AAM Explore


25 September 2013

Monteverdi's L'Orfeo: a synopsis


The allegorical figure of Music (La Musica) announces the story to be narrated.

Act I

Nymphs and shepherds sing and dance in anticipation of the wedding of Orpheus and Eurydice, who each declare their joy. Eurydice and others depart.

Act II

Orpheus stays behind with a few companions and sings to them of the pains and pleasures of his courtship. But a nymph returns with tragic news: Eurydice has been bitten by a snake and is dead. All are struck with horror by the messenger’s tortured account. Orpheus declares his intent to follow Eurydice to the Underworld. The others lament the cruel turn of events.


Hope (Speranza) leads Orpheus towards the Underworld but abandons him on the shores of the gloomy lake which must first be crossed. Summoning all his musical powers, Orpheus tries to persuade Charon (Caronte) to ferry him across (‘Possente spirto’). He fails, but Charon falls asleep and Orpheus seizes the chance to cross by himself.

Act IV

Proserpina pleads with Pluto (Plutone) to allow Orpheus to lead Eurydice up to earth to rejoin the living. Pluto consents, but warns that if Orpheus once turns back to look at her she will be lost to him. Unable to conquer his anxiety, he does look back and Eurydice is taken from him and back to Hell.

Act V

Returning to the woodlands of Thrace, Orpheus has succumbed to despair. Apollo descends, inviting him to Heaven. Orpheus accepts and they ascend together. Nymphs and shepherds sing in praise of Heaven and dance a concluding moresca.


We perform the opera this Saturday (28 September) at the Barbican, London, in a new concert hall staging. A handful of tickets remain; book them here.

Orpheus by Pietro Novelli, 17th century

Synopsis by Hugh Griffith, reproduced by kind permission from CD notes for Andrew Parrott's 2013 recording of L'Orfeo with the Taverner Consort and Players (AVIE Records AV2278, www.avierecords.com)