About the operas
The 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
Based 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
Monteverdi’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.