Major Operas | Alceste, ou le triomphe d’Alcide by Jean-Baptiste Lully | Early & Middle Baroque
The libretto, by Philippe Quinault, was based on Alcestis, a tragedy by the ancient Greek dramatist Euripides that in turn derived from the legend of Alcestis, wife of Admetus, King of Thessaly: Admetus had been promised immortality as long as he could find someone to die in his place. Alcestis volunteers to die for him but is prevented by the hero Hercules, who fights off Death in order to save her.
Lully wrote Alceste, which debuted at the Paris Opéra in 1674, to celebrate the French King Louis XIV’s triumph in battle in Franche-Comté. Much of Lully’s output while in Louis’ employ was produced to satisfy the King’s own taste in music, and Alceste was no exception. The staging of the opera was suitably spectacular, and knowing the French fondness for dancing, Lully provided ballet interludes. He also catered for audience preferences by providing a comic sub-plot and catchy tunes. This made Alceste a popular success, although the sensibilities of some critics were affronted, perhaps because they resented Lully’s power.
Nymphs on the banks of the River Seine sing and dance with La Gloire (Glory), eagerly awaiting the victorious return of the King from battle.
The beautiful and widely courted Alceste selects as her husband Admète, King of Thessaly. Present at her wedding, and also in love with Alceste, are Alcide (Hercules) and Licomède, King of the island of Scyros. A sub-plot is introduced that reflects the main story, involving the confidants of Alcide and Licomède courting Alceste’s confidante. Licomède organizes a feast, that various nymphs and spirits of the sea attend. In the confusion, he abducts Alceste, assisted safely to his homeland by his sister, the sea-nymph Thetis, and other supernatural beings.
On Scyros, Licomède is unsuccessful in wooing Alceste. Alcide and Admète arrive to rescue her, and a fierce battle ensues. Due largely to Alcide’s strength and valour, Licomède is vanquished, but Admète is mortally wounded in the battle and exchanges poignant dying words with Alceste. However, the divine Apollon intervenes, declaring that he will return Admète’s life to him if someone will agree to die in his place.
Alceste grieves for Admète and ponders over the problem of who is to die in order to restore her husband’s life. Her confidante and Admète’s father each outline their unsuitability for the task. Shortly Admète enters, desiring to know to whom he owes his return to health. It transpires it is Alceste who has sacrificed her life for his; Admète is heartbroken. Alcide declares his love for Alceste and offers to go down to the underworld to retrieve her, on the condition that Admète give Alceste up to...
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