Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Orfeo, Part II

Picking up where I left off last night, here's the libretto for L'Orfeo, from the website of a New York radio program called, "Here of a Sunday Morning." The libretto (Italian and English) is in .PDF, which takes a moment to open, of course, but it comes in handy if you want to go right to the pages corresponding to the arias in the link I put up last night. "Tu se' morta" is at the very bottom of page 6, "Possente spirto," at the top of page 9.

One can certainly understand how Orpheus' story (or variations thereof) would appeal to someone whose livelihood was music, but until I was looking for more information on Monteverdi's opera, I had no idea that so many composers had adapted the same subject!

My previous appreciation of the theme had been fueled almostly solely by Tolkien's rendering of the Middle English Sir Orfeo, which, in fact, eschewed with Hades altogether and had Orfeo's wife carried off by a king of the Otherworld rather than the Underworld. The University of Rochester offers this Middle English edition, with generous notes. A 1909 translation is available from Google Books:

(Tolkien's take on it is, as you would expect, quite solidly satisfying. And even better, if you go looking for it at your local library, it generally comes in a collection with his version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.)

Then, as my friend Maria reminded me, there is the Shetland King Orfeo which, in some ways, is about as far removed from the original as you can get, while still having the tale vaguely recognizeable. Again, Orfeo's wife is carried off by the "King o' Ferrie," and here, her name is nothing close to Eurydice. If I had to choose an incarnation of Orpheus' character that I liked best, however, it would be this one. Monteverdi's version seems somewhat above likes and dislikes, though certainly inspiring sympathy. In contrast, the picture painted by the laconic understatement of the old ballad seems less of a demi-god and more of a human being. A straightforward sort of man. Although certain prejudices incline me to be utterly delighted with an Orfeo who, faced with task of melting his adversary's heart, takes up his pipes*, the real charm of the piece is the concise request of the mortal man, standing before the dazzled court of Ferrie: "What I will hae I will you tell,/And dat's me Lady Isabel."

Biot Edmonston got the words to the song from an Andrew Coutts, of Unst in the late 1800's. The Oxford Book of Ballads publishes the tune for it as well, but it's rather rarely sung, quite possibly because not many people can make a phrase like "Scowan ürla grün," sound convincing. The Scottish band Malinky has quite a good version, which you can sample here.

The odd phrases that make up the chorus are, by the way, not exactly Scandinavian. As the song was collected when a form of Scots had taken over as the language of Shetland, such phrases as survived in song, having lost their meaning, began to erode in pronunciation as well. Based on similarities to Danish, The Oxford Book of Ballads proposes that Scowan ürla grün is "The wood is early green," and Whar giorten han grün oarlac, "Where the hart goes yearly." I seem to remember reading something Mr. Edmonston himself had written indicating that the singer he learned the song from did not know what the phrases meant, but now that I want to confirm that, of course I can't find it.

*Did the poet who wrote the ballad mean "pipes" as in bagpipes? Highland pipes were never much of an institution in Norse-influenced Shetland. But if you're going to play "good gabber reels," what other pipes could you possibly use?

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