Western art of the last thousand years has not been able to avoid the overwhelming influence of the poetic work of Virgil, Horace and Ovid, built in approximately 70 years, during the transition between two millennia. Ovid, the last of these three, was born in 43 B.C., about 120 kilometers from Rome, and died in Tomos, today Constanza, Romania, in 17 A.D. At his death the poetic flame of this unrepeatable triad was extinguished. Horace had died 25 years earlier, and Virgil 34 years earlier.
Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”, written between the years 1 and 4 A.D., is arguably the most prolific work of antiquity, and the one that has had the greatest influence on later artists. From some of the 246 stories narrated in this work, a stream of plastic, musical, literary and even cinematographic works has emerged in the last millennium, as from no other literary work.
Ovid portrays the history of the world in 11,995 hexameters, from the origin, when the four elements emerged from Chaos, to the reign of Augustus, the emperor who transformed himself into a star. It is an extensive poem of mythological, epic and moral character, composed of fantastic stories, legends and myths distributed in fifteen books. For this work, Ovid did not choose a main character, as Homer did in his “Iliad” and “Odyssey”, or as Virgil did in his “Aeneid”, or centuries later Dante did in his “Divine Comedy”. The protagonist is a sort of reflection of the reader himself, who like Narcissus in front of the mirror of water, under an unexpected spell, sees in his image the enigma that is born and instantly vanishes, or is perpetuated in an unexpected ending, as happens to Pygmalion, the young sculptor who falls in love with Galatea, the sculpture he has created in his likeness.
Among theMonteverdi premiered his “L’Orfeo”, with a script by his friend Alessandro Striggio, who was to die in 1630, during one of the Venetian plagues. It is said that Monteverdi attended the premiere of Peri’s work, and that Vincenzo Gonzaga, the Duke of Mantua, had also attended, who asked Monteverdi for a work based on the same myth. The young composer gave greater importance to the balance of the music against the text, in contrast to Peri and Caccini, who had conceived works where the word should occupy the predominant role. For this reason, some consider Monteverdi’s work the truly inaugural opera.
many gods, demigods, nymphs and all kinds of characters that make up the “Metamorphoses”, some of them were destined to become the inspiration for multiple musical works during the centuries to come, operas, ballets, symphonic and chamber works:
Daphne (book 1); Perseus and Andromeda, and Pyramus and Thisbe (book 4); Marsias (book 6); Medea and Jason (book 7); Ariadne, Philemon and Baucis (book 8); Hercules (book 9); Pigmaleon, Adonis (book 10); Orpheus and Eurydice (books 10 and 11); Ceix and Alcyone (book 11); Iphigenia (book 12); Acis and Galatea, (book 13); and Aeneas (books 13 and 14).
In the 16th century, almost 1600 years after the creation of the “Metamorphoses”, the humanist Girolamo Mei (Florence, 1519-Rome, 1594), reminded an important circle of Italian musicians and artists that Greek tragedy was mostly sung, a challenging idea in the face of the prevailing notion of tragedy as declaimed drama. This group, called the “Camerata Fiorentina”, sponsored by the notable lover of the arts, Count Giovanni Bardi, sought to establish a theatrical form equivalent to the Greek tradition. The idea was to cover mythological episodes with music, thus creating the germ of today’s lyric poetry, and the basis for the birth of “opera”. In contrast to the religious polyphonic choral music of the 15th and 16th centuries, they got interested in the solo voice, in the style of the Greek theater. By the way, Vincenzo Galilei, father of the astronomer, was a key member of this society of music lovers. At the dawn of the Renaissance, this group not only sought artistic inspiration around man, but, like the Lutherans later on, they encouraged a rhythmic simplification of choral music in order to make the sung text more accessible to the audience.
It was the composer Jacopo Peri (Rome, 1561 – Florence, 1633), member of this “Camerata Fiorentina”, in the city and in the vibrant times fostered by the Medici, who became “the inventor of opera” – or “melodramma”. He found in the tenth book of the “Metamorphoses” an ideal theme: Orpheus, the musician who with the charms of his art could bewitch the guardian of the underworld, or the gods of Olympus; and Eurydice, the nymph whom he conquered with his lyre, and after whom he descended to Tartarus to rescue her. This myth was, of course, the most frequently used by composers in the last four centuries and so far in the 21st century. Peri composed “L’Euridice” and premiered it in Florence in 1600. It was, in fact, his second opera. Three years earlier he had premiered the opera “Daphne”, also present in Ovid’s work; however, the score is considered lost. A couple of years after the premiere of Peri’s “L’Euridice”, Caccini premiered an opera with the same name, and in 1607, Claudio
In the following years, the characters of Orpheus and Eurydice gave origin to one of the most frequent themes in the history of opera up to the present day. Between 1600 and 2020 there are just over 70 operas written under the same theme, an undoubtedly impressive number. Among them are the contributions of Heinrich Schütz (1638, although the music was lost), Charpentier (1685), Lully (1690), Fux (1715), Telemann (1726), Graun (1752), Gluck (1762, for many, the most significant opera around the orphic myth), Joseph Haydn (1791 -the year of Mozart’s death, and premiered 160 years later, in 1951, in Florence), Offenbach (1858), as well as 20th and 21st century chamber operas by Milahud, Krenek, Casella, Schaeffer, Werner Henze, Glass, Birtwistle and, recently, Aucoin’s opera, premiered in 2020, in Los Angeles, California.
It is Ovid himself, at the end of his life, who recalls the words he addressed as a young man to his father, when he was asked to abandon all poetic aspirations in pursuit of a judicial career: “Iuro, iuro, pater, nunquam componere versus quod temptabam scribere, versus erat”: “I swear, I swear, father, I will never again compose verses, and yet everything I tried to write turned out to be verse”.