by Cinzia Dugo
An "all Florentine" opera
Each year May brings the city of Florence a wonderful gift: in other words it gives it a new and fascinating importance by making it, temporarily at least, the European capital of music and theatre. An irresistible desire to go to the opera flourishes in the mild and perfumed air in Springtime, alongside a propagation of a contagious and festive atmosphere that finds its fulcrum at the Teatro Comunale of Florence with the famous Maggio Musicale. However throughout the year the many musical events in the programme always include performances of Italian and foreign operas which bring some of the finest musicians and singers in the world to perform at this celebrated Tuscan opera house.
Italian opera is a deeply rooted tradition that dates as far back as the year 1600, when the very first performance to make use of a musical style that was popular during the Renaissance, another outcome of its veneration for classical antiquity, was staged for the first time; monodical composition, inspired by Greek poetry, was carried out by one solo singer with a musical accompaniament reduced to the bare minimum. Revived in the 16th century by the so-called Camerata de' Bardi, a group of Florentine musicians and men of letters, monodical composition reached its greatest heights with the staging of a completely new type of performance that combined music, singing, dialogue and dramatic expression. This opera was "Eurydice", a mythological-pastoral tragedy by Ottavio Rinuccini (1562-1621), put into music in 1600 by two professional singers, Jacopo Peri (1561-1633) and Giulio Caccini (1550 circa-1630), for the festivities surrounding the wedding of Henry IV of France with Maria de' Medici. An event that takes us pleasingly back to the past and which should be remembered for its historical context, political importance and, above all, the revolutionary artistic atmosphere that was to introduce this new era in music.
Zeffirelli's production of "Eurydice" at the Boboli Garden
The marriage, like many in this period, had been arranged to satisfy the careful political designs of Pope Clement VIII Aldobrandini who, by adopting the more astute strategy of the nuptial bed, thus managed to avoid conducting his political policies on the battle field. What however would be the consequences of a similar diplomatic coup? Hopefully the marriage of the King of France to one of the families closest to the Church of Rome would induce Henry IV to break the promises he had made to the Calvinists in the famous Edict of Nantes. This in fact turned out to be a considerable achievement on the part of the Church because once it was successfully able to uphold its power in French territory it no longer needed to fear the Calvinists.
The wedding was celebrated by proxy as was customary at the time and also because the king was engaged on the battlefield in his war with the House of Savoy. However the stark formality that was to decide the destiny of these two young people was nothing compared to the thought of having to spend an entire lifetime with someone they did not love; such unhappiness was even worse when the partner was not to be the person that they really cared for. This was what happened to Maria who, as she was a member of the Florentine aristocracy, had to put up with severe humiliation, bitterness and delusion because of her passionate love for the poet Ottavio Rinuccini. Ironically enough, he was also the author of the text chosen to celebrate the wedding of this woman who was as unhappy and desperate as Eurydice herself, the protagonist of the classic tragedy.
Piero Tosi, Costume design for "Eurydice", by J. Peri
As the Florentines were well aware of the political significance of the event they did all in their power to ensure that the festivities for October 6th would be remembered as being the most sumptuous and splendid of the era. A theatrical performance was therefore prepared for the occasion, now acknowledged in the history of music as having been the originator of melodrama, one of the most popular forms of entertainment today; this was a complete novelty in the 17th century especially because it made use of the recitative manner, where the voice is used both for speaking and singing. The opera, which tells the story of the classical myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, was however altered in order to replace the original tragic ending with a happy one, in consideration of the particularly joyous occasion for which it had been written. The first performance of "Eurydice" was held in the reception room of the Pitti Palace where stage hands, scene painters and artists from all walks of life worked together to create a typically Baroque performance that was mostly aimed at arousing the amazement of the spectators; it included arches with niches containing statues to represent painting and poetry, scenery that seemed to miraculously change before the eye according to the requirements of the composition; each scenic element was supposed to excite the imagination of the public which probably had no idea of the importance we would give to such an involved artistic event in this day and age. Attempts to reproduce the wonders of this opera have only been made twice in this century, in May 1960 and 1965, both by the Florence Opera House. The performance in 1960 directed by Franco Zeffirelli, with choreography by Ani Radosevic and costumes by Piero Tosi, was particularly important. Staged in the gardens behind the Pitti Palace it can be considered a brilliant and faithful 'remake' of the splendid Baroque performance. Last but not least, we should bear in mind that the fourth centenary of this first opera in Florence will be coming up very soon. In the meantime let us hope that the Teatro Comunale of Florence will organize a third staging of "Eurydice" and perhaps create an equally magnificent and amazing version, mindful of those grandiose 17th century performances.