February 24 marked the 400-year anniversary of the premiere of L’Orfeo, the world’s first opera. Composed by Claudio Monteverdi, it premiered in Mantua, Italy in 1607.
For travelers interested in opera’s beginnings, Mantua (Mantova, in Italian) is only 40 minutes from Verona and two hours from Venice.
Mantua gleams with remnants of its Renaissance heritage. Here, the city’s most powerful ruling family of the time, the Gonzaga, commissioned work by artists such as Rubens, Pisanello, Titian, and Mantegna as well as court musician, Monteverdi.
The Site of the First L’Orfeo Production
The Palazzo Ducale Mantova, the site of the L’Orfeo premiere, offers daily tours of its Renaissance treasures spread throughout 500 rooms.
In the Salle degli Arazzi (Tapestry Rooms), for instance, hang 16th century reproductions of the Vatican's tapestries designed by Raphael. The Sala degli Arcieri (Room of the Archers) has paintings by Rubens depicting the Gonzaga family worshipping the Holy Trinity. The Camera degli Sposi (Brides’ Room) displays frescoes by Mantegna.
Visitors can also see the Galleria degli Specchi, the Hall of Mirrors, where historians believe that L’Orfeo was first performed.
Opera lovers will also note that Mantua is the fictional setting of Verdi’s Rigoletto. "Landmarks" associated with the opera are sprinkled throughout the town, such as the Casa Rigoletto, used as the tourist office, and Sparafucile's inn.
Of the two main theaters in Mantua, the Teatro Sociale presents opera during its season. The bell -shaped Teatro Bibiena, where L'Orfeo was recently staged to celebrate the opera's anniversary, presents mainly concerts.
The Real First Opera
Though L’Orfeo is honored as the world’s first opera, the work, Dafne, composed by Jacopo Peri, actually deserves that distinction.
In the 16th century in Florence, a group of intellectuals known as the Camerata sought to recreate “authentic” Greek theater. They took Greek mythology and combined it with vocals.
Building on the work of the Camerata, composer Jacopo Peri produced Dafne in Florence years before L’Orfeo. But because the score of Dafne was lost, Monteverdi’s work became the standard on which later operas were based. It was also among the first operas to be restaged in various venues.
Opera Expands to Venice
Later in his life, Monteverdi moved to Venice where he composed his last works at a time when the art form began to move out of the sole domain of the court. The public could now attend performances.
Also at this time, opera houses cropped up throughout Venice as the rise of composers such as Francesco Cavalli helped to popularize opera, contributing to its spread throughout Europe.
Opera Scores on Display
Early opera scores, particulary those of Cavalli, and other treasures of the written word can be seen at the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice. It’s open Monday through Saturday.