Orfeo (Rossi)

L'Orfeo (Orpheus) is an opera in three acts, a prologue and an epilogue by the Italian composer Luigi Rossi. The libretto, by Francesco Buti, is based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orfeo premiered at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal in Paris on 2 March 1647.[1] It was one of the earliest operas to be staged in France.

Background and performance history

Rossi had already written one opera, Il palazzo incantato, for Rome. This aroused the interest of the French first minister, the Italian-born Cardinal Mazarin, who was eager to bring Italian culture to Paris and hired Rossi in 1646 to write an opera for the Paris carnival the following year. During his stay in France, Rossi learnt that his wife, Costanza, had died and the grief he felt influenced the music he was writing. The premiere was given a magnificent staging with the sets and stage machinery designed by Giacomo Torelli. Over 200 men were employed to work on the scenery. The choreography was by Giovan Battista Balbi. The performance, which lasted six hours, was a triumph. However, Rossi proved to be a victim of his own success. The expense of the performance was just one of many reasons stoking popular discontent against Cardinal Mazarin which soon broke out into full-scale rebellion (the Fronde). When Rossi returned to Paris in December, 1647, he found the court had fled Paris and his services were no longer required.


Role Voice type[2] Premiere Cast[3]
Orfeo/La Vittoria (Orpheus/Victory) castrato (soprano) Atto Melani
Euridice (Eurydice) soprano Anna Francesca Costa
Aristeo (Aristaeus) castrato (soprano) Marc'Antonio Pasqualini
Giove (Jupiter) tenor Jacopo Melani
Giunone (Juno) soprano Margherita Costa
Pluto bass Alessandro Cecconi
Proserpina (Proserpine) castrato (soprano, travesti) Domenico Dal Pane
Himeneo/Sospetto (Hymenaeus/Suspicion) castrato (soprano) Marc'Antonio Sportonio
Caronte (Charon) tenor Venanzio Leopardi
Amore (Cupid) soprano
Venere (Venus) soprano Rosina Martini
Endimione (Endymion) tenor
Momo (Momus) tenor
Bacco (Bacchus) soprano (breeches role)
Satiro (satyr) baritone[4]
Nutrice (nurse) castrato (soprano, travesti)[5]
La Gelosia (Jealousy) castrato (alto) Micinello Panfili
Mercurio (Mercury) castrato (alto)
Apollo castrato (alto)
Una vecchia (an old woman) tenor (travesti)
Augure (an augur) bass
Le grazie the three Graces sopranos (castrati) Marc'Antonio Sportonio, Domenico Dal Pane,[6] (not reported)
Le parche (the three Parcae) two sopranos (castrati) and one alto Marc'Antonio Sportonio, Domenico Dal Pane,[6] (not reported)



The French armies win a glorious battle. Victory predicts France will triumph over evil just as Orpheus triumphed over the powers of the underworld.

Act One

Orpheus and Eurydice are due to be married. But when Eurydice's father, Endymion, takes auguries they forebode trouble. Aristaeus is unhappily in love with Eurydice and calls on the goddess Venus for aid. She tells him the marriage cannot be stopped but she will do her best to seduce Orpheus and Eurydice away from one another. As the wedding takes place, the torches suddenly go out, another evil omen.

Act Two

Venus, dressed as an old woman, tries to persuade Eurydice to love Aristaeus, but she is inflexible. Cupid betrays his mother, Venus's schemes to Orpheus and he rushes off to warn Eurydice. But Eurydice is bitten by a snake as she is dancing and dies.

Act Three

The grieving Orpheus sets off to rescue Eurydice from the underworld. Eurydice's ghost drives Aristaeus mad and he commits suicide. The goddess Juno persuades Proserpine, the wife of Pluto (the king of the underworld), that she should be jealous of Eurydice's beauty and allow her to return to the land of the living with Orpheus. Proserpine persuades Pluto to release Eurydice and he does so on condition that Orpheus does not turn round to look at her before they have reached the upper world. Orpheus fails in this task and loses Eurydice again. In his grief, he seeks only death but Jupiter appears to tell him he, Eurydice and his lyre will be turned into constellations.


Mercury explains that Orpheus's lyre represents the fleur-de-lys of France. The transformation of Orpheus and Eurydice into constellations is a symbol of the Resurrection. He ends by wishing the young King Louis a long life.

