Peter Popham has an article in The Independent today noting that Italy is celebrating four centuries of la Lirica (opera). He writes, "The first performance of an opera which is recognisably the ancestor of the masterpieces of Verdi and Wagner took place on 24 February 1607 in the city of Mantua, near Lake Garda in northern Italy. It was Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi, a staging of the powerful Greek myth in which the poet Orpheus descends into the Underworld in search of his love Eurydice and persuades Persephone to release her - on condition that he does not look back while in the realm of the dead. Orpheus breaks the condition, and Eurydice has to return to hell forever."
Then he goes on to say, "It was fitting that a musical setting of this great pagan myth should have sired the art form which, in the centuries ahead, became a formidable rival to established religion as a crucible of high emotion and spirituality."
I have always been deeply moved by Monteverdi's music and simply love Ofeo. I shall be delighting in this opera again in March when I travel to Leeds to a performance by Opera North. Orfeo builds on the work of the Camerata, Florentine artists and musicians who wished to re-create the dramatic theatre so loved by the pagan Greeks and Romans.
The story of the Goddess Persephone is one of the oldest of all Greek myths. As such it takes us to the very heart of our being and universal concepts of life and death. It portrays the strong bond between a mother and her daughter and the difficult transition through puberty. Above all the three Goddesses - Demeter, Persephone and Hecate - show us how to stand against the suffering that women and children often have to bear in a patriarchal world.
And speaking of patriarchs, Orpheus fails in his bid to rescue Eurydice from the underworld. He has all the charm of his poetry and music. He has a deep love for his wife. But he lacks the one thing all men need to discover. He fails to trust the women in his life. He cannot trust Persephone to be true to her word and he cannot trust Eurydice to follow him. He cannot free Eurydice from the underworld because he cannot trust her to be wild and free.
It is here that this great pagan myth stands against established religion. It tells us that man's failure to trust women is a disaster. Wild freedom, life abundance all are dependent on this trust. Which reminds me to dance "Kore" this Spring - a beautiful choreography that evokes Persephone.