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Emilio de’ Cavalieri: Rappresentatione di Anime e di Corpo (1600)
No single person really “invented” opera. With the gradual emergence of the solo voice as a primary instrument and the rise of the solo professional singer around 1570, composers of the day began to experiment with new forms of expression (often referred to as the stile rappresentativo, or representative style). Here is a beautiful example of…well, let’s call it pre-opera. Emilio de’ Cavalieri (d. 1602) wrote staged musical works called intermedii (or intermezzi), which were performed for such occasions as a royal wedding. These works were usually allegorical—the examples here are taken from a work called The Representation of the Soul and the Body—and could include spectacular effects, costumes, and stage machinery. For me, this style of vocal writing, which falls somewhere between the spoken and sung word, is intensely expressive, with a forthright directness that draws us in with its intimacy.
Jacopo Peri: “Non piango” from Euridice (1600)
The first work that is generally considered to be a full-fledged opera is Dafne by Jacopo Peri (ca. 1578). Spoiler alert: almost nothing remains of this piece except its libretto by Rinuccini. But we do have other works by Peri, who notably figured out a way to marry music and words to create something new. He wrote: “I knew that in our speech we intone certain syllables in such a way that a harmony can be built upon them, and in the course of speaking we pass through many that are not so intoned until we reach another that permits a movement to a new consonance.” I think this is a way of saying that when we speak, our voices ebb and flow in pace, pitch, and intensity, depending on what we are saying, and that concept can be applied to dramatic singing. In this stunning excerpt from the opera Euridice (1600), the character of Orfeo has just found out that his wife, Euridice, has succumbed to a snakebite. Imagine being in the audience for the premiere—no one had ever heard anything like it. It must have been extraordinary to hear music that plumbed the depths of the human soul like this for the very first time.
Claudio Monteverdi: “Tu sei morto” and “Possente spirto” from L’Orfeo (1607)
The greatest composer of the late Renaissance and early Baroque? You would be hard to convince me that it was anyone other than Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643), a composer who extended the expressive possibilities of the human voice in revolutionary ways. (He named his word-based style of highly emotive, often dissonant music seconda prattica, or second practice.) Monteverdi was prolific, but one of the world’s great cultural tragedies is that of the (at least) seven operas he wrote, only three survive. Fortunately for us, each one is a supreme masterpiece. Here are perhaps the two best known arias from L’Orfeo (1607), which was written to be performed during Carnival in Mantua. Listening to Monteverdi’s “Tu sei morta,” which the title character sings after learning of the death of his wife, Euridice (yes there is a pattern here; early opera composers relied on Classical tales) makes a fascinating comparison to Peri’s concept of the same dramatic moment. And “Possente spirto” may well be the first overt display of vocal virtuosity. Not for the faint of heart, or larynx!
Jean-Baptiste Lully: “Belle Hermione, hélas” from Cadmus et Hermione (1673)
Opera was born in Italy, but it thrived elsewhere. So let’s jump ahead in time and country to France, where the first reigning master of the form was Jean-Baptiste Lully, the imposing court composer of Louis XIV. Here are two versions of an aria called “Belle Hermione,” from Lully’s first opera, Cadmus et Hermione (1673). The early-music police are going to run me out of town for using these recordings, which are given the full Romantic, 19th-century treatment and are in direct opposition to what we understand as appropriate performance practice, which generally favors a leaner, fleeter sound. But I think the two legendary baritones here, Gérard Souzay and Charles Panzera, are so incredibly expressive, that I am willing to look beyond all that syrupy vibrato in the strings and the too-slow tempi, to say nothing of the use of a piano (!), a much later instrument that wasn’t even a glimmer in Lully’s eye back in 1673.
Henry Purcell: “Wayward sisters,” “When I am laid in earth,” and “With drooping wings” from Dido and Aeneas (ca. 1688)
Time to visit England, about five years later. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that Henry Purcell was the last great English composer of opera until Benjamin Britten came along in the middle of the 20th century. Purcell had the remarkable ability to meld current French and Italian styles (French: the highly dotted rhythms of the overture; Italian: the repeating bass line of the aria “When I am laid in earth”) in a way that was uniquely English. You could do far worse than to spend the roughly 60 minutes it takes to listen to the entirety of the beloved Dido and Aeneas (ca. 1688). But if you're pressed for time, here are three fabulous tracks to tempt you to dive in. The fun theatricality of the first speaks for itself. (“Wayward sisters” strikes me as a good name for a punk band.) The heartrending qualities of the famous lament, “When I am laid in earth” never fails to do its devastating job, and the chorus that follows it, “With drooping wings,” seems to encompass everything that the word "loss" can mean. Purcell’s life was cut tragically short—he died in 1695 at the age of 36—and one must wonder (as is the case with Mozart) what gifts this genius might have given us had he lived longer.
About the Curator
Benjamin Sosland holds several artistic and administrative positions that reflect a wide-ranging musical curiosity. As the founding administrative director of Juilliard Historical Performance, he has been responsible for creating, implementing, and overseeing the School’s newest degree program, which the New York Times recently credited as having a “transformative effect” on early music in New York. Under his leadership, the department has established itself as one of the leading programs of its kind, combining a rigorous curriculum with frequent performances on the national and international stage. Mr. Sosland has helped develop key partnerships with Les Arts Florissants, the English Concert, the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, and with the Utrecht Early Music Festival where Juilliard was the first-ever conservatory-in-residence.