Alceste, Opera by Christoph Willibald Gluck
With the premiere of Alceste on 26 December 1767 at the Burgtheater in Vienna, Christoph Willibald Gluck meant to make a powerful statement about a new movement in opera. The call for purity in melodic lines, no vocal showboating, pesky repetitions, or da capo arias, and a general alignment of vocal, instrumental, and plot lines made a big impression on the music world at the time. In the case of Alceste, these principles found their perfect reflection, and the work remains one of the most enjoyable programmatic statements in opera to this day. Teatro dell’Opera di Roma in Rome reaches back to stage this signature classic.
Euripides’ play Alcestis served as inspiration and guide for Gluck’s librettist Ranieri de’ Calzabigi. The story takes place in Thessaly where King Admeto is fighting a deadly disease. The disheartened subjects head to the temple of Apollo to pray for his recovery and look for a solution. The oracle states that the King’s life may be spared if another mortal is willing to take his place. Admeto’s wife, Queen Alceste, hears these words, too, and her loving heart is torn between her husband and her children. When the King makes a spectacular recovery, Alceste’s decision becomes clear: she has offered herself to Apollo in exchange for her husband’s health. Admeto pleads with the Sun God, but will it be too late to save his beloved wife from the fateful deal she has clinched?
Gluck’s opera Alceste is among the hidden gems of the 18th century, and its influence runs deep. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s reverence for the score can be heard in select passages from Don Giovanni, which drew more than a little inspiration from the original. Even though Gluck would make a number of minor revisions and adaptations of Alceste for its Paris premiere in 1776, the opera’s core sound profile and unique feel remain untouched to this day, as audiences at Teatro Costanzi will experience.