Alceste was staged on 26 December 1767 at the Burgtheater in Vienna, with the libretto by Ranieri de’ Calzabigi; Gluck presented a later version in French which was performed at the Opéra de Paris in 1776. The opera, which is based on the tragedy Alcestis by Euripides, can be considered a true manifestation of the Gluck reform of musical theatre. These conditions are clearly presented in the preface written by the composer himself (attributed to de’ Calzabigi) for the printed edition of the opera, Vienna 1769.
Opera lirica in tre atti
Libretto di Ranieri de' Calzabigi tratto dall'Alcesti di Euripide
Musica di Christoph Willibald Gluck
Prima rappresentazione: 26 dicembre 1767 al Burgtheater di Vienna
Allestimento in coproduzione con Fondazione Teatro La Fenice di Venezia
Admetus is about to die, to the distress of the people of Thessaly and of his wife Alcestis and their two children. Ceremonial prayer to Apollo elicits the answer that Admetus will die that day unless someone will take his place. Alcestis offers herself, in the forest at night, in a place sacred to the gods of the Underworld. Admetus, ignorant, as are others, of what Alcestis has done, recovers, rejoined now by his wife, who eventually reveals the sacrifice she has made. As she dies, Admetus tries to kill himself but is prevented, reminded of his royal duty. Alcestis appears above, with the god Apollo, who allows her to return to her husband.
Gluck's Alceste, in contrast to the elaborate version of the story by Lully and Quinault, offers a much simpler and more human version of the legend. It is the second of Gluck's three reform operas, in which he collaborated with Ranieri de' Calzabigi. The choreography was by Noverre, allowing a greater degree of realism, a relative simplicity of language, the elimination of conventional exit arias and of other elements perpetuated in the formal librettos of Metastasio. Gluck's 1769 Preface to his opera sets out his principles, and those of Calzabigi, very clearly, their aim for classical simplicity, in accordance with views current about the classical world, with which Alceste was intended to be more akin.