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Gluck – Alceste  [1/7]
Alceste – Anne Sofie von Otter
Admete – Paul Groves
High Priest and Hercules – Dietrich Henschel
Evandre – Yann Beuron
A Herald and Apollo – Ludovic Tezier
Oracle and Infernal God – Frederic Caton
Coryphe – Hjordis Thebault
Alceste’s Alter Ego – Gladys Massenot
Alceste’s Children – Lucie Barret, Arthur Carayon
English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Chor
Conductor - Sir John Eliot Gardiner
Choreographer – Giuseppe Frigeni

Gluck's operas - especialIy Orfeo and Alceste - meet the test of being classics better than any other composer's.  Alceste, for instance, is nine years older than the American Revolution, and yet it is still part of the repertoire of almost every great opera house in the world. An opera really has to have something to survive so long, and so vigorously.

And this is what Alceste has: it has noble melodies and striking arias; it has vigorous and dramatic choruses—plenty of them, too; it has strong, striking orchestration, not just plunkety-plunk accompaniments like so many older operas; and above all, it tells its great old story with dramatic and musical integrity. That great old story is based on the popular dramatic theme of a love that is faithful unto deaths It is a part of classical Greek mythology which you will find in your Bulfinch and in Euripides.

When Gluck composed the opera, he was engaging in a sensational aesthetic war. He was trying to purge opera of some of those excesses that he believed made Italian opera absurd; and be made a special point of saying that the music should serve the drama, not get in its way. The arguments are clearly set forth in the famous preface to the published score, which is required reading for all serious students of the opera. (Actually, it was written by the librettist, Calzabigi, and only signed by Gluck.)

The opera was a huge success in Vienna, where it was given in Italian. For Paris, ten years later, Gluck made a drastically different version, one which stuck closer to his announced principles and which is the one always given today. It was a failure. Gluck took it philosophically and wrote: "Alceste can only displease when it is new. It has not yet had time. I say that it will please in two hundred years..." For once, an artist was right when he made such a prediction.

Gluck – Alceste  [2/7]

Scenes from the myth of Admetus and Alcestis.
Marble, sarcophagus of C. Junius Euphodus and Metilla Acte, 161–170 CE.

Alcestis  or Alceste, was a princess in Greek mythology, known for her love of her husband. Her story was popularized in Euripides's tragedy Alcestis.

Alcestis was the fairest among the daughters of Pelias, king of Iolcus, and either Anaxibia or Phylomache. She was the wife of Admetus by whom she bore a son, Eumelus, a participant in the siege of Troy, and a daughter, Perimele.


In the story, many suitors appeared before King Pelias, her father, when she came of age to marry. It was declared she would marry the first man to yoke a lion and a boar (or a bear in some cases) to a chariot. The man who would do this, King Admetus, was helped by Apollo, who had been banished from Olympus for one year to serve as a shepherd to Admetus. With Apollo's help, Admetus completed the challenge set by King Pelias, and was allowed to marry Alcestis. After the wedding, Admetus forgot to make the required sacrifice to Artemis, and found his bed full of snakes.

Apollo again helped the newlywed king, this time by making the Fates drunk, extracting from them a promise that if anyone would want to die instead of Admetus, they would allow it. Since no one volunteered, not even his elderly parents, Alcestis stepped forth. Shortly after, Heracles rescued Alcestis from Hades, as a token of appreciation for Admetus' hospitality.

Christoph Willibald Gluck - Alceste Act II Scene 3




Opera in three acts by Christoph Willibald Gluck
with libretto in Italian by Raniero da Calzabigi based on
Greek legend as told in the tragedy by Euripides


Admetus, King of Pharae​            - Tenor
Alcestis, his wife​             -  Soprano
Hercules, the legendary strong man           -  ​Bass
Evander, a royal messenger          -  ​Tenor
Apollo, god of many things​          -  Baritone
Thanatos, god of death​           -  Bass
High priest​            -  Bass


Time: legendary
Place: Thessaly
First performances at Vienna, December 26, 1767 (in Italian), and at Paris, April 23, 1776 (in French)


Gluck – Alceste  [4/7]



In the first act the people of the city-state of Thessaly are already mourning their good King, Admetus, who is on the point of death. They pray to Apollo, for the King had once done Apollo a great service. Queen Alcestis and her children are announced by the messenger, Evander. She joins in the prayer, singing the fine aria Grands dieux du destin, but it takes some time to get an answer. Finally, after the elaborate offering of sacrifices and a stately ballet, the High Priest announces the decision of the oracle of Apollo's temple. Yes, he proclaims, Admetus may be saved, but someone must offer to take his place in death. No one is devoted enough to do this, and all bis subjects flee from the temple, leaving Alcestis alone. It is then that she has her greatest moment (and, incidentally, her greatest aria, Divinites du Styx). She decides that she cannot live without Admetus, and that she herself must make the sacrifice and take his place with Death. It is on this noble note that Act I ends.

Admetus beweint Alkeste by Johann Heinrich Tischbein (circa 1780)


Scene 1  Like the first act, the last one begins with the populace mourning. But this time the people of Thessaly are mourning the loss of their Queen Alcestis instead of their King Admetus. Now, in comes a new and refreshing figure. He is Hercules, the strong man, who has just finished the twelfth and last of bis Herculean labors. An old friend of the family, be is profoundly shocked when Evander informs him of what has happened. Immediately he resolves to try to get Alcestis back from Hades. (His last labor,though he is too polite to refer to it, had been getting Cerberus back out of Hades. It may therefore be assumed that he feels well trained for bis new task.)

Gluck – Alceste  [6/7]

Scene 2 This scene takes us to the gates of Hades. Alcestis wishes to enter at once—to die; but the specters of Hades tell her she must not enter before nightfall. Admetus, who has followed bis wife, now comes in, hoping to take her places but Alcestis nobly refuses. The god of death, Thanatos, appears and gives Alcestis the chance to renounce her vow, to remain on earthy alive, and let Admetus take her place. Still Alcestis remains firm.

And now night begins to fall, and the specters of Hades call upon Alcestis to enter the gates. She is about to do so, when stout Hercules appears. He struggles against all the specters and appears at last to be triumphant, when the great god Apollo himself intervenes. So deeply impressed is Apollo with the devotion of husband and wife and with the valorous friend, ship of Hercules that he pronounces a happy ending to the tragedy. Hercules is given immortality, and Alcestis and Admetus are to return to earth, the models for all happily married people. The gates of Hades vanish; a host of people comes in; and the opera ends with a chorus of rejoicing led by Admetus, and with a grave and dignified, but happy, ballet.

Gluck – Alceste  [7/7]

Hercules Wrestling with Death for the Body of Alcestis by Frederic Lord Leighton, England (c. 1869-1871)

Christoph Willibald Gluck



Teatro alla Scala
4 aprile 1954


The second act begins with the rqoicmg of the people, for their beloved King Admetus is well again, spared by the gods. They sing; they dance; they rejoice; and Admetus joins in the thanksgiving. Yet he knows that someone must have laid down his life to meet the conditions of the gods, and be is troubled by the absence of his wife, Queen Alcestis. Presently she comes in and tries to join in the general tone of rejoicing; but as Admetus questions her, the truth slowly dawns on him. Finally she admits it: Alcestis has offered herself to the gods to take the place of Admetus. Horrified, he reproaches her, for he cannot think of life without Alcestis any more than she could think of it without him. But—as Alcestis points out—the decision is made: the gods have accepted her sacrifice; and, as the act ends, she starts on her way to the realms of Hades, of Death.

Gluck – Alceste  [5/7]

Christoph Willibald won Gluck

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