Major Operas | Alceste by Christoph Willibald von Gluck | Classical Era
Triumphantly premiered in Vienna’s Burgtheater on 26 December 1767, Alceste was the second of the three collaborations between Gluck and Calzabigi. Today it is probably more famous for the reforming manifesto of its preface than for its magnificent music. Like Orfeo, Alceste cultivates Gluck’s ideal of noble simplicity, with the whole opera based essentially on a single situation – Alcestis’s sacrifice for her dying husband.
From the powerful overture – which, as Gluck said in the preface, should ‘apprise the spectators of the action to be represented’ – Alceste is the most monumental and unrelievedly sombre of all eighteenth-century operas. In the defiant, self-sacrificing heroine, whose music includes the awesome invocation to the underworld ‘Ombre, larve’, or, in the French version, ‘Divinités du Styx’, Gluck surely created his greatest soprano role.
Although the opera excited the composer ‘to frenzy’, he acknowledged its monolithic nature when he reworked it for Paris. The French Alceste is in effect a different opera: musically richer, dramatically tauter and more human than the Italian original, with a touch of comedy in the deus ex machina figure of Hercules. The librettist Roullet summed up the enthusiasm Alceste aroused when he described it as ‘the most passionate, the most energetic, the most theatrical music ever heard in Europe’.
A herald tells the grieving crowd gathered in the square next to the palace of Admetus, King of Thessaly, that the king is near to death. His queen, Alcestis, enters and beseeches the gods to relent and have pity on her and her children. She then invites the crowd to join her in the temple of Apollo and offer a sacrifice to the god. Inside the temple Alcestis asks Apollo to accept the offerings.
The High Priest urges them all to listen to the words of the Oracle, which pronounces that Admetus can only live if another dies in his place. The terrified people flee from the temple, leaving Alcestis alone. Believing that the good of the people is more important than her own life, she offers herself in her husband’s place, even if it means leaving her children. Life without Admetus would be meaningless. The High Priest tells her that Apollo has accepted her sacrifice and that the messengers of death will be waiting for her at the gates of Hades by sunset.
Admetus has recovered and the people are celebrating in the palace. Barely able to believe his recovery, he announces that he would have given his own life for any of his subjects, but he does not ask to whom he owes his life. Admetus and Alcestis are reunited as the people continue their celebrations. Alcestis, however, cannot hide her tears of sorrow for what is to come. At first Admetus urges her to be happy for his good fortune, but he eventually becomes disturbed and...
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