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Euripides [Musée du Louvre]
26 Dec 2007

LULLY: Alceste, ou Le triomphe d’Alcide

Alceste, ou Le triomphe d’Alcide: Tragédie en musique in a prologue and five acts.

Jean-Baptiste Lully: Alceste

Alcide: Nicolas Rivenq
Alceste: Véronique Gens
Admète: Simon Edwards
La Gloire, Céphise, 1ère ombre: Judith Gauthier
Lychas, Alecton, Apollon, 1er triton: James Oxley
Straton: Renaud Delaigue
Lycomède, Caron: Bernard Deletré
Pluton, Éole, Homme désolé, Cléante: Alain Buet
Phérès, 2ème triton: Jean Delescluse
Proserpine, Nymphe de la Marne, Nymphe des Tuileries, 3ème ombre: Hjördis Thébault
Femme affligée, Nymphe de la Seine, Diane, Thétis, 2ème ombre: Stéphanie d’Oustrac
Chœur de Chambre de Namur, La Grande Écurie et la Chambre du Roy conducted by Jean-Claude Malgoire
Live broadcast: 22 March 2006, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris


Music composed by Jean-Baptiste Lully. Libretto by Philippe Quinault after Euripides.

First Performance: 19 January 1674, Opéra, Paris.

Principal Characters:
Nymph of the Seine Soprano
La Gloire [Glory] Soprano
Nymph of the Tuileries Soprano
Nymph of the Marne Soprano
Alceste [Alcestis] Princess of Iolcos Soprano
Admète [Admetus] King of Thessaly Haute-Contre
Alcide [Alcides, or Hercules] Baritone
Licomède [Lycomedes] brother of Thetis, King of Scyros Bass
Lychas confidant of Hercules Haute-Contre
Straton confidant of Lycomedes Bass
Céphise confidante of Alcestis Soprano
Cléante knight of Admetus Tenor
Pherès [Pheres] father of Admetus Tenor
Charon Baritone
Pluton [Pluto] Bass
Thétis [Thetis] a sea-nymph Soprano
Apollon [Apollo] Haute-Contre
Proserpine [Proserpina] Soprano
The Ghost of Alcestis Silent Role
Alecton [Alecto] a Fury Haute-Contre
A Rebuffed Ghost Soprano
Eole [Aeolus] King of the winds Baritone
Diane [Diana] Soprano

Setting: The city of Iolcos in Thessaly

Synopsis of The Alcestis

The Alcestis was produced in 438 B.C. and is probably the earliest of nineteen surviving plays of Euripides, unless the Rhesus is considered genuine. It was the fourth play in the tetralogy which included The Cretan Woman, Alcmaeon in Psophis, and Telephus. It is a position, in all other cases that are known, to be occupied by a satyr play. However, a true satyr play, such as Cyclops, is a short, slapstick piece characterized by a chorus of satyrs, half men, half beasts, who act as a farcical backdrop to the traditional mythological heroes of tragedy. The Alcestis in spite of its position “is clearly no such play.”1

It has no satyrs, no openly farcical elements. Even the merriment of Heracles is toned down to fit the dignity of serious drama. The uniqueness of the Alcestis is not its happy ending, which was not uncommon in Greek tragedy, but its positioning within the 438 B.C. tetralogy. Its relative shortness and fairy-tale like theme which is unusual in extant Greek tragedy adds to its uniqueness and controversy.

Eurpides’ Alcestis has always been a critic’s battlefield. Even the genre to which the play belongs is disputed—is it a tragedy, play, or the first example of a tragicocomedy?2

Though the story of the Alcestis appears relatively simple it too has been the object of study and controversy. It is the story of a young man who is king. His name is Admetus. Through the trickery of his friend, the god Apollo, Admetus escapes Thanatos, Death. Apollo, in the prologue of the Alcestis, laments the situation he has gotten his friend into. He had persuaded Death to take a substitute for Admetus. It seemed a fine idea to both Admetus and Apollo, however Death made one stipulation, the substitute had to be a voluntary one. Admetus, still undisturbed, believed his elderly parents would lovingly and willingly take his place and die. Instead, his parents made it clear, especially Pheres, his father, that life was sweeter and more precious as one got older and his parents had no intention of dying for him.

Hercules Fighting Death to Save AlcestisHercules Fighting Death to Save Alcestis by Frederic Lord Leighton (1869-71)

None, except his young beautiful wife and queen came forth. Alcestis voluntarily places herself in her husband’s stead. Death comes for Alcestis, leaving her grieving husband to contemplate a life of shame, promised celibacy and isolation. Now enters Heracles. Heracles sees his friend in mourning and questions him as to who has died. Admetus assures his friend that it was simply an outsider and that Heracles was very welcome to stay. Heracles takes Admetus at his word and begins to party and make merry as was his custom. Finally, a servant tells Heracles that is is the queen, Alcestis, that has died. Heracles, angry and hurt confronts Admetus and learns that this is true. He asks Admetus how he could deceive a friend in such an embarrassing and cruel way.

Admetus painfully tells Heracles the story. He tells Heracles that he is sorry for his humiliation but that he did not want to refuse Heracles hospitality since he felt that hospitality was the only thing left that he had to give his friend. Heracles not only forgives his friend but feels his pain in the loss of Alcestis.

Heracles, being the super-hero of those times, goes off to Hades and wrestles Death for the life of Alcestis. He wins and brings Alcestis back to Admetus in disguise. It is as if Alcestis is still dead. It is not until Admetus begins to understand the true pain of his deeds, that the veil drops from Alcestis’ face and her husband recognizes her. And so the happy ending.

As its genre, the story also poses questions:

Who is the main character, Alcestis or Admetus? And through whose eyes are we to see this wife and this husband? Is Alcestis as noble as she says she is? And is Admetus worthy of her devotion, or does he deserve all the blame his father, Pheres heaps upon him? And is the salvation of Alcestis a true mystery, a sardonic ‘and so they lived happily ever after’ or simply the convenient end of an entertainment?3

[Synopsis Source: Kathleen O’Neil]

Click here for a synopsis of the opera (in Italian).

Click here for a synopsis of the opera (in German).

Click here for the e-book of Euripides' play.

1. Wilson, John R. ed., Twentieth Century Interpretations of Euripidesthe Alcestis, (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968), p.3.

2. Ibid, p. 1.

3. Ibid, p. 1.

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