Monteverdi's Orfeo

How I came across Marilia Vargas was looking up Monteverdi’s “Orfeo” at Youtube.

“Mom, look up some opera for me,” H.o.p. said. He meant something like Mozart’s “Requiem” but he’s never seen Ponnelle’s 1978 staging of “Orfeo”.

Instead I found clips from the Jordi Savall/Brian Large 2002 production. The opening is promising…

Marilia Vargas as a nymph blessing the marriage of Orpheus and Eurydice…

I love Vargas! I believe her. When she turns and retires I want to follow off the stage into that mythic realm, but she conveys the impossibility of doing so, that she’s a nymph…and as nymph originally meant bride, it is peculiarly right that she should leave us as she does, as if the nature of the bride, Eurydice, preceding Eurydice into the Underworld, abiding fate acting unconscious of itself as is sung into being the fearsome cloud which causes the earth to quake and will destroy the happiness of Orpheus and Eurydice, first with the heel-nipping snake when their happiness was so great (and perhaps self-obsessed) that tempering and humiliation were inescapable, and second when Orpheus broke the law, losing Eurydice absolutely…

Or so we are told in this story that purports to do with Orpheus’ loss of his wife and his attempt to revive her, when the Orphics believed the physical body a tomb to the soul, its Titanic nature preventing one from attaining Elysium, and strove to escape from the wheel of reincarnation, drinking deep of the waters of memory.

Bees, for the Orphics, symbolized souls swarming toward the divine unity, and Eurydice was caught by the snake when (seemingly) attempting to escape the bee-keeper.

And what about that snake?

But, never mind. We all suffer loss and can relate to the story at face value. The hero, Orpheus, suffers along with us, and, incredibly, with his song, charms death into giving him a second chance at happiness with Eurydice, an unparalleled victory , only to then forget compliance with the single demand set upon him.

There is some correspondence with the tale of Lot, though it is his wife who is saddled with the sin of looking back and throughout history has been designed as bitter, contemptible, unthankful, undisciplined.

So people are told to not reflect on the past, to not hold too tightly, to look ahead and disdain loss.

If I remember correctly, Jean Cocteau had Orpheus turn intentionally.

* * * * * * *

I’ve not seen Ponnelle’s “Orfeo”, except for several stunning clips about 15 years ago on a VHS recording, and since then I’ve longed for a copy. As I find it is now available on DVD, I have put it in my wish list and hope to buy it soon. Wouldn’t mind getting a copy of the Savall either.

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Juli Kearns

Juli Kearns is the author of Thunderbird and the Ball of Twine and Unending Wonders of a Subatomic World (or) In Search of the Great Penguin. She is also an artist/photographer, and the person behind the web alter of "Idyllopus Press".

2 thoughts on “Monteverdi's Orfeo”

  1. I’m at work so I’ll have to watch later. Just thought I’d say that I find the story of Orpheus and Eurydice very moving. I remember a few years ago, when I suddenly found myself entertaining the young daughter of a visiting scholar here at work, she asked me to read that story to her from a book her mom had just purchased for her. I got so choked up I could hardly read it. I hadn’t thought about that before in quite that way, the message of not looking back. As someone who has tended to look back not in an effort to hold on tightly, but in order to better understand my present and possibly my future, I believe there is value, and not just destruction when looking back at the past. There is also sometimes sorrow or bittersweetness and joy and pleasure, so that the current moment is sometimes all the richer for the many memories that precede and interlace themselves with the present. I think maybe it’s only a problem, looking back, when one mistakes the past for being the present.

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