Cavalieri and the First Opera


It took a renaissance man to usher in the baroque. Born and buried in Rome, Emilio de’ Cavalieri was a composer, organist, diplomat, choreographer, dancer, and producer, who credited himself with composing the first opera, Rappresentatione di anima et di corpo. (Representation of the Soul and the Body).  Seen from the point of view of much later textbook publishers keen on packaging history into neat epochs Cavalieri picked a good year to launch his endeavor; born in 1600, opera continues to mark musical culture to this day.

Cavalieri spent much of the 1590s at the Medici court in Florence where he put on pastoral entertainments for weddings and other important events in the city-state. He took a leading role in the humanistic project of reintroducing the principles of Greek drama onto the renaissance stage; it was an initiative based on the notion—a false one as it turned out—that these classic texts were originally sung from beginning to end.

Cavalieri came from an aristocratic Roman family and this must have fueled his keen sense of his own artistic abilities and standing. He was sent by his Florentine employers back to his native city to lobby the cardinals for the election of pro-Medici popes. It was in Rome that the Rappresentatione was premiered in February of 1600, during the Lenten season when elaborate music was banned from the church. With its spoken prologue and clear structure in three acts, fully staged, the piece does indeed make a good claim to being the first opera.

The original performance took place in a so-called oratorio—Italian halls used for communal, non-liturgical prayers.  The type of building would give its name to another vital musical form of 17th– and 18th-century music—the oratorio. Paying lip service to piety was a Roman specialty, and opera became suspect because of its
extravagant sensuality and was often under ban.  The most convenient solution: call an opera an oratorio and enjoy it, if not with God’s blessing, then at least the pope’s.  These ecclesiastical loopholes were first opened by Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione: some still call the piece an oratorio rather than an opera.  Either way it is lush, occasionally louche, takes the moral high ground while taking ample opportunities to shed its religious garments and frolic in the hot springs beside the path.

The text set by Cavalieri was not a powerful narrative, but rather it gave voice to Christian allegorical figures—the soul; the body; time; intellect; pleasure; a handful of characters and a few angels. Time warns that earthly life is fleeting and he points forward to the grim judgments of the Last Day. Pleasure seeks to seduce the body, but in the end reason convinces the body to save its soul, and choose the virtuous path that ends in eternal life. The lures of the flesh are ultimately repudiated for the bliss of eternity.

The paradox that Cavalieri revels in is that the music he dramatizes these themes with is as seductive as it gets. Not only was the music a feast, but it also resounded along with visual spectacle of dancers, sumptuous costumes, and then-cutting edge stage machinery of illusion. The princes of the church must have left that Roman oratorio in 1600 hot under the collar and ready to be cooled by the brisk Lenten air. The eye and the ear were ravished, and then at the end the mind could renounce such ephemeral pleasures.

Yet here we are more than four centuries later with a production of Cavalieri’s seminal work at the Staatsoper in Berlin and its music is as ravishing as ever. Since the Florentine humanists’ idea was to revive Greek declamation, the musical style adopted was simplified so that the single voice could utter text rapidly, though not without moments of expansion that allowed space for the vocal virtuosity so prized by princes, patrons, and professional musicians. Rather than elaborate polyphony, Cavalieri went for a streamlined harmonic palette and more transparent texture.  Just as in Rock ‘n Roll, three chords can get you a long way—indeed as a far as you want to go into the rolling fields of pleasure. These go hand-in-hand, or maybe hip-to-hip, with amped up rhythmic drive, as when in the third act Pleasure tried one last time to entice the Body with some dance-numbers, the percussionist Marie-Ange Petit taking center-stage with her tambourine and the harps and lutes strumming away.

We are in Berlin in 2012, not Rome of 1600, and at the helm of the spectacle is the German director Joachim Freyer, whose Ring cycle of a couple years back in Los Angeles was dismissed by some as trite satire and lauded by others for irreverently freshening up the Wagnerian behemoth.  In willful contrast to what must have been a colorful Cavalieri original version, Freyer put everyone and everything in black: All in black hats that were occasionally thrown onto the stage, the orchestra—with full compliment of sackbuts and cornettos, multiple batteries of continuo instruments, a quartet of eager viol players—was arrayed along either flank of the stage tilted towards the audience and extended forward by a massive proscenium. Jokey props of vanitas imagery—a human skull; a steer’s skull; a manikin; a doll’s house and tiny castle—littered the stage floor painting with a giant hopscotch grid. The game of life is as transitory as child’s play.

The prologue was spoken grandly by two little boys with real abundant afros, also black—a welcome touch of modern baroque. When they later together personified Prudence their voices seemed to float free of the dolor of the stage and into the eternal world to which the entertainment as a whole was meant to be a prelude.

On the color side of the ledger, a pair of fleshy plastic breasts pawed at by the male dancer who wore them broke through the darkness. These were exposed when Pleasure sang of the seductions of the world. When Time made his entrance, a disco ball—the earth—came pitching down the stage, its glittering stars whirling through the house and off the faces of the audience.

Dancers moved in slow motion as if unable to release their bodies to the rush of Cavalieri’s music, even as René Jacobs, whose long-standing collaboration with the Berlin State Opera and Akadmie für alte Music has yielded many unforgettable brilliant operatic moments, kept the ensemble chugging along with gusto and grace.

As Anima Marie-Claude Chappuis was true in pitch and made the most of the expressive moments Cavalieri was so often keen to give this role. Body (Johannes Weisser) stripped off his dark robes to reveal a fencing outfit pierced by bright red and bloodied arrows—like a bound St. Sebastian who broke into song. Weisser’s rich, powerful voice, too, belied claims of sensual renunciation. Mark Milhofer’s flinty tenor personifying Intellect and Pleasure, was true in pitch and subtle in shape. Yet he did not bring out in his voice the divergent values and needs of these two figures.

What was lacking in general was the kind of nuanced and intense flights of spontaneous ornamentation practiced and codified by Cavalieri’s Florentine rival Giulio Caccini.  The two fell out later in 1600 during the preparations of Jacopo Peri’s Euridice, another of the first operas, presented at the wedding of Maria de’ Medici and Henry IV of France.  Cavalieri stormed back to Rome and died less than two years later. But his lively, latently lascivious, sensuous, and archly high-minded work lives on even in the darkness.

David Yearsley s a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at