Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo was created in 1607 at the dawn of opera. It remains the earliest work in that rich genre to be performed regularly. Set in five acts, it is based on the Greek legend of Orpheus, who descends into Hades in an unsuccessful attempt to bring his dead bride, Eurydice, back to the living world.
The aria, Possente spirto, e formidabil nume (“Mighty spirit and formidable god”), comes from the opera’s third act. Orfeo has arrived at the banks of the river Styx, where the ominous sign reads, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter.” He encounters Charon, the ferryman who carries the souls of the newly deceased across the river. Charon bars Orfeo entry and insists that no living being may enter his boat. Orfeo answers,
I am not living: no, for since my dear wife
is deprived of life, my heart no longer remains with me,
and without a heart, how can it be that I am alive?
As Orfeo sings and plays his lyre, Charon is lulled to sleep. As with other great operatic moments, Possente spirto is filled with conflicting emotions. The music is hypnotic, yet there is an underlying tension. The musical conversation which unfolds between Orfeo’s vocal lines and the instruments evokes deep longing and lament. The recording below takes on a spacial, atmospheric dimension with antiphonal echoes.
This performance features baritone Nicolas Achten with the Belgian early music ensemble, Scherzi Musicali. Achten founded the ensemble over ten years ago and serves as its director. This clip documents the recording session for the 2014 album, Il Pianto D’Orfeo:
- Monteverdi: Possente spirto, e formidabil nume (L’Orfeo), Nicolas Achten, Scherzi Musicali Amazon
Featured Image: Mosaic of Orpheus, dated to A.D. 194