King Admète is gravely ill, and the people of Pherae are filled with sorrow at the thought of losing their just and faithful king. They seek guidance from their god, Apollo, who decrees that the king will die unless a sacrifice is offered to take his place. Queen Alceste cannot bear to lose her husband, and does not want to leave her people without their protector, so she decides to take the sacrifice upon herself.
Immediately, King Admète’s health returns, but when he learns it is at the price of his beloved wife’s own life, he rejects it. Life without Alceste would be torture to him and she should not have offered herself in this way. He appeals to Apollo to release them from this bond, but nothing can be done. Alceste’s oath is with death himself.
The appointed time arrives, and Alceste approaches the gates to the underworld. Admète cannot live without his wife, and follows her to the gates, prepared to accept the fate that was originally his. Thanatos, the god of death, meets them and tells them to decide; only one life is owed. The infernal spirits linger around them while husband and wife try to bargain to save each other.
Fate has brought the hero Hercule to the palace, and on hearing of the impending sacrifice, Hercule faces the infernal spirits in a great battle. At that moment, Apollo himself descends from the heavens and puts everything right. After seeing such true love and devotion between two good and honorable people, he cannot permit them to suffer such pain. He restores Alceste’s life, and leaves them to live out their days in peace and happiness.
Although it was written, and first performed, in Italian in 1767, Gluck’s Alceste gained its popularity in the second version, translated into French, and adapted to better suit the operatic conventions in France, for its 1776 performance in Paris. Today, it is the French version which is most often performed, and thought of as the true version of the opera.
Alceste guide sections