Christoph Willibald Gluck: Alceste (French Version of 1776)

Opera en trois actes. Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes.

This review is of a 1941 live performance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City of the French version using a 19th century style orchestra. This recording was released by Naxos and is available on Amazon Music.

This was the second Reform Opera that Gluck produced, and it is somewhat more reformed than the first of its kind Orfeo ed Euridice. It has about as little plot as the earlier opera but is somewhat closer to the theoretical ideals of Greek theatre. There are no castrato parts (hurrah!), no da capo arias, and no secco recitatives. Instead there is a mostly syllabic setting of the livret, a blurring of recitative and aria, and straightforward melodies. The chorus is of even greater prominence (sort of Lohengrin-ish), and there are fewer ballets, than in Orfeo. The opera is actually the first to use a Romantic-era orchestra, and the overture opens with an arpeggio leitmotif for doom, how fun!

SETTING: Thessaly, Ancient times. There is very little action or plot but the scenario is that in order to satisfy the god Apollo (baritone) and save the life of her husband King Admetus (tenor), Queen Alceste (soprano) takes his place in the realm of the dead. He learns of her decision and follows her. For some reason Heracles (baritone) shows up and decides to conquer death because he has gone proto-Eastern Orthodox Jesus on us, but thankfully in this production we have been spared his presence and Apollo just unilaterally decides to reward the couple with life for their stedfast love. Apparently this is ultimately from Euripides (in which Hercules owes Admetus a debt of hospitality), so Gluck and his librettist Ranieri de’ Calzabigi did not just make this part up.


ACT 1: (60 minutes)

Scene 1: A public place between the palace of King Admetus and the temple of Apollo.

0, 6: Dieux ! rendés-nous notre roi The overture *** (in D-minor) is one of the earliest dark pieces of classical music and foreshadows the overture to Don Giovanni although without the charming happy part. Instead, it properly sets the mood for doom and gloom that opens the opera. In fact, after six and a half minutes, we go directly into a ten minute long opening chorus of the mourning people of Thessaly **. It is occasionally interrupted by Evandre (who is sort of a Prime Minister): who announces that Alceste will arrive.

17: Grands dieux ! du destin qui Alceste, the wife of Admetus, leads the people in a public prayer *** before going into the temple with her two children.

27: A gentle Pantomime * as the scene changes. I keep expecting it to resolve differently, but it never does.

Scene 2: Interior of the Temple of Apollo.

31: Dieu puissant, écarte du trône The High Priest leads the people in a furious pre-sacrifice warm up complete with hymns and dance ***. The gentle theme from the Pantomime returns as Alceste enters the temple and makes her petition to Apollo in recitative.

39, 45: Quel oracle funeste The pantomime of the Sacrifice * (the best part is the crescendo towards the end): which is rejected by Apollo, who demands a willing, human, sacrifice, through his High Priest in a furious trumpet blasting recitative. The people express themselves in two distinctive but back-to-back choruses, one gentle, the other furious but with a gentle string accompaniment *.

47: Où suis-je, malheureuse Alceste Alone, Alceste thinks about what to do **. She is certain that she is the sacrifice Apollo calls for.

54: Divinités du Styx Alceste offers up her life **, but declares that she does so only for love, and love alone, thus depriving the god of a sacrifice.

ACT 2: A vaste salon in the palace of Admetus. (42 minutes)

0: Que les plus doux transports The people rejoice ** as Admetus has recovered. If you didn’t know any better you would swear it was written by Donizetti or Bellini. It is followed by a ballet in two contrasting parts: the first slow, the second close to a Swiss dance.

5: Ô mes enfants ! ô mes amis! We finally meet Admetus in an address given in recitative *.

8: Vivés, aimés des jours dignes d’envie A chorus of cantors ** shows up, get interrupted by the arrival of Alceste and her encounter with Admetus, and then the chorus jumps back into their gentle piece again. It is yet another very good nine minute long choral sequence, if a little slower than in the first act.

18: Bannis la crainte et les alarmes Gluck brings us out of sadness with this beautiful tenor aria *** for Admetus as he tells Alceste to banish all sorrow (he does not know of her sacrifice and that she is only still alive in order to tell him what she is going to do).

22, 26, 30: Je n’ai jamais chéri la vie/Barbare ! non, sans toi je ne puis vivre/Tant de grâces! She finally tells him everything ** and he is heartbroken ***. Admetus thinks that Alceste is leaving him, to leave him(!) and expresses perhaps some of the most human sentiments in all opera: the fear of partner abandonment and preference to die. Alceste prays that her husband find courage, and the chorus gets in on the act rather gently as well **. 

31: Ah ! malgré moi The act ends with a ten minute long aria con coro for Alceste ***. Admetus sings a very tragic good-bye and the chorus finishes off the act with a miserable hymn.

ACT 3: (28 minutes).

Scene 1: (CUT) Same decor as Act 2.

A short scene (around seven and a half minutes): the people are in mourning again, this time for Alceste. Meanwhile the High Priest plans on sacrificing the two children after Admetus decided to leave for the underworld and join Alceste in death. Hercules shows up and decides to trample down death by…his might? The aria included here is a reworking of one from an earlier Gluck opera entitled Ezio. To be honest, I know the Met dropped the part completely to make casting easier, and in all fairness the scene doesn’t really add much.

Scene 2: The Gates of Hades.

0: Grands dieux ! soutenés mon courage The act opens with a nine-minute long aria ** for Alceste as she encounters the Furies.

11: Alceste ! Alceste, au nom des dieux! Admetus comes on to join Alceste. Alceste dies in his arms and Admetus embarks on his own *** Che farò senza Euridice?. 

13: Caron t’appelle, entends sa voix? The Furies call Charon **, but the heavens open and Apollo declares that both Admetus and Alceste shall be restored because of their stedfast love.

17, 26: Vivez aimez des jours A happy five-movement ballet * precedes the brief finale *.


Alceste is the first actual opera for anyone who conflates opera with 19th century romanticism. Certainly the prototype of operetta already existed in France for several decades, but romantic opera was essentially born in Austria in 1767, got picked up by the French in 1776 after Gluck failed to reform Italian opera seria (although Spontini and Cherubini would continue the style in France long before it truly caught on in Italy with middle to late period Rossini and the San Carlo Operas), and eventually became the style we all know and love (or hate) today. The work does have a neo-classical simplicity to it (which Wagner will try to recapitulate in Lohengrin), more so than the comparatively primitive Orfeo ed Euridice with its lack of red-blooded emotion, castrato lead, and overt use of ballet, but its orchestration is also rich in what will become the dark and brooding music of the next century (reaching its apogee in Berlioz, specifically Les Troyens). The brass and woodwind sections are at their pre-Wagnerian capacity, and there isn’t a harpsichord in sight! Perhaps it is a little too dark, the first act is basically a long proto-Wagnerian funeral dirge, but when it needs to contrast between joy, sexual longing, and sorrow, the score does well. Similarly to Wagner, there is incredibly little action (more music than drama), but the best of it, which tends to revolve around the central Alceste-Admetus relationship, is incredibly poignant and beautiful. An alpha.

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