It is not the first opera, but it is the first masterpiece in the new genre: with L’Orfeo Monteverdi showed at the inception of an art form whose development has now lasted for over 400 years just what musical theatre can be. The story concerns a great lover – and it is told by the music: "Favola in musica", as it is termed. With psychological subtlety and dramatic power the music conveys the protagonist's extreme emotional states. At the same time it portrays starkly contrasting moods: from the idyll of the complete happiness of lovers to utter despair following Euridice's death and Orfeo's rebellion in the underworld music and his total isolation at the end.
Although he is a famous, universally admired man it was not easy for Orfeo to capture the heart of the young and beautiful Euridice. His long and fruitless wooing is vividly recalled. But now great joy reigns: the wedding guests throw a riotous party for the happy couple. But then Orfeo is devastated by the news of the bride's death. His anguish is overwhelming; he refuses to accept this blow that fate has dealt him and embarks on a journey that he believes will take him back to his beloved. He sings of his grief so touchingly that he succeeds in slipping past Caronte, who guards the gateway to Hell, and arrives at the place where the shades are found. Plutone, whose realm this is, offers him a chance to rescue his wife – on condition that he does not look back at her on his way back to the world of the living. But Orfeo's longing to see his beloved is too strong. Her irrevocable loss is all the more devastating to him. In the end, Apollo, the father, takes him away to the only place where he can be reunited with Euridice: to Heaven.
Duke Francesco Gonzaga, in whose palace in Mantua L’Orfeo was premiered to mark his birthday in 1607, had the resources to make a masterpiece like this possible. He placed good singers and a large orchestra at the disposal of his head of music, the "divino Claudio", who was able to exploit the wide variety of voices to outstanding effect. The score is perfectly complemented by Alessandro Striggio the Younger's libretto which portrays true-to-life scenes and adapts the Orpheus legend for the operatic stage in a highly convincing manner.