The conversion of the Palazzo Tornabuoni’s opera room into a glamorous ¬apartment was completed in January, with spectacular results. “The room is magnificent,” says Palazzo rep Jane Guarducci. “The amazing bathroom dressing areas [are almost] apartments in and of themselves.” The apartment, dubbed the “opera suite,” boasts terrazzo tiles and elegant, museum-quality finishes throughout, including an ornate fireplace decorated with micromosaic panels composed of tiny glass tesserae depicting ¬various nature scenes, as well as a fresco adorning the sky-high ceiling, which has been thoroughly cleaned and restored at great cost. The room contains so much history it inspires one’s imagination to travel back in time to the late 1590s, when noblemen and scholarly members of the dramatic-arts group known as the Florentine Camerata — including musical theorist Vincenzo Galilei, father of the astronomer Galileo — likely gathered there.

The size of a small hotel conference room, the roughly 30-by-50-foot space has excellent acoustics, so it’s easy to appreciate just how a basso cantante singer might easily perform there without need to bellow. In a 1913 paper titled “Dafne, The First Opera: A Chronological Study,” researcher O.G. Sonneck quotes Dafne’s librettist, poet Ottavio Rinuccini, who wrote that the opera’s debut was indeed an intimate affair, held for a small, elite audience of “enthusiastic listeners” invited by the Palazzo Tornabuoni’s then owner, the banking merchant and artistic patron Jacopo Corsi. The accompaniment also seemed sparse by today’s standards: A pair of lutes, a cellolike viol, a triple-flute and a harpsichord made up the entire ensemble, by most accounts. Later, an improved version was presented at Corsi’s palace for “a large audience of Florentine noblemen, the Grand Duchess, and the cardinals Del Monte and Montalo.” Most likely, Sonneck suggests, Dafne was written in 1594, premiered in 1597 and then was reprised annually during Carnival at both Corsi’s home and the Palazzo Pitti for the next three years.

Before the end of the 16th century, dialogue and song rarely mixed onstage; whenever the music started, the speaking would stop, and vice versa. But composer Peri and the Florentine Camerata experimented freely with various theatrical music formats to change all that. In the preface to a book of his later work preserved at London’s British Museum, Peri described how he sought to emulate the ancient Greeks and Romans, attempting to develop “a kind of music more advanced than ordinary speech but less than the melody of singing, thus taking a middle position between the two.” In tinkering with these distinctive patterns, Peri used a new style known as “recitativo” — melodic speeches set to music that recounted events and advanced the drama’s plot, a primary element for all subsequent operas.

Pietro de’ Bardi, the son of the Camerata’s most generous patron, witnessed one early Dafne performance as a youngster and vividly described the scene in a letter later. He said that it was “set to music by Peri in few numbers and short scenes and recited and sung privately in a small room of the Palazzo Corsi,” adding that by avoiding the “roughness and excessive antiquity” in compositions by Galilei, Peri had “sweetened this style” of recitativo and “made it capable of moving the passions in a rare manner.” De’ Bardi also described his reaction to the event, saying, “I was left speechless with amazement.”

This first-person account is one of the most informative and enlightening looks into that performance since, as scholar William V. Porter acknowledged in a 1965 study, nearly all the “information concerning the writing, the earliest performances and even the score itself … remains to the present day largely incomplete.”

Indeed, the late Renaissance era remains “murky” for most historians, according to Los Angeles musicologist Mark Robson, a former coach with the L.A. Opera who now teaches voice at the California Institute of the Arts. “Dafne came between the traditional madrigal and the format that we now consider opera,” he says. “It took a whole new approach to harmony that had real musicality. The work is still a bit of a mystery, however, since we don’t have a complete version.”
What we do have is a chamber room filled with ghosts of gaily attired musicians singing their dramatic parts as the ornamental trilling of a phantom harpsichord plays basso continuo nearby. Mounted on a wall outside the Tornabuoni palace, next to the Church of San Gaetano, a small stone historical plaque honors the contributions of Corsi, Rinuccini and Peri to modern culture. Now, thanks to the Palazzo Tornabuoni’s preservation efforts, the legacy of these men and their enduring art form will be beautifully remembered for years to come.