Thursday, February 22, 2018

Semi-Scholarly Summary: Bringing Back Euridice

Photo (c) Cantanti Project/Lucas Godlewski

It is a truth universally acknowledged that claimants to the title of First Opera are many, though Monteverdi's Orfeo usually makes it into the textbooks. This weekend, NYC will get the Cantanti Project's performance of the earliest extant operatic score. As a historian, I like the phrase "first extant operatic score": it fills the mouth and rolls off the tongue. Not only is Giulio Caccini's Euridice thus a landmark in the hectically productive years of the early seventeenth century (it was published in 1600), it is a highly self-conscious manifesto about the power of music.

Conductor Dylan Sauerwald, who will conduct the performances, has argued that, although "lines in music history are usually blurry... the baroque was an explosion." Not only was Caccini visibly influential in this creative explosion, he was determined to be. His Euridice, written to a libretto also used by Peri, was on the only possible topic for a composer seeking to recapture the power harnessed by the ancient Greeks -- that of music to create harmony, to inspire madness, and indeed to overcome death itself. From the 1580s onwards, the philosophers and artists of Florentine salons had been having vigorous debates about what music should do, and what music could be -- if only their own age could recapture the genius of the ancients. I confess that, even as a habitual operagoer who grew up on Greek mythology as retold by Bulfinch and Hamilton, I observed the early operatic fascination with Orpheus and Euridice without having the penny drop: that it was chosen precisely because it was the narrative of how skillful poetry, skillfully set against music, could break the heart and change the world.


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