Publication history

According to Loewenberg, the livret (libretto) was not printed, but an abrégé (synopsis) in French was published in 1647. A manuscript of the music, discovered by Romain Rolland in 1888 at the Biblioteca Chigi in Rome, was later moved to the Biblioteca Barberini in Rome. Goldschmidt published excerpts in 1901.[7] Modern editions include one from G. Ricordi in Munich[8] and another edited by Clifford Bartlett.[9]


  • Orfeo Agnès Mellon, Monique Zanetti, Sandrine Piau, Les Arts Florissants, conducted by William Christie (Harmonia Mundi, 1991)
  • Orfeo Edited by Raphaël Pichon and Miguel Henry; Ensemble Pygmalion, Raphaël Pichon (Conductor); Jetske Mijnssen (Stage Director); Ben Baur (Sets), Gideon Davey (Costumes), Bernd Purkrabek (Lighting); Judith van Wanroij (Orfeo); Francesca Aspromonte (Euridice); Giuseppina Bridelli (Aristeo); Giulia Semenzato (Venere, Proserpina); Luigi de Donato (Augure, Plutone); Ray Chenez (Nutrice, Amore); Renato Dolcini (Satiro); Dominique Visse (Vecchia); Victor Torres (Endimione, Caronte); Marc Mauillon (Momo); David Tricou (Apollo)[10]


  1. Some sources give the date of the premiere as 26 February or 3 March, but Loewenberg 1978, column 25, says these are incorrect.
  2. Unless otherwise stated in footnotes, voice types are reported according to Murata (Orfeo) and Le magazine de l'opéra baroque.
  3. Unless otherwise stated in footnotes, the names or the performers are drawn from Le magazine de l'opéra baroque.
  4. Murata (Orfeo), p. 743. Fabrizio Dorsi states more precisely that "the part of the satyr is written in the unusual baritone clef" (Dorsi, Fabrizio & Rausa Giuseppe, (in Italian) Storia dell'opera italiana. 2000: Paravia Bruno Mondadori, Turin, p. 59. ISBN 978-88-424-9408-9)
  5. Celletti, Rodolfo, A History of Bel Canto. 1991: Clarendon Press, Oxford/US, p. 128. ISBN 0193132095. According to Le magazine de l'opéra baroque, "contralto"
  6. Murata (Orfeo).
  7. Loewenberg 1978, column25; Goldschmidt 1901, vol. 1, pp. 295–311.
  8. Rossi, Luigi; Buti, Francesco ([no date]).L' Orfeo tragicommedia in 3 atti. München G. Ricordi Bühnen- und Musikverlag. OCLC 725522747
  9. Rossi, Luigi; Buti, Francesco (1997). L'Orfeo : tragicomedia per musica, edited by Clifford Bartlett. Redcroft, Bank's End, Huntingdon, [England]: King's Music. Listings at WorldCat.
  10. "Luigi Rossi 1597-1653: L'Orfeo". Harmonia Mundi. Retrieved 8 December 2018.
  • Graham Dixon, "Luigi Rossi" in The Viking Opera Guide ed. Holden (Viking, 1993)
  • Vaccarini, Marina, Orfeo, in Gelli, Piero & Poletti, Filippo (ed.),Dizionario dell'Opera 2008, Milano, Baldini Castoldi Dalai, 2007, pp. 938-939, ISBN 978-88-6073-184-5 (in Italian)
  • Casaglia, Gherardo (2005)."Orfeo, 2 March 1647". L'Almanacco di Gherardo Casaglia (in Italian).
  • Rossi's Orfeo at Le magazine de l'opéra baroque (in French)
  • Booklet notes to the above recording.
  • Goldschmidt, Hugo (1901, 1904). Studien zur Geschichte der italienischen Oper im 17. Jahrhundert. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel. Vols 1 (1901) and 2 (1904) at Internet Archive.
  • Loewenberg, Alfred (1978). Annals of Opera 15971940 (third edition, revised). Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield. ISBN 9780874718515.
  • Murata, Margaret, Orfeo (ii), in Sadie, Stanley (ed.), The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Grove (Oxford University Press), New York, 1997, III, pp. 743-744 (ISBN 978-0-19-522186-2)
  • Murata, Margaret, "Operas for the Papal Court, 1631-1668)", UMI Research Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan 1981, p. 47 (ISBN 0835711226, 9780835711227)
  • Parker, Roger, editor (1994). The Oxford Illustrated History of Opera, p. 33. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198162827.
Other sources
  • Prunières, Henry (1913). "Chapitre III: L'Orfeo", pp. 86–150. L'Opéra italien en France avant Lulli. Paris: Librairie ancienne Honoré Champon. View at Internet Archive.
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