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400 Years on, Opera Looks to the Next Act
Exactly four centuries after Monteverdi premiered his pioneering work, "L'Orfeo" in Mantua, Italy, the world marks the 400th anniversary of opera. As lovers of the art form celebrated achievements in the musical theatre genre, festivities in Europe left many opera managers and directors pondering what is opera's place in the 21st century? The world of culture loves anniversaries, but rare is the occasion when an entire art form can celebrate a major birthday as opera did during the weekend, exactly four centuries after Monteverdi's pioneering work, "L'Orfeo," was created in this medieval Italian city.

Naturally enough, "L'Orfeo" was again presented in Mantua, albeit not in the Palace of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga I, where it was first performed on Feb. 24, 1607, but in the 18th-century Teatro Bibiena. Further, compared with the hand-painted decor and daring "flying" machines used at the premiere, this was a more modest semistaged affair.

Still, for opera sentimentalists, it was a moment to reflect on the origins of a unique genre of music theater - one later described by Samuel Johnson as "exotick and irrational entertainment" - which soon spread from Mantua to Venice and, by the end of the 17th century, had conquered much of Europe. The "Orfeo" anniversary has also been the occasion for more topical debate about the present and future of an art form which to many, both inside and outside this cultish world, is seemingly constantly "in crisis." Ten days ago, European opera managers and directors gathered in Paris to address the central question: What is opera's place in the 21st century?

The crowds attending two performances of "L'Orfeo" in Mantua this weekend suggested that the appeal of opera is far from waning. And, thinking of the future as well as the past, the Accademia Nazionale Virgiliana, which organized this production, picked the cast of "L'Orfeo" from among 245 international singers under the age of 40 who competed for the 17 roles.

With Roberto Gini conducting the Ensemble Concerto and Concerto Palatino, the director Gianfranco de Bosio compensated for the lack of decor and costumes with lively dancing and some persuasive acting, notably from the young Portuguese tenor Fernando Guimaraes as Orfeo. The Spanish soprano Eva Juarez sang Euridice, Pretty Yende from South Africa was Musica and Yang Shen of China was an impressive Caronte.

In fact, given the way Mantuans welcomed back Monteverdi on Saturday, it was easy to forget that this city's relationship with opera more or less began - and ended - with "L'Orfeo."

The true cradle of opera was Florence, where in the 1580s and 1590s a group of poets, artists and musicians known as the "camerata" sought to recreate "authentic" Greek theater. Convinced that this theater had included singing, they borrowed from Greek mythology and began composing vocal roles designed to imitate speech. The result was "a work in music," an "opera in musica."

The first composer to finesse this new hybrid of music, drama and ballet was Jacopo Peri, whose "Dafne" premiered in Florence a decade before "L'Orfeo." This was followed in 1600 by "Euridice," with competing scores by Peri and Emilio Caccini. But while the score of "Dafne" is lost and "Euridice" had little impact beyond Florence, Monteverdi's masterpiece served as a template for future operas.

Thus, it is as the composer of the oldest opera in today's repertory that Monteverdi has earned the title of father of opera. The role of Mantua in all of this, however, was somewhat accidental. When Monteverdi joined Duke Vincenzo's court musicians as a string- player in 1590, Mantua was a quintessential Renaissance city, one where artists (Rubens was hired by the duke in 1600), composers, poets and scientists rubbed shoulders. As music director to the court from 1602, Monteverdi was expected to compose.

Yet, in its day, "L'Orfeo" was not significant enough for surviving records to show how it was received or even where in the sprawling Palazzo Ducale it was performed. Even after extensive research, Paola Besutti, a Monteverdi expert, still mentions several grand halls - the Manto, Specchi, Fiumi and Imperiale - as possible venues.

Then, in 1613, apparently tired of life in Mantua, Monteverdi became music director at St. Mark's in Venice. There he concentrated on religious music before returning to opera with two final masterpieces, "Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria" in 1640 and "L'incoronazione di Poppea" in 1643.

Mantua appears to have forgotten him until recently. The city's considerable claim to fame lies in literature (Virgil was born nearby), painting (Mantegna, Pisanello and Giulio Romana all worked here) and Renaissance architecture. A statue of Dante Alighieri stands near the Teatro Bibiena, but no bust or statue of Monteverdi can be found.

Yet it is from "L'Orfeo" in Mantua four centuries ago that a line can be drawn - through the monumental works of Mozart, Verdi and Wagner - to the operas being composed today. Indeed, how to bridge past and present was one topic worrying European opera managers who met in Paris this month.

If opera is not to become a "museum art," it must renew its repertory. Yet while new works are routinely commissioned, many opera lovers resist experimental contemporary scores, preferring the evergreens of Mozart, Verdi and Puccini. Indeed, the principal novelty of recent seasons has been the revival of Baroque composers, notably Handel.

Nonetheless, given a boost in the 1990s by stadium-filling performances by the so-called Three Tenors (Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras), opera continues to grow in popularity, so much so that its traditional 19th-century homes have now been joined by new opera houses in Copenhagen, Valencia, the Canary Islands, Tokyo, Shanghai and, in 2008, Beijing.

On the other hand, with opera by far the most expensive performing art to produce, even with opera houses receiving enormous subsidies from governments in Europe and private sponsors in the United States, the high cost of opera seats in most cities tends to put off young music lovers and inevitably reinforces the image of opera as somehow elitist.

At the center of the Paris debate, then, was the need to win over younger audiences. Peter Gelb, the new general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, was invited to share his strategy, which has included offering reduced price tickets on weekends and organizing high definition transmissions of live performances to movie theaters around the United States.

Meanwhile, the fine young singers performing "L'Orfeo" this weekend, while celebrating the opera's past, also represented its future.

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Copyright 2007, International Herald Tribune