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By the mid 1700s opera seria (an artistic expression of the social and economic conditions in the Baroque period), was in a state of stagnation and decline. Its emphases upon plots depicting the exploits of mythical and heroic figures, opulent décor, and the glorification of the ruling class, if not an absolute ruler, by the portrayal of virtuous and magnanimous characters were out of sync with the emerging philosophical movement we know as the Enlightenment, with its tri-part concept of liberty, equality, and brotherhood. In tandem with the genres of opera buffa in Italy and opéra comique in France, both of which concentrated on simple plots involving the characterization of everyday people, the Enlightenment was to exercise a profound influence on composers that led to reforms of opera during the second half of the 18th century.
During this period Gluck was in service to the Habsburg imperial court at Vienna, where he eventually collaborated with the Italian poet/librettist Ranieri da Calzabigi (1714-1795), whose main literary contribution to reform was that of blurring the distinction between recitative, aria, and chorus. The first collaboration of the two was on Orfeo ed Euridice (1762), which is considered to be the first “reform opera.” Orfeo embodies many of the tenets of Enlightenment thought, including the creation of characters for whom an audience can have sympathy and compassion. They structured a more natural music drama free from the traditionally ingrained alternation of recitative and aria. Basically, they streamlined the aria da capo that normally held up the natural flow of the story with its florid displays of vocal technique that froze the action. Unlike in opera seria, the libretto of Orfeo avoids complications and subplots to concentrate on the essential story. In his own words, Gluck sought “beautiful simplicity.”
Several years passed before Gluck and Calzabigi came together on Alceste, their second reform opera. As with Orfeo, Calzabigi tightened Euripides’ plot of Alceste by eliminating characters that were subsidiary to the action. Gluck followed suit by removing long passages of secco recitative and replacing them with an expressive, accompanied recitative observant of the prosody and meaning of the text. In the preface to the printed score of Alceste, Gluck clearly stated his aesthetic intentions with regards to opera:
“I have striven to restrict music to its true office of serving poetry by means of expression and by following the situations of the story, without interrupting the action or stifling it with a useless superfluity of ornaments…I did not wish to arrest an actor in the greatest heat of dialogue in order to wait for a tiresome ritornello, nor to hold him up in the middle of a word on a vowel favorable to his voice…I have sought to abolish all the abuses against which good sense and reason have long cried out in vain.”
The aria “Divinités du Styx” comes at the end of the first act of Alceste. In this act, King Admentus is on his deathbed. An oracle of Apollo relates that unless another can be sacrificed in his place, the King will die. Queen Alceste resolves to sacrifice herself to save Admetus. It is at this point that the aria is sung passionately by Alceste. One will note the straight forward, nearly solemn realization of the text. The nobility of both the vocal music and orchestral accompaniment is a perfect rendering of Gluck’s “no frills” approach to operatic composition: the music clearly articulates the shifts in mood suggested by the text.
The first performance with Italian text took place at the Burg Theater, Vienna, December 26, 1767. The revised French version, in a translation by F.L.G. Lebland du Roullet, was premiered at the Academie Royale, Paris, in April 1776.