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 reformsEdit

Set design by François-Joseph Bélanger for the 1776 French-language première

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]

Recomposition in 1776 for ParisEdit

Gluck recomposed and lengthened Alceste to a French libretto by François-Louis Gand Le Bland Du Roullet for performances at the Paris Opera, retaining the three-act structure. Hercules was added as a pivotal character in Act III, as was a scene at the Gates of Hell. The premiere took place on 23 April 1776 in the second Salle du Palais-Royal.

Performance historyEdit

With the presentations in Paris, Alceste became an essentially new work, the translation from Italian to French necessitating several changes in the musical declamation of text, and certain scenes significantly reorganized to new or altered music. Some of the changes were made upon the advice of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of Gluck's greatest French admirers, but the bulk of the adaptation was the work of French aristocrat 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. [3]

Berlioz made adjustments to the opera for a staging in 1861 that starred Pauline Viardot at the Paris Opéra. This was remounted in 1866.[4]

The first British performances 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, as well as at the Royal Opera House, with Charles Mackerras conducting and Janet Baker in the title role, in the 1980s.

Maria Callas starred as Alceste in a production at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 1954, which was memorably recorded on April 4 of that year. She sang an Italian translation of the Paris version, and it was her first collaboration in stage performances with director Luchino Visconti.[citation needed]

The Metropolitan Opera gave Alceste in three different seasons, with four sopranos starring in eighteen performances. Its premiere on 24 January 1941 featured Marjorie Lawrence. There were four more performances that season, two starring Lawrence and two Rose Bampton. In 1952 Wagnerian soprano Kirsten Flagstad sang Alceste in five performances, including her farewell with the company. On 6 December 1960 Eileen Farrell made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Alceste. She sang the role eight times that season, and her last performance, on 11 February, remains the last time Alceste was seen at the Met.

Lyric Opera of Chicago opened its 1990 season with performances starring Jessye Norman, who had recorded the opera a few years earlier. Catherine Naglestad appeared in ten performances with the Stuttgart State Opera in 2006, and this production was filmed. Alceste was given by Santa Fe Opera in August 2009 with Christine Brewer in the title role.[5] Madrid's Teatro Real staged the opera in 2015, as did Munich's Bavarian State Opera in 2019; both were filmed.

Nowadays the opera is usually given in the Paris version musically, with the libretto sometimes back-translated into Italian.

Plagiarism by MozartEdit

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)


Original version in Italian[11]

Place: Classical Pherae, Thessaly[12]

Act 1Edit

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 2Edit

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 3Edit

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 EditsEdit

Paris version[3]

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 1Edit

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 2Edit

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 3Edit

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. ^ a b James Reel, Alceste (French version), opera in 3 acts, p. 44 on
  4. ^ The Hector Berlioz Website.
  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. ^ Gluck: Alceste, on Opera today, 18 May 2006.
  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 linksEdit