L'Orfeo introductory staging notes

The original production of Orfeo was most likely performed using only two stage sets:

  • Fields of Thrace (Prolugue, ACTS I, II, V)
    (A pastoral woodland scene, perhaps showing the banks of a stream)
  • Underworld (ACTS III, IV)
    (A scene showing the approach to Hades, with some representation of the Stygian marshes, the river Styx, and the gateway to hell

TOCCATA. A ‘flourish’ of three repetitions of about 25 seconds in length, using different instrumental groups.

PROLOGUE. Curtain Rises to reveal pastoral setting for Acts I and II. La Musica’s aria is punctuated by a ritornello which later returns at significant points in the opera.

The second stanza introduces herself as ‘music—with the power to soothe the troubled heart and inflame the coldest minds’

The fourth introduces Orfeo himself (as a character, though he could ‘appear’ too, in some representational form?)


Orfeus and Eurydice enter in the company of a chorus of nymphs and shepherds (think Poussin!).

The shepherds sing a a hymn to Hymen, god of marriage, and Hymen’s torch is compared with the light of the rising sun---the first of many images which involve or imply the sun (i.e Apollo).

‘Speeches’ by Orpheus and Eurydice follow, and form the ‘heart’ of the scene.


The crucial moment here is the entrance of The Messenger (the ‘ill-omened bird of the night’) with the news that Euridice has been poisoned.    This is followed by a lament from one of the chorus shepherd, and Orfeo remains silent. When Orfeo finally speaks it is with ‘deadly resolve’ to rescue Euridice or die with her (so presumably a lighting cue etc is required here).

The Act concludes with a return of Music’s ritornello from the Prolugue, suggesting the power music has to provide consolation in grief, but also hinting at the power music might also have to move the spirits of the Underworld.


The Scene opens with a sinfonia, a grand instrumental motet in 8 parts for the brass.  It should sound uncanny.

Orfeo enteres, accompanied by Hope.  They reach the gateway to Pluto’s kingdom, but Hope can travel no further –as the gates of hell are inscribed with the injunction ‘Abandon all Hope Ye who Enter’ (!!)

Orfeo is then confronted by Charon, boatman on the river Styx which blocks his path to Hades.

His response is the (justy famous) and dramatically critical scene ‘Possente spirit e formidabil nume’ (Powerful spirit and dreadful deity), in which he (the singer) is given full licence to display his vocal prowess.

Ultimately, however, it is not his singing, but his playing of the lute (represented by a five-part instrumental sinfonia in the orchestra) that undoes Charon (he falls asleep!).

Orfeo steals Charon’s boat and crosses the Styx and enters the mouth of the Inferno. 

The act finishes with a chorus of spirits delivering a humanist message about man’s dominion over the world.


This Act should continue without a break, so a scene transformation here is possible—as we, the audience, also can enter the Underworld proper.

The focus is the discussion between Orfeo and Pluto (and subsequently Prosperina’s lobbying of Pluto to accede to Orfeo’s request).


The Apotheosis of Orfeo! Orfeo’s ascention into heaven.  We have already discussed partnering with the Research School of Astronomy & Astrophysics (see http://rsaa.anu.edu.au/ ) and in particular Brian Schmidt.   You will be able to get access to astronomical data and images.

The opera finishes with a lively orchestral ritornello and a rather perfunctory choral finale, sung by the shepherds.  Then a purely orchestral Moresca (literally ‘Moorish dance’)-like with the Act I balleto “Lasciate i monti’ there will need to be some kind of dancing on stage!

Updated:  12 June 2013/Responsible Officer:  Head, School of Music/Page Contact:  Development Officer