sort after conductors and Artistic Director of Monteverdi Choir and Orchestras. This year, some 50 years later, Sir John Eliot and his celebrated Choir and English Baroque Soloists, revisit Monteverdi’s towering vocal masterpiece in a series of Cathedral performances as part of their Monteverdi 450 tour. The great Italian composer’s Vespers offers up a dizzying array of textures and sonorities in brilliant instrumental writing, opulent choruses, and moving solo arias and duets. For its time, the work was unprecedented, no other surviving piece from that era is written on such a scale; requiring a choir large enough and skillful enough to cover up to 10 vocal parts and split into separate choirs in others while accompanying seven different soloists. This cherished work combines the grandest of public music with the most intimate of solo songs; unparalleled in the manner it calls in the many colorful obbligato instruments and uses them in such a daringly modern, virtuosic way.