- Tragedia per musica in 3 acts
- Composer: Christoph Willibald Gluck
- Libretto: Ranieri de’ Calzabigi
- First performed: Burgtheater, Vienna, 26 December 1767
- Revised: Académie royale de musique, salle des Tuileries, Paris, 23 April 1776
Gluck considered Alceste – his sombre Euripidean drama of spousal love and self-sacrifice – the first of his reform works.
He began his career in the 1740s as a composer of Italian opera seria, but by the 1760s was fed up. Music had gotten out of hand, he thought; drama and truth were sacrificed to vocal display; plots were nonsensical and convoluted; and virile males were performed by castrati.
“These abuses – whether through singers’ vanity or composers’ excessive complacency – have disfigured Italian opera for a long time, and made the most beautiful of all spectacles ridiculous and boring,” he wrote in the preface to Alceste.
When he composed the opera, he consciously avoided all these abuses.
“I sought to reduce music to its true function: that of serving poetry, strengthening the expression of feelings and the interest of situations, without interrupting the action, or cooling it with superfluous ornaments.” (Berlioz, Gluck’s great admirer, thought he was wrong to subordinate music to text.)
He and Ranieri de’ Calzabigi collaborated on three reform operas: Orfeo ed Euridice (1762); Alceste (1767); and Paride ed Elena (1770), all created in Vienna. (Some critics argue that Calzabigi wrote the famous preface, and that the pair built on trends in the works of Traetta and Jommelli.)
Orfeo is the most famous of these today, but Gluck was still bound by convention; a castrato still sang the lead role. Nevertheless, Gluck adopted an austere style, without unnecessary ornamentation; and the interest arose from the situations, rather than the story being a vehicle for bravura arias. At the first performance, the audience were astonished; at the second, they admired.
Alceste went even further; there were no castrati, and not a single coloratura passage – things not seen in Italian opera for more than a century.
“I sought,” Gluck wrote, “to banish from music all the abuses against which common sense and reason protest in vain.”
No insipid tunes interrupted the action; the singer did not display his agility in a beautiful passage; and da capo arias were minimized. The overture set the tone for the opera; the instrumental part expressed the passion and interest of the situation; and aria and recitative were merged.
“I believed that most of my work was to strive for noble simplicity, and I avoided parrying difficulties at the expense of clarity…”
Metastasian opera seria invariably involved half-a-dozen Roman or Persian nobles in a complicated web of relationships and political conspiracy. Gluck reduced principals to two, with a couple of confidants, children, and a priest. The plot is stark and austere, without complication. Admeto (Admetus), king of Thessaly, is dying. The oracle of Apollo announces that his life will be saved – if someone dies in his place. Only one person is willing to make that sacrifice: his wife Alceste (Alcestis). The king recovers, but is horrified to learn that he must lose his wife. When she dies, Admeto, half-mad with grief, tries to stab himself. Apollo intervenes again; he restores Alceste to life.
“The poem lent itself perfectly to my designs,” Gluck thought. “Instead of flowery descriptions, superfluous comparisons, and sententious and cold moralizing, the author substituted the language of the heart, strong passions, interesting situations, and an ever-changing spectacle. The approval of enlightened people made me see that simplicity, truth, and naturalness are the only rules of beauty in all artistic productions.”
Few listeners other than Gluck have admired the poem, or found in it an ever-changing spectacle. Most have taxed it with tedium. Tovey thought that in their desire to simplify the action, the collaborators eliminated it altogether. Barbedette (1882) found the libretto overwhelmingly monotonous; the five or six dramatic and musical scenes are, strictly speaking, only the nuances of one and the same situation: “People weep from start to finish.” Gevaert (1902) complained that Calzabigi prolonged the same situation over three-quarters of an opera; the action doesn’t advance from the end of Act I to the denouement.
Certainly, the first half of the opera is glacial and dull. A series of static tableaux shows choruses mourning, Alceste mourning, priests foreboding… The opera suddenly comes to life when Admeto does – at the end of Act II. He learns of Alceste’s sacrifice in an almost Wagnerian confrontation. It encompasses recit, choruses, and arias in a massive, psychologically penetrating, almost through-composed, 40-minute sweep of music, quite unlike the stop-start of opera seria. Here at least we see that Gluck and Calzabigi’s reforms can be effective. It’s Elsa and Lohengrin, this scene between spouses separated by secrets and suspicion. (D’Udine  thought one must reach the third act of Tristan to find a greater gradation of effect built only on a psychological state; “it is one of those miracles that art rarely accomplishes”.) Later, when Alceste bids farewell to her children, we see Bellini’s Norma. This is the high point of the opera; the happy ending seems contrived, and quite anticlimactic. Gluck is more convincing at grief than joy.
