Plot Summary of L'Orfeo



Since the beginnings of opera, around 1600, the mythological story of Orpheus and Euridice has been used many times by various composers[1].  One of the well known versions of this story  was written in 1607 when Alessandro Striggio lengthened Ottavio Rinuccini’s libretto[2], which was then set to music and formed into an opera by Claudio Monteverdi.[3] The plot summary from this 1609 and 1615 libretto, will be discussed.

The exposition of L’Orfeo consisted of nearly the entire first act.  In this act, the shepherds and nymphs were celebrating with Orpheus and Euridice on their engagement and plans to be married.

The conflict arose in act two when a lady dressed in black entered the scene with the tragic message of Euridice’s death.  She explained that she was with Euridice in a field helping to gather flowers for her veil when a snake bit her on the foot and killed her instantly. Orpheus became very upset and decided without delay to make an attempt to rescue Euridice from the realms of the underworld.

The complication occurred in act three when Charon would not take Orpheus across the river for fear that he was intending to cause problems and for the fact that he was still alive.  Orpheus tried everything in his knowledge to persuade the ferryman to take his across, but nothing worked except for his persistence that made Charon fall asleep.  When he did, Orpheus rowed himself to the other shore of the Styx to the entrance of Hades, the underworld.

The crisis took place in act four when Orpheus finally reached Pluto, the God of the Dead and petitioned with him to release Euridice.   Despite all of his efforts, Pluto would not consent, but he did get the attention of Proserpine, Pluto’s wife.  Proserpine liked Orpheus’ music and felt sorry for his broken heart.  She talked Pluto into allowing Orpheus to take Euridice back by reminding him of the love that he once had for her when he made her his queen.  The only stipulation was that he was not to look at her until they were out of Hades.

The climax came to pass in the second half of act four when, on their return to the earth, Orpheus began to doubt whether Pluto was going to keep his word.  He started to turn back, but stopped and thought about it another second.  After reconsidering, he turned all the way back to look.

The conclusion of the story transpired at the end of act four when the spirits carried Euridice away back to the depths of the underworld while she continued to call out to him.  Orpheus returned to the earth and was still grieving and upset.  Apollo, the God of light and truth, came down from the heavens and offered to take Orpheus back with him. Because of the fact that he would be able to see images of Euridice in the stars, Orpheus agreed and ascended with his father to heaven.

Although there are some discrepancies in the ending, this version is obviously the one in which Monteverdi intended because of it publication in both the 1609 and 1615 scores.[4]  Striggio’s original libretto shows a completely different, more tragic ending.[5]  In act five, Orpheus returned to the earth where he continued to grieve and protest that he would never fall in love with another woman.  A group of Bacchaic women, the punishers “of all offenses against human society,”[6] tore Orpheus apart, limb by limb, and threw his head in the river because of this protest.[7]





Iain Fenlon, “Monteverdi’s Mantuan Orfeo Some New Documentation,” Early Music, May 1984, 163-171.


Barbara Hanning, Consise History of Western Music, New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 1998.


Microsoft Bookshelf 1998: Encarta 98 Desk Encyclopedia. “Bacchus”


Musikalische Aufnahmeleitung, prod., L’Orfeo, Müchen:  Unitel Film, 1978.


Paole Fabbri, Monteverdi, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.


John Whenham, ed., Claudio Monteverdi:  Orfeo, Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1986