400 years later, opera looks to the next act

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MANTUA, Italy -- The world of culture loves anniversaries, but rare is the occasion when an entire art form can celebrate a major birthday as opera did during the weekend, exactly four centuries after Monteverdi's pioneering work, "L'Orfeo," was created in this medieval Italian city.

Naturally enough, "L'Orfeo" was again presented in Mantua, albeit not in the Palace of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga I, where it was first performed on Feb. 24, 1607, but in the 18th-century Teatro Bibiena. Further, compared with the hand-painted décor and daring "flying" machines used at the premiere, this was a more modest semistaged affair.

Still, for opera sentimentalists, it was a moment to reflect on the origins of a unique genre of music theater — one later described by Samuel Johnson as "exotick and irrational entertainment" — which soon spread from Mantua to Venice and, by the end of the 17th century, had conquered much of Europe.

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