The work was at first indifferently received. The theatre closed for a week during rehearsals – much to the indignation of Gluck’s adversaries. “No opera for days – and a funeral mass when it reopens!” Some audience members wanted their money back; others, more cynical, asked what pleasure one could find in the jeremiads of an idiot who died for her husband.
After several performances, however, the score’s beauties won over the audience – and Alceste ran for two years solid in Vienna. “I am in the land of marvels,” the novelist Sonnenfels wrote in his Briefe über die Wienerschaubühne. “A serious opera without castrati; music without solfeggi – or to speak more correctly, without gurgling – an Italian poem without bombast and without attempts at wit – such is the triple prodigy with which the Court Theatre has opened.”
For all Gluck’s dream of reforming Italian opera, he had far more influence on French opera. His mature operas are, to some degree, tragédie lyrique in Italianate garb, with declamation rather than “psalmody”, tighter concentration on drama, and fewer divertissements.
Gluck revised Alceste for Paris in 1776 after the success in 1774 of Iphigénie en Aulide and Orphée et Eurydice, his French reworking of Orfeo.
At his request, Rousseau (as good a critic as he was a weak musician, Clément  quipped) appraised the work. The philosopher admired the score, but reproached the composer for accumulating the most beautiful numbers in the first act, so that interest diminished in the second, while the third seemed feeble.
“I agree that the pathos of the first act would be out of place in the following ones. Music’s strength does not exclusively lie in pathos, however… Its resources are no less in brilliant and lively expressions than in moans and weeping.”
And that emphasis on moans and weeping was the problem, Rousseau thought. “I know of no opera where passions are less varied than in Alceste. There are almost only two emotions: affliction and terror. The musician must have been at great pains not to fall into the most lamentable monotony.” It would certainly frustrate a Parisian audience. The ending of the play was cold, flat, and almost laughable, by dint of its simplicity.
Gluck drastically revised the work. He eliminated the character of Alceste’s confidante Ismene, and reduced that of Admète’s confidant Evandre; and made the royal children mute roles (probably a relief). He rearranged scenes (the first part of Act II ends up in Act III), and expanded others.
The French version is superior; there is much to admire, although it does not hit the heights of the two Iphigénie operas. The first act opens, like the Vienna version, with a chorus lamenting the king’s illness, but it is tauter and more powerful.
Berlioz (1835) praised the temple scene, where Apollo’s oracle reveals how Admète can be cured. “It’s prodigious; it is music by a giant, whose existence nobody suspected before Gluck!” It certainly influenced Mozart; the phrase “Le roi doit mourir aujourd’hui”, on one note accompanied by a trombone, reappears in Don Giovanni, in the mouth of the Commendatore. (Berlioz accused the Austrian of plagiarism.)
Alceste’s resolve to die for her husband is more immediate than the Viennese version. In the beautiful “Non, ce n’est point un sacrifice”, she reflects that life without her husband would be empty; death is the easier option.
The recitatives come close to an aria in their tunefulness; “Arbîtres du sort des humains” (andante, tempo rubato) is flexible and melodic, while Berlioz considered “Il n’est plus pour moi d’espérance” incomparable for truth, beauty, and expression.
The act ends with the famous “Divinités du Styx” (from the Viennese “Ombre, larve, compagne di morte”), often performed as a concert piece last century by the likes of Maria Callas, Jessye Norman, Leontyne Pryce, and Marilyn Horne. For Berlioz, this was “the most astonishing inspiration of tragic art”, the most complete manifestation of Gluck’s gifts: inspiration, grandeur, simplicity, dramatic orchestration, touching melodies, and, above all, immense power that terrifies the imagination able to appreciate it.
The second act opens with the people rejoicing at Admète’s recovery, and the obligatory ballet (a passacaglia). The charming chorus “Parez vos fronts de fleurs nouvelles”, with its pizzicato effects, comes from Paride ed Elena. The confrontation between Alceste and Admète lacks, surprisingly, the intensity of the Vienna scene; the drama is diluted, but makes up for it in melodic inspiration.
