Jacopo Peri’s Dafne was the first opera ever written. But it’s widely accepted that Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, first staged in Mantua in 1607, was the first great example of an opera. Though music and dance had played a significant part in plays from Ancient Greece onwards, the concept of presenting wholly sung drama did not develop until much later.
The story is older than Monteverdi. Opera’s immediate predecessor can be found in the plays that entertained the House of Medici in 16th-century Florence, where acts were divided by increasingly elaborate musical ‘intermedi’, and it was for a Florentine audience that Jacopo Peri’s Dafne, widely regarded as the first ever opera, was performed in 1598.
What distinguished Dafne, plus his Euridice that followed a couple of years later, was the use of recitative, by which the action is narrated in a sung form – to quote Peri himself, recitative was ‘a harmony surpassing that of ordinary speech but falling so far below the melody of song as to take an intermediate form’.
Peri had collaborated on Euridice with his court rival Giulio Caccini, who in 1602 produced his own opera of the same title. Setting texts by Rinuccini, Peri and Caccini drew on Greek myth for their subjects as, of course, did Monteverdi for L’Orfeo. Peri, however, used a modest ensemble of instruments, whereas Monteverdi had much grander ideas.
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Top image of Jacopo Peri is by Getty Images