Rejecting the Tried and True: Gluck's 'Alceste'

The opera begins with a somber overture -- one of the first opera overtures to actually evoke the mood of the drama that follows.

ACT ONE takes place in Pherae, the capital city of ancient Thessaly, where King Admetus is near death. Outside, in a public square, the citizens are in mourning. The queen, Alceste, appears. She expresses her own grief in a long aria, then leads the people to the temple of Apollo, hoping the god will intervene and save her husband.

Inside the temple, the High Priest leads prayers, and his Oracle announces the god's decision. Apollo has proclaimed that Admetus will die that very day, unless someone else is willing to die in his place.

Alceste is left alone before the altar of Apollo. Pondering the grim situation, she decides to give her own life to save her husband. When the High Priest returns, he tells Alceste that her offer has been accepted: Admetus will recover, and Alceste will die by nightfall. Left alone again, Alceste defiantly confronts the lords of the underworld, and takes pride in her impending sacrifice.

In ACT TWO, Admetus is suddenly well again, and wants an explanation for his seemingly miraculous recovery. His friend Evander tells him about the appeal that was made to Apollo, and about the god's offer. Evander speculates that some "hero" must have offered to save the king, by agreeing to Apollo's conditions. But he doesn’t say who this hero might be. Admetus is appalled by the suggestion that one of his subjects might make that sacrifice, and says he'd rather die himself than allow it.

When Alceste enters, Admetus begins to reconsider, thinking that his life may still be worth living. But Alceste is unhappy, and when Admetus wonders why, she eventually tells him the truth. Hearing that, Admetus threatens to kill himself to save her.

Meanwhile, the people realize that while Admetus has recovered, Alceste is now dying. As Alceste grows weaker and weaker, she ponders everything she'll leave behind, including her children, and the act ends as the people watch their queen approaching death.

As ACT THREE begins, Queen Alceste is near death, and it seems nothing can save her. In the palace, the king, Admetus, is grieving, and his friend Evander leads the people in a sorrowful chorus.

Hercules then appears, to pay a visit to his old friend, the king. He's astonished to find the court in mourning for Alceste. Evander tells him what has happened, saying Alceste has vowed to Apollo that she'll give up her own life to save Admetus -- and that Alceste is now on her way to the altar of death. Hercules refuses to accept this, and vows to rescue her.

The next scene is at the entrance to the underworld, with the altar of death nearby. Alceste approaches the altar, terrified, and confronts a chorus of infernal spirits. Admetus arrives, determined to die in her place. Alceste urges him to live, and to protect their children and his kingdom. An underworld god gives Alceste one last chance to save herself. She refuses.

Then, as Alceste is nearing death, Hercules appears. He drives the infernal spirits away, and brings Alceste and Admetus together. At that, Apollo descends from the heavens. He rewards Hercules for his bravery and devotion, offering him eternal life. Apollo also declares that Alceste and Admetus will both live on, with their love as a model for all the world.

In the final scene, back at the palace, Apollo commends the citizens for their loyalty to the king and queen, and then returns to the heavens. Alceste and Admetus are reunited with their children, and the people celebrate as the opera ends.