L’Orfeo is, at heart, a tragic love story. Orfeo and Euridice love each other and lose each other – twice. If the Apollo ending is correct, we’re assured that they’ll be together once again in heaven, allowing the lovers a somewhat happy ending. Something’s weird, though: for a love story, we hear precious little from the leading lady. Euridice sings exactly twice in the entire opera, first in Act I, when she expresses her joy over marrying Orfeo, and then one more time in Act IV, when she reacts to Orfeo looking back.
I cannot tell, Orfeo
the joy that fills my heart at your rejoicing
since my heart’s mine no longer
for you it left me, and both by Love were stolen
Go and inquire then of Love and he will tell you
how my heart rejoices, how much I love you
Ah! vision that I longed for – and yet so bitter
And so through too much love our love must perish?
And I, wretchedly sighing
nevermore shall I fell the warmth of earth or of sunlight
and lost forever, you, much more dear than life
O my companion
Wow, Euridice – you might just be the most boring character in the entire opera! In the first clip, she sings – speaks, really, for this is clearly recitative – about how she wishes she could tell Orfeo of her love for him, but no, he stole her heart, so she can’t really say. So much for a happy bride. There are no flourishes, we hear no word-painting, she doesn’t even end on the note of the scale that would allow complete resolution. Euridice is bizarrely equivocal about her impending nuptials, and her singing is similarly unremarkable.
Later, when Orfeo makes the mistake of turning back, we might expect some real passion – after all, Euridice is about to go back to the Underworld. But no, not really, there’s a bit of word-painting on “misery” (a twinge of dissonance in an otherwise consonant section), and that’s all. Come on, Euridice! Show some back bone!
What’s going on here? It’s not really Euridice’s fault, but rather Monteverdi’s. Orfeo, the greatest musician ever, has fallen in love with a girl who doesn’t seem to have a musical bone in her body, but it didn’t have to be so. Why didn’t Monteverdi give Euridice a more interesting part? It could be that, as the most important character in this opera (for without Euridice, Orfeo would have nothing to sing about), a tuneful Euridice would have posed too much interest for the audience; her power would have extended past drama to music as well. In this, Monteverdi might have been the first of many librettists and composers to take steps to limit the power of female characters. It’s not unusual for the prima donna to get killed off by the end of the opera; it is unusual that she sing so little prior to getting killed off.
There’s an entire book about misogyny in opera: it’s called Opera: The Undoing of Women, and it’s by French essayist Catherine Clément. She doesn’t mention Euridice’s sad lot in L’Orfeo, but if she did, I think we can guess what she might say.