Christoph Willibald Gluck, in the Apotheosis of Homer

Alceste is an opera by Christoph Willibald Gluck. The libretto was written by Ranieri de Calzabigi.

It was first performed in Vienna in 1767, with a revised version — more familiar today — being premiered in Paris in 1776.

Alceste is part of the standard operatic repertoire. There are a several recordings of it, and it is regularly performed.

R.A. Streatfeild, The Opera A Sketch of the Development of Opera. With full Descriptions of all Works in the Modern Repertory

Five years elapsed between the production of 'Orfeo' and of Gluck's next great opera, 'Alceste'; but that these years were not wasted is proved by the great advance which is perceptible in the score of the later work. The libretto of 'Alceste' is in many ways superior to that of 'Orfeo,' and Gluck's share of the work shows an incontestable improvement upon anything he had yet done. His touch is firmer, and he rarely shows that inclination to drop back into the old conventional style, which occasionally mars the beauty of 'Orfeo.' Gluck wrote a preface to the published score of 'Alceste,' which is one of the most interesting documents in the history of music. It proves conclusively—not that any proof is necessary—that the composer had thought long and seriously about the scope of his art, and that the reforms which he introduced were a deliberate attempt to reconstruct opera upon a new basis of ideal beauty. If he sometimes failed to act up to his own theories, it must be remembered in what school he had been trained, and how difficult must have been the attempt to cast off in a moment the style which had been habitual to him for so many years.

When 'Alceste' was produced in Paris in 1776, Gluck made some alterations in the score, some of which were scarcely improvements. In his later years he became so completely identified with the French school that the later version is now the more familiar.

The opera opens before the palace at Pheræ, where the people are gathered to pray Heaven to spare the life of Admetus, who lies at the point of death. Alcestis appears, and, after an air of great dignity and beauty, bids the people follow her to the temple, there to renew their supplications. The next scene shows the temple of Apollo. The high priest and the people make passionate appeal to the god for the life of their king, and the oracle replies that Admetus must perish, if no other will die in his place. The people, seized with terror, fly from the place, and Alcestis, left alone, determines to give up her own life for that of her husband. The high priest accepts her devotion, and in the famous air 'Divinités du Styx,' she offers herself a willing sacrifice to the gods below. In the original version the second act opened with a scene in a gloomy forest, in which Alcestis interviews the spirits of Death, and, after renewing her vow, obtains leave to return and bid farewell to her husband. The music of this scene is exceedingly impressive, and intrinsically it must have been one of the finest in the opera, but it does not advance the action in the least, and its omission sensibly increases the tragic effect of the drama. In the later version the act begins with the rejoicings of the people at the recovery of Admetus. Alcestis appears, and after vainly endeavouring to conceal her anguish from the eyes of Admetus is forced to admit that she is the victim whose death is to restore him to life. Admetus passionately refuses the sacrifice, and declares that he will rather die with her than allow her to immolate herself on his account. He rushes wildly into the palace, and Alcestis bids farewell to life in an air of extraordinary pathos and beauty. The third act opens with the lamentations of the people for their departed queen. Hercules, released for a moment from his labours, enters and asks for Admetus. He is horrified at the news of the calamity which has befallen his friend, and announces his resolve of rescuing Alcestis from the clutches of Death. Meanwhile Alcestis has reached the portals of the underworld, and is about to surrender herself to the powers of Hell. Admetus, who has not yet given up hope of persuading her to relinquish her purpose, appears, and pleads passionately with her to leave him to his doom. His prayers are vain, and Alcestis is tearing herself for the last time from his arms, when Hercules rushes in. After a short struggle he defeats the powers of Death and restores Alcestis to her husband. The character of Hercules did not appear in the earlier version of the opera, and in fact was not introduced until after Gluck had left Paris, a few days after the production of 'Alceste.' Most of the music allotted to him is probably not by Gluck at all, but seems to have been written by Gossec, who was at that time one of the rising musicians in Paris. The close of the opera is certainly inferior to the earlier parts, but the introduction of Hercules is a great improvement upon the original version of the last act, in which the rescue of Alcestis is effected by Apollo. The French librettist did not treat the episode cleverly, and indeed all the last scene is terribly prosaic, and lacking in poetical atmosphere. To see how the appearance of the lusty hero in the halls of woe can heighten the tragic interest by the sheer force of contrast, we must turn to the 'Alcestis' of Euripides, where the death of Alcestis and the strange conflict of Hercules with Death is treated with just that touch of mystery and unearthliness which is absent from the libretto which Gluck was called upon to set. Of the music of 'Alceste,' its passion and intensity, it is impossible to speak too highly. It has pages of miraculous power, in which the deepest tragedy and the most poignant pathos are depicted with unfaltering certainty. It is strange to think by what simple means Gluck scaled the loftiest heights. Compared with our modern orchestra the poverty of the resources upon which he depended seems almost ludicrous. Even in the vocal part of 'Alceste' he was so careful to avoid anything like the sensuous beauty of the Italian style, that sometimes he fell into the opposite extreme and wrote merely arid rhetoric. Yet he held so consistently before him his ideal of dramatic truth, that his music has survived all changes of taste and fashion, and still delights connoisseurs as fully as on the day it was produced.

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