Alceste (Gluck)

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Alceste, Wq. 37 (the later French version is Wq. 44), is an opera by Christoph Willibald Gluck from 1767. The libretto (in Italian) was written by Ranieri de' Calzabigi and based on the play Alcestis by Euripides. The premiere took place on 26 December 1767 at the Burgtheater in Vienna.

Preface and reforms[edit]

When Gluck published the score of Alceste in 1769, he added a preface written by Calzabigi, which set out their ideals for operatic reform.[1] The opera displays the features set out in this manifesto, namely:

  • no da capo arias
  • little or no opportunity for vocal improvisation or virtuosic displays of vocal agility or power
  • no long melismas
  • a more predominantly syllabic setting of the text to make the words more intelligible
  • far less repetition of text within an aria
  • a blurring of the distinction between recitative and aria, declamatory and lyrical passages, with altogether less recitative
  • accompanied rather than secco recitative
  • simpler, more flowing melodic lines
  • an overture that is linked by theme or mood to the ensuing action

Alceste also has no role for the castrato voice, although Gluck would return to using a castrato in his next opera, Paride ed Elena, and even rewrite the tenor role of Admetus for the soprano castrato Giuseppe Millico, in the 1770 revival of Alceste in Vienna.[2]

Performance history[edit]

The Death of Alcestis by Angelica Kauffman

The second of Gluck's so-called "reform operas" (after Orfeo ed Euridice), it was first performed at the Burgtheater in Vienna on 26 December 1767. A heavily revised version with a French libretto by Leblanc du Roullet premiered at the Paris Opera on 23 April 1776 in the second Salle du Palais-Royal. The opera is usually given in the revised version, although this is sometimes translated into Italian. Both versions are in three acts.[citation needed] Revivals of the opera, as revised by Berlioz, were staged in 1861, starring Pauline Viardot, and 1866 at the Paris Opéra.[3]

Revised for presentation in Paris, Alceste became an essentially new work, the translation from Italian to French necessitating several changes in the musical declamation of text, with certain scenes significantly reorganized with new or altered music. Some of the changes were made upon the advice of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of Gluck's greatest French admirers. The bulk of the libretto adaptation, however, was made by French aristocrat François-Louis Gand Le Bland Du Roullet, with improvements by the composer.[citation needed]

Gluck fought several efforts to make the new version of Alceste conform to French tastes, resisting pressure to end the opera with an extended ballet. The new libretto does, however, introduce several subsidiary characters for dramatic variety, and, following the example of Euripides, on whose work the libretto is loosely based, even calls in Hercules in the final act. [4]

Maria Callas starred as Alceste in a production at La Scala in 1954 which was recorded. It was her first collaboration in a stage performance with director Luchino Visconti.[citation needed]

The Metropolitan Opera has presented Alceste in three different seasons, with four sopranos starring in a total of eighteen performances. The Met premiere of the opera, on 24 January 1941, featured Marjorie Lawrence. There were four more performances that season, two starring Lawrence and two starring Rose Bampton. In the 1951/52 season, Wagnerian soprano Kirsten Flagstad sang Alceste in five performances, including her farewell performance with the company on 1 April 1952. On 6 December 1960, Eileen Farrell made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Alceste. She sang the role a total of eight times that season. Her final performance of the role, on 11 February 1961, marks the last time to date that the opera has been performed at the Met.

The Lyric Opera of Chicago opened its 1990 season with a performance of Alceste starring Jessye Norman, while Catherine Naglestad appeared in ten performances of Alceste with the Stuttgart State Opera between January and March 2006. It was given by The Santa Fe Opera as part of its summer festival season in August 2009 with Christine Brewer in the title role.[5]

The first UK performance took place at the King's Theatre, London in 1795.[citation needed] More recent productions have included those in Scotland at Ledlanet in 1972 and by Scottish Opera in 1974.[citation needed]

Plagiarism by Mozart[edit]

In Don Giovanni, written in 1787, twenty years after Alceste and the year Gluck died, Mozart used exactly the same chord progression for the Commendatore speaking to Don Giovanni in the garden scene that Gluck used for the line of the High Priest when saying that Alceste will die if no one takes her place.[citation needed] Hector Berlioz noted how this section of Don Giovanni was "heavily in-inspired or rather plagiarized".[6] Berlioz discussed the authenticity of some of the arias. For example, when Gluck went to Vienna, an aria was added to act 3. Berlioz came to the conclusion that Gluck was under so much pressure that he let it happen. Berlioz notes Gluck added corrections during rehearsals, and misunderstandings in the score, due to what Berlioz calls Gluck's "happy-go-lucky" style of writing.[7]


Original version
Revised version
Voice type Original version
Premiere cast
Vienna, 1767[8]
Conductor: –
Revised version
Premiere cast
Paris, 1776
Conductor: –
Alceste (Alcestis), Queen of Pherae in Thessaly Alceste, Queen of Thessaly soprano Antonia Bernasconi Rosalie Levasseur
Admeto (Admetus), her husband Admète, her husband tenor Giuseppe Tibaldi Joseph Legros
Eumelo and Aspasia,
their children
Their two children
(silent characters)
trebles (1767)
Evandro (Evander), a confidant of Admetus Evandre, leader of the Pherae people tenor Antonio Pilloni[9] Thirot (o Tirot)
Ismene, a confidante of Alcestis
(no role)
soprano Teresa Eberardi
(no role)
High Priest of Apollo High Priest baritone Filippo Laschi Nicolas Gélin
(no role)
Hercule (Hercules) baritone
(no role)
Henri Larrivée
Apollo Apollon (Apollo), protector of the house of Admetus baritone Filippo Laschi Jean-Pierre (?) Moreau[10]
Infernal deity Thanathos, an infernal deity bass De La Suze
(no role)
Choryphaei (chorus leaders) soprano, contralto, baritone, bass
(no role)
Oracle bass
Herald baritone Domenico Poggi
Chorus (1767): courtiers, citizens, Alcestis's maids of honour, priests of Apollo, gods of the underworld
Chorus (1776): officers of the palace, Alcestis's attendants, citizens of Pherae, infernal deities, priests and priestesses in the temple of Apollo.
The Death of Alceste by Pierre Peyron (1785)


