Simplicity, truth and naturalness : these, according to Gluck, are the eternal attributes of beauty and the ultimate goal to which he aspired. "Alceste must not merely please us now while she is still a novelty. She must be timeless. I maintain that it will still delight in two hundred years' time, if the French language remains unchanged, and the reason is that I have built my foundations upon Nature, and Nature is not subject to fashion." To a considerable extent, the strength of Gluck's opera lies not so much in the splendour of his music as in his highly personal use of language and it is thanks to the enduring essence of language that Alceste has stood the test of time. The French of François du Roullet, Gluck's librettist, although no more familiar in the 18th century than it is today, is an ideal language. Although it assumes a physical reality in words and intonation, the language of Alceste takes wing with a sense of prodigious and timeless ceremony. Marc Minkowski and Olivier Py lead Sophie Koch and Yann Beuron, husband and wife whom death itself cannot separate, along pathways both infernal and celestial in this tragic opera.
Palais Garnier - First performance on 12 September 2013 - 7:30PM
LIBRETTO BY FRANÇOIS-LOUIS GAND LE BLAND DU ROULLET AFTER RANIERI DE CALZABIGI
|Olivier Py||Stage director|
|Pierre-André Weitz||Sets and costumes|
Le Grand Prêtre d’Apollon
Stanislas de Barbeyrac
Evandre / soli ténor
Un Hérault d’armes, Apollon
Coryphée / soli soprano
L’Oracle, Un Dieu infernal
Chorus and Orchestra of Les musiciens du Louvre Grenoble.
Born in 1714 at Erasbach (Upper Palatinate), Christoph Willibald Gluck, a forester's son, ran away from home when his father became hostile to his musical vocation. He first earned his living as an itinerant musician singing and playing in churches and villages. In 1741 his first opera, to a libretto by Metastasio, was performed in Milan. There followed numerous Italian-style operas and, as of 1758, his first French-style"opéras-comiques". Orfeo ed Euridice (1762), to a libretto by Calzabigi, announced the beginning of his operatic "reforms". Alceste, again to a libretto by Calzabigi, was first performed in Vienna in 1767. Gluck travelled to Paris, where the Marquis Le Blanc du Roullet invited him to compose Iphigénie en Aulide based on Racine's work. The work's triumph led the Académie Royale de Musique to adapt Orfeo ed Euridice to the French language and tastes (1774). After Armide and Iphigénie en Tauride, Echo et Narcisse, composed in 1779, proved a failure and Gluck left Paris never to return. In 1781 an apoplectic fit devastated his creative powers. He died on 17th November 1787 in Vienna.The "reform" wished for by Gluck and his librettist Calzabigi led to a double rupture, abandoning the multiple passions and excessive virtuosity typical of Italian "opera seria" and returning to the declamation of the French "tragédie lyrique" of old which had lost ground after Rameau's death. Opera should constantly seek to move and to touch, searching out dramatic truth, simplicity and naturalness, accompanying dramatic recitative with the orchestra, involving the chorus and integrating the ballet, preparing the drama as of the overture, presenting an uninterrupted sequence of events and using an orchestra that accompanies the voices "no longer as a valet accompanies his master, but just as the arms, hands, eyes, facial and body movements accompany the language of feeling and passion."
Admetus king of Pherae in Thessaly will be spared death if another accepts to die in his place. He will then live as many years again as he has already lived. Only his wife, Alcestis, accepts to sacrifice herself. She dies, but will soon return to her husband's side for her example has moved the gods (sometimes Kore-Proserpina, sometimes Hercules). Two tragedies, lost today, Phrynicus' Alcestis and Sophocle's Admetus both preceded Euripides play (438 B.C.). The story of Alceste offers us one of the most penetrating studies of wifely devotion and regal duty and the conflict between maternal and conjugal love. The action, "entirely composed around the truth of nature where all passions find their true voice" (Gluck), offers the setting for an ideal operatic psychological drama. Gluck sought to express through music the feelings indicated in the text by giving each note the tone required by the situation whilst never deforming declamation for the sake of musical effect. Alceste would be the first of his works to transfigure the operatic stage. Little is known about the work's genesis. No doubt, Gluck and his librettist Calzabigi chose the subject of Alceste following the demise of the Emperor of Austria in 1765. The character of Alceste (embodying conjugal love and heroic sacrifice) evokes the Empress and the courage she showed after her husband's death. The opera was first performed in Vienna, in an Italian version revised by Gluck for Paris, to a text by Du Roullet (the librettist of Iphigénie en Aulide). The two versions differ greatly: the characters are not exactly the same and the scenes are arranged differently. The Paris version, concentrating more on the two main characters, is considered greatly superior to the Italian version, and it is this version, often translated into German, Italian or English, that was performed both in the 19th and 20th centuries on all the main operatic stages.
The first performance
The original Italian version was first performed on 26th December 1767 at the Burgtheater in Vienna.
The work at the Paris Opera
Alceste was first performed in Paris on 23rd April 1776 in a French version reworked for the Académie Royal de musique (the Paris Opera) which was then located in the second room of the Palais Royal. It was revived numerous times during the 19th century up until 1866, after which the work was forgotten before entering the repertoire of the Opéra-Comique in 1904. In 1926, Alceste was revived at the Palais Garnier in production staged by Pierre Chéreau with choreography by Bronislava Nijinska, and performed by Germaine Lubin (Alceste) and Georges Thill (Admète) under the baton of François Ruhlmann. In 1985, a production from Geneva, directed by Pier Luigi Pizzi, was given at the Palais Garnier with Shirley Verrett and Barry McCauley conducted by Michael Schønwandt. In 1994 the work was given at the Opéra Bastille in a production staged by Achim Freyer, with Maria Ewing and Gary Lakes under the baton of Graeme Jenkins.