The Paris version premiered in the presence of Marie Antoinette, who wished to give Gluck her moral support. Intellectual Paris was already divided. Some begged to attend rehearsals and watch Gluck conduct in casual clothes and a night-cap; princes themselves hastened to hand him his surtout and wig after the performance. A hostile press campaign, however, claimed the opera was sad, gloomy, horribly black, while a cabal accused the composer of plagiarizing Sacchini. To make matters worse, Gluck’s beloved niece Marianne died just before the first performance.
The opera was at first a failure, as in Vienna. Even the talented Rosalie Levasseur in the title role, Barbedette wrote, could not combat the boredom caused by an austere and monotonous work. The first act was favourably received, although without enthusiasm; the second more liked – and the third heard in freezing silence. The ending was ridiculous, the audience felt, and the opera was dull: no violin tunes, nothing gay!
“Alceste est tombée,” a despondent Gluck told his friend, the Abbé Arnaud, in the corridors of the opera house. “Yes,” the priest replied; “it has fallen from heaven.” He counselled his friend to adopt a stoicism he lacked. “The fault is not with the composer, but with the crowd.”
It would be ironically amusing if the piece failed, Gluck thought; more, it would be an epoch in the history of French taste. “I conceive that a piece composed purely in the musical style may succeed or fail; this is due to the spectators’ very variable taste … but to see a work composed entirely in truth with nature, and in which all the passions speak, I confess that it embarrasses me. Alceste must not only please now, because of her novelty. She is timeless. I affirm that she will please equally in two hundred years, if the French language does not change. My reason is that I have founded it entirely on nature, which is never subject to fashion.”
More than a quarter of a century after its premiere, however, Kaminski (2003) thought, Gluck’s funereal tragedy receives more distant respect than passionate love. (Scroll to the end to see how the 1860s take on it.)
Alceste did not reach its final form until the sixth performance. Following Euripides’ lead, the writers added Hercules to the third act (with an entrance aria composed by Gossec); he descends to the underworld to rescue the royal couple by beating up demons with his club. Berlioz thought this was ridiculous; was Apollo so powerless he needed a demigod to act? Newman (1895) believed Gluck had spoilt the opera for French taste; “the ending with Apollo was bad enough dramatically in all conscience, but with the introduction of Hercules everything became degraded and vulgarized”.
The Parisians, however, warmed to the opera. When Alceste reached the end of its scheduled run of performances, they asked for it again. It stayed in the repertoire until 1826, given more than 300 times, and was performed throughout Europe.
Gluck was more powerful than ever. In 1777, the king ordered his bust to be placed in the foyer of the Opéra, next to Rameau’s. The Czech composer had set out to reform Italian opera; he had become a titan in the French operatic pantheon.
Watch : Carmela Remigio (Alceste) and Marlin Miller (Admeto), with Guillaume Tourniaire conducting the Orchestra e Coro del Teatro la Fenice, Venice, 2015. Medici TV ( https://www.medici.tv/en/operas/alceste-gluck-pier-luigi-pizzi-guillaume-tourniaire-teatro-la-fenice/).
Jessye Norman (Alceste) and Nicolai Gedda (Admète), with Serge Baudo conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Orfeo, 1995.
Anne Sofie von Otter (Alceste) and Paul Groves (Admète), with Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducting the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir. Phillips 2002.
- H. Barbedette, Gluck, Paris: Heugel & fils, 1882
- Hector Berlioz, Des deux Alcestes de Gluck, Feuilleton du Journal des Débats, 16 and 23 October 1835. http://www.hberlioz.com/feuilletons/debats351016.htm and http://www.hberlioz.com/feuilletons/debats351023.htm
- Hector Berlioz, Reprise de l’Alceste de Gluck, À travers chants, 1862. http://www.hberlioz.com/Writings/ATC12.htm
- Félix Clément, Les musiciens célèbres depuis le 16ème siècle jusqu’à nos jours, Paris : Librairie Hachette & Cie, 1878
- Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des opéras, 1869
- François-Auguste Gevaert, avant-propos to score of Gluck’s Alceste, Paris : Henry Lemoine & Cie, 1902
- Vincent Giroud, French Opera: A Short History, Yale University Press, 2010
- Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Paris : Fayard, 2003
- Ernest Newman, Gluck and the Opera: A Study in Musical History, London: Bertram Dobell, 1895
- Jean d’Udine, Les musiciens célèbres : Gluck, Paris : Librairie Renouard, 1906
In 1861, the Journal amusant (an illustrated comic, critical, satiric paper) published a piece on « Alceste à l’Opéra en 1776 et en 1881 ». For your amusement :
Five years later, Félix gave his impression of a week at the Opéra in 1866 when Alceste and Don Giovanni were on the bill: