Alceste, Opera by Christoph Willibald Gluck
Christoph Willibald Gluck composed Alceste not only with the purpose of creating a great dramatic opera – which he certainly did. The work’s higher purpose was to shake up the operatic genre as a whole. This included doing away with excessive vocal ornamentation and technical displays, cutting down on recitatives, minimising repetitions, and simplifying melody lines to make their flow more natural. While Gluck himself would not completely hold on to his own manifesto in his future works, Alceste is a rare example of the power of simplicity, for which the composer advocated at the time. After premiere on 26 December 1767 at the Burgtheater in Vienna, the opera would undergo several edits, but its power remained. Teatro dell’Opera di Roma brings Alceste to Rome this season.
The opera’s story goes back to Ancient Greece and the drama Alcestis by Euripides. The Italian libretto, courtesy of Ranieri de’ Calzabigi, remained faithful to the original and told the story of Thessaly’s King Admeto and his wife Alceste. The King seems on his deathbed, and the kingdom’s population is in distress. The oracle at Apollo’s temple proclaims that the ruler’s life may be spared if another person offers to go in his place. While the crowd is still processing the statement, Alceste starts grappling with the idea of exchanging her husband’s life for her own and leaving their children behind. When Admeto’s sudden recovery takes place, it is clear that someone has made the fateful deal with the gods, but can it truly be that Apollo will tear the loving pair apart?
Gluck’s manifesto for operatic purity finds convincing illustration in Alceste’s score. The melodies flow naturally, the orchestral passages are aligned with the action on stage, and the text and music are mostly free of superfluous flashiness or pestering repetitions. Teatro Costanzi plays host to a true Gluck classic this season.