Italian Original Version[11]

Place: Classical Pherae, Thessaly[12]

Act 1[edit]

A herald announces to the people of Thessaly that King Admeto is gravely ill and that there is little hope. Evandro calls upon all to pray to the oracle at the temple of Apollo. Alceste joins them and asks Apollo for pity. The oracle says Admeto can be rescued if another voluntarily sacrifices his life. This causes great consternation. Alone, Alceste agonizes whether to give her life for that of her husband.

Act 2[edit]

In a dense forest dedicated to the gods of the underworld, Ismene asks Alceste why she is leaving her husband and children. Alceste tells Ismene of her intentions. Meanwhile, Admeto has a miraculous recovery to the joy of all Thessaly. Evandro tells him that someone has apparently sacrificed himself for the king. When Alceste appears, he questions her until she confesses. The desperate king hurries into the temple to plead with the gods. However, Alceste says good-bye to the children.

Act 3[edit]

The decision of the gods is not revoked. The people lament the approaching death of Alceste. Having said good-bye to Alceste, Admeto decides to follow her into death. Then the heavens open, Apollo descends and proclaims that the gods have given them their lives as a reward for their steadfast love.

Synopsis, with French Version Edits[edit]

Synopsis reference.[4]

The overture is stately, noble, and tragic, looking ahead to some of Mozart's minor-key works. The choir propels much of the action in the first two acts, and Gluck's vocal settings are particularly elegant, taking advantage of the French language's smooth rhythms, although the writing is rather static in its sad dignity.

Act 1[edit]

King Admetus is dying, and his people are in despair. The god Apollo refuses their animal sacrifice, proclaiming that Admetus will live only if another person is sacrificed in his place. Queen Alceste believes she is the victim Apollo has in mind, but declares she will surrender her life only for love. (Aria: "Divinites du Styx")

Act 2[edit]

The people celebrate the king's recovery. Admetus does not realize that Alceste has volunteered to die in his place, and his wife won't give herself up until the record is set straight. When he learns the truth, Admetus believes that Alceste is in effect abandoning him, and would prefer to die himself.

Act 3[edit]

The people, sorrowing again, prepare the royal couple's children for sacrifice in their place. Admetus' friend Hercules arrives and promises to conquer death on his behalf, and travels to Hades. Meanwhile, Alceste has already arrived at the gates of hell; Admetus tries to dissuade her, but she is sacrificing herself for love, rather than as some heroic act. She dies, but Hercules rescues her—except that now Alceste seems nearly insane. Apollo arrives, promises Hercules immortality, and leaves Admetus and Alceste in a world that seems devoid of death. The work ends with a joyful chorus.




  1. ^ An online English translation of the preface can be found in the theatre programme: Christoph Willibald Gluck, Alceste, Wiener Staatsoper, Season 2012-1013, pp. 41-43.
  2. ^ Hayes, p. 62. For Millico, Gluck's favourite singer and intimate friend, the composer had already transposed up the originally contralto role of Orfeo in the first Italian performance of Orfeo ed Euridice, at Parma in 1769 (cf.: Le feste d'Apollo and Orfeo ed Euridice#Revised versions). In 1774, while travelling through Paris, he was also called upon to perform in private the French version of Orphée et Eurydice (with Gluck himself at the harpsichord) before it was premiered at the Opéra (Patricia Howard (ed.), C.W. von Gluck: Orfeo, Cambridge/New York/Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 2010, p. 71, ISBN 0-521-29664-1).
  3. ^ The Hector Berlioz Website.
  4. ^ a b James Reel, Alceste (French version), opera in 3 acts, p. 44 on
  5. ^ Craig Smith, "Lustrous music saves Alceste", The Santa Fe New Mexican, 3 August 2009.
  6. ^ Berlioz (1915), p. 85
  7. ^ Berlioz (1915), pp. 49–51
  8. ^ Roles and premiere cast in part from The New Kobbés Opera Book (1997), Earl of Harewood and Antony Peattie, eds. (G.P. Putnam's Sons: New York).
  9. ^ according to the Amadeusonline Almanach by Gherardo Casaglia, "Pulini"
  10. ^ this singer is usually reported solely under his surname; the alleged first name of Jean-Pierre is given only by the Amadeusonline Almanach by Gherardo Casaglia
  11. ^ Repertoire: Gluck: Alceste 8 May 2006 on
  12. ^ Woodstra, Chris; Brennan, Gerald; Schrott, Allen (September 2005), All Music Guide to Classical Music, Backbeat Books, p. 505, ISBN 0-87930-865-6 


  • Berlioz, Hector, tr. Edwin Evans,Gluck and his operas, London: Wm Reeves, 1915.
  • Hayes, Jeremy, "Alceste (ii) ('Alcestis')", in Sadie, Stanley (ed.), The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Grove (Oxford University Press), New York, 1997, I, pp. 62–70, ISBN 978-0-19-522186-2
  • (in Italian) Dizionario dell'opera, in "del Teatro" (online magazine), Baldini Castoldi Dalai

External links